Monday morning was agog with news from Australia that State Bank of India would pitch in with a billion-dollar advance to help the Adani group develop the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland along with a rail link and port.

The news triggered much scorn on social media as Gautam Adani, the billionaire chairman of the Gujarat-based infrastructure and trading group, has been a conspicuous presence beside Prime Minister Narendra Modi at dinner with local leaders or on a university walkabout. Many journalists, commentators, Modi’s political opponents and sundry twitterati were quick on the draw, calling out crony capitalism and pulling up media reports ranging from tax demands to financial troubles of the group.

Any reference ‒ good or bad ‒ to Gautam Adani's sprawling business empire is rarely unaccompanied by his alleged proximity to Modi, the Economic Times wrote in September 2013. To reiterate the close relationship, the paper pointed out that that March when Wharton India Economic Forum in the US cancelled their invite to Modi to give, via live video, the keynote address, the Adani Group withdrew as the event's main sponsor without assigning a reason.

Wooing investors

"The government has no business being in business,’’ Modi, who as chief minister of Gujarat prided in running it like a CEO, has often said. In the dozen years he ran the state, he positioned himself as the closest friend to business, making sure that doing business in the state was hassle free. Over the years he wooed investors and industrialists to his state, offering them sops and removing hurdles so that their projects ran unhindered.

As prime minister, he continues to project the CEO persona as he pushed through policy changes allowing foreign companies to have more ownership in local insurance companies, railway infrastructure firms and defence production. He canvassed for big investments in high-tech sectors such as bullet trains on his travels to Japan, China, the US and now Australia with large business delegations in tow. Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka made news last week when he dropped out of delivering the keynote speech at the first Indian edition of Cebit, the world’s largest computer expo to accompany Modi to Myanmar and Australia. Modi’s relationship with business, however, did not always have the warmth that is on display now.

On February 6, 2003, Modi was in Delhi to attend a conference organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry. The audience was shown a half-hour documentary titled Gujarat: The Sunshine State.  Its tagline was "the state that runs like a company", journalist and author Vivian Fernandes writes in his book Modi: Leadership, Governance and Performance. Yet, Modi was received with considerable hostility.

"One cannot help feel that the year 2002 from the point of view of economic development was somewhat of a lost year for Gujarat,’’ the outspoken industrialist Rahul Bajaj remarked even as Modi sat stone-faced.

Earlier, Sanjeev Goenka, then the president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, had criticised the way the government had handled the 2002 riots and warned that the investment climate in Gujarat as well as India as a whole would be affected. Fernandes reports that Modi reacted angrily to the jibes, telling the audience, "You and your pseudo-secular friends can come to Gujarat if you want an answer."

Breakaway faction

After the Delhi meeting, a faction of Gujarat businessmen led by Gautam Adani and Karsanbhai Patel of Nirma group attempted to break away from CII and form what they called Resurgent Group of Gujarat. Sensing that this was going to significantly weaken CII, its director-general Tarun Das apologised to Modi. Still, many influential Parsi businessmen and women were uncomfortable doing business with Modi. He considered that as an affront because Gujarat was the first Parsi settlers’ home more than a millennium ago. But this time he adopted a different approach.

Modi let it be known that he wanted Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group at the time, to attend the 2005 edition of the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, the second edition of a biannual investment carnival founded in 2003. Modi's best officials were asked to move heaven and earth if need be to get Tata to Gandhinagar, according to a person who was coordinating some of the efforts from the chief minister’s office. "Niira Radia, who was then handling Tata group’s external relations, was categorically told that he had to be there,’’ he said. Finally, Tata agreed to attend.

Modi personally appointed a special protocol officer for Tata and put him up at the state guest house. Later, he greeted Tata with a hug and a broad smile and told him, "This is where you belong.’’ Modi is said to have told Tata that he would have heard many things about him that he may not have liked. He had no issues with that but he should not ignore the business opportunity in Gujarat.

At the next Vibrant Gujarat Summit in 2007, Modi suggested to Ratan Tata that he move this Nano mini-car project to Gujarat. The government would provide them everything. It was clear that Tata had warmed up to the chief minister when he declared, "You [as a businessman] are stupid if you are not in Gujarat’’. In October 2008, when Tata Motors was squeezed out of Bengal, Modi jumped at the opportunity, famously texting Ratan Tata, "Welcome to Gujarat’’ and then rolled out the red carpet with hefty loans at soft rates and prime land at cheap prices.

When Tatas signed the memorandum of understanding with Gujarat to move the Nano car factory from Singur to Sanand, Modi remarked that to him it was not "just a project’’. Modi had guessed the importance and power of brand Tata correctly. The prestige that came along with the Tata brand was well worth the liberal concessions. Clearly, Modi’s business friendly image got an added sheen after that.

A former advisor to Modi, who was instrumental in introducing Modi to some of the top businessmen in the country, says that many industrialists take advantage of their perceived closeness to Modi. "He is enamoured of businessmen who can deliver projects,’’ he said. "Often that perceived closeness is enough to land more deals.’’

Make in India

Launching the government’s Make in India initiative on September 25, the Prime Minister said he had felt a mood of gloom among India’s business community in the last few years, due to lack of clarity on policy issues. He said he had heard even Indian businessmen say that they would leave India and set up business elsewhere. Modi said it hurt him, and added that no Indian business should feel a compulsion to leave the country under any circumstances. He added that on the basis of the experience of the last few months, he could say that "the gloom has lifted’’. That is true as far as business sentiment goes.

On May 16 ‒ the day votes were counted after the general elections ‒ the 30-share index of the Bombay Stock Exchange, the Sensex, rose 6% as it became clear that the BJP would form a stable government with Modi as the prime minister. Since then, the optimism among the business community has remained intact with corporate leaders reposing trust in the man who speaks their language.

At the India Economic Summit in the first week of this month, organised by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum and CII, industrialist Anand Mahindra summed up the mood when he said: "The government came across as having new energy. People sensed that there is a new agenda as well as a business-friendly agenda. There is effective leadership from the government and the commercial sector. I leave convinced that there is a very clear road map moving forward.’’