About a year ago, when businessman Ratul Puri’s name cropped up in a money laundering case linked to the high-profile AgustaWestland chopper scam investigations, few outside India’s corporate fraternity knew who he was. The media was quick to reduce his identity to that of being the nephew of Congress veteran Kamal Nath, who at the time was leading his party’s campaign in the Madhya Pradesh assembly polls. The 47-year-old Ratul Puri is Nath’s nephew, son of the MP chief minister’s sister, Nita Puri and her husband, Deepak Puri.
Late Monday night, as the Enforcement Directorate (ED) arrested Ratul for his alleged involvement in a Rs 354 crore bank fraud case, slapping various provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) against him, the headlines once again screamed – ‘Nephew of MP CM Kamal Nath arrested’. It is, thus, curious that in the vast political network that Nath has cultivated in his nearly four-decade-long career as a lawmaker, and particularly among his party colleagues in MP, Ratul Puri remains an unfamiliar name.
Several Congress leaders that Outlook spoke to, including three ministers in the Nath cabinet and some office-bearers of the party’s MP unit, said they had no knowledge about Ratul or even how he was related to the chief minister. A minister known for his proximity to Nath told Outlook, requesting anonymity, “barring those who are really entrenched into the Kamal Nath household, few know Ratul Puri… Ratul usually doesn’t visit MP, or even Chhindwara (Nath’s electoral fief). There are relatives of many political leaders who frequent Vallabh Bhawan (the state secretariat) to flaunt their connections while lobbying for projects but Ratul does not. I don’t think we saw him even when Kamal Nath ji took oath as chief minister or during election campaigns.”
Nath, of course, does not have the luxury to deny his relationship with Ratul but he has told reporters that he has no connection with his nephew’s business and is “neither a shareholder nor a director” in any of the multiple companies that the scam-tainted entrepreneur has floated over the past two decades. The CM, however, did allege Ratul’s arrest by the ED to be a “mala fide action”.
So, who exactly is Ratul Puri? Remember Moser Baer – the optical media storage company that became a household name through the late 1990s and early 2000s with its floppy discs, compact discs and DVDs, or later still for selling movie CDs and DVDs at dirt cheap rates before it went bust, leaving over 2000 employees jobless as the National Company Law Tribunal ordered its liquidation in October 2018?
Moser Baer India was founded in 1983 by Ratul’s father Deepak Puri, a 2010 Padma Shri awardee. By the late 1990s, armed with a computer engineering degree from the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, Ratul joined his father’s company and went on to become one of its directors.
In the mid-2000s, when the rapidly evolving computer and media storage industries began bleeding Moser Baer because the company failed to outsmart its rivals, particularly Chinese companies, it was Ratul who suggested that the family business diversify into the energy sector to manufacture solar panels and cells.
Sources familiar with the Puri family, which had moved its base from Calcutta to New Delhi in the early 1980s to set up Moser Baer, told Outlook that several stakeholders, including Deepak Puri, had serious reservations against Ratul’s idea of venturing into solar panel manufacturing. However, with debts growing and options running out, the company’s directors – Deepak and Nita among them – agreed to go with Ratul’s plan. And the plan succeeded – at least in the initial years. Moser Baer’s energy verticals, under Ratul’s supervision, reportedly raised over Rs 1000 crore from various investors between 2005 and 2008, said a source. However, just when the company was planning to go full throttle into the energy sector, the global recession of 2008 set in.
Just before the economic meltdown began impacting India, Ratul had reportedly drafted out plans for major expansions in the renewable energy sector. He had already incorporated Moser Baer Power Projects Ltd. (later renamed Hindustan Power Projects Pvt. Ltd.) in August 2000 and the company began operations in 2008 with Ratul as its chairman. Between June and October 2008, sources say, Ratul was also involved with the incorporation of at least three other renewable energy companies – Swift Power Tech, MB Power Ltd. and Hindustan Clean Energy Ltd. He went on to join the board of directors of each of these companies in later years.
A former associate of Ratul told Outlook that the rapid expansion into the energy sector which coincided with the steady decline in the family’s core business of media storage led to differences between the father and son on the entrepreneurial course that Moser Baer must chart. In 2010, the Puris agreed for separation of control on different verticals of the family business – Deepak retained control of Moser Baer India Limited (MBIL) while Ratul took charge of HPPPL. Two years later, Ratul resigned from the directorship of MBIL and began fiercely expanding his renewable energy business.
Between 2010 and 2018, HPPPL has entered into project partnership agreements for solar, thermal and hydropower projects with different government agencies across India as well as setting up massive solar power projects in countries like Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan.
For a man who is now being described purely as the nephew of a Congress politician, it is perhaps surprising that a majority of Ratul’s energy ventures were set up in BJP-ruled states, including several solar projects in Gujarat which were all commissioned between 2010 and 2013 when Narendra Modi was the state’s chief minister. In MP and Chhattisgarh, which had BJP governments between 2003 and 2018, Ratul’s HPPPL entered into project partnership agreements for solar and thermal power plants – the company bagged a solar project in MP’s Neemuch district in 2015 and its flagship 2520 MW thermal power project in the Anuppur district in April 2016 while it also announced a 1320 MW thermal project in Chhattisgarh’s Champa district in 2016.
The HPPPL, by now with its asset size of USD 2 billion, also has major solar power projects in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga, Bengal’s Durgapur and in different districts of Punjab, Assam, Bihar and Karnataka – a majority of which were awarded during tenure of non-Congress governments.
The ED’s bank fraud case against Ratul reportedly dates back to the tumultuous phase that preceded the liquidation of Moser Baer and its nearly eight-year-long struggle to unsuccessfully wriggle out of a debt trap. But, for the public at large, it marks just the arrest of Kamal Nath’s nephew.