Narendra Modi, Prime Minister  of India
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India

Fortune India is eight years old. Over these years, India has witnessed a sea change: It has become the world’s sixth-largest economy, seen a slew of reforms under a new government, and dealt with hot-button issues such as bad loans, corporate frauds, data breaches, and privacy concerns. Fortune India looks at some of the biggest newsmakers at the heart of this change: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power with a decisive mandate in 2014; India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who shook up the telecom space by offering mobile data at dirt-cheap rates; and yoga guru Ramdev, whose Patanjali Ayurved gave some serious competition to consumer goods giants such as Hindustan Unilever and ITC.

Narendra Modi, 68, Prime Minister of India

When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014 with the most decisive mandate for a leader in three decades, he was expected to make sweeping economic reforms to put the economy back on track. After years of policy paralysis and scams, many in the country hoped his promise of achche din and ‘Development For All’ would help lift millions out of desperate poverty. That might not have happened but nearly five years down the road, the Modi government’s ef - forts to boost the economy have been mixed. Its initiatives like ‘Digital India’ and ‘Make in India’ have certainly changed lives and business sentiment in the country. It implemented the long-awaited goods and services tax (GST), which makes tax evasion difficult but also hurt small businesses. It has tried to tackle the bad loan or non-performing assets issue at banks and promoted financial inclusion, but at the same time faced flak for other initiatives like demonetisation, which critics say created unnecessary confusion and wasted public money. His push for socio-economic inclusion through the JAM trinity (Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and Mobile number for Direct Benefit Transfer) and other reforms such as crop insurance have gone down well. The passing of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code was hailed as a big move, though the real results are yet to be seen. As India heads closer to the next general election, the question on many minds is: Will Modi return to power? Won’t be long before we know.

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Ramdev, 52, founder, Patanjali Ayurved

There is nothing that yoga guru Ramdev cannot sell. From toothpaste to SIM cards and even a messaging app, his Patanjali Ayurved sells them all, giving traditional consumer goods companies some serious competition. Consumer goods giants didn’t take him seriously in the beginning, but as his success spread like wildfire, they were forced to sit up and take notice. When Ramdev’s endorsement of a kind of economic nationalism through the use of “Swadeshi” or locally-made products brought Patanjali within striking distance of the top slot, giants like Nestlé, ITC, and Hindustan Unilever launched new products to counter its growing significance. Patanjali started operations in Haridwar in 1997. In 2017-18, its revenues stood at ₹10,561 crore, more than double the previous year’s ₹5,000 crore. It was quite a leap for Ramdev who made a name for himself as a yoga guru organising mass camps that were telecast on national television. A vocal endorser of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s policies, Ramdev’s business has thrived over the past five years. And he looks set to flex some more financial muscle in the years to come.

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Malvinder Singh, 46, former promoter, Fortis Healthcare

Shivinder Singh, 43, former promoter, Fortis Healthcare

They inherited their father’s stake in one of the country’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, Ranbaxy Laboratories, in 1999. And over the next few years expanded furiously to found the Fortis chain of hospitals and financial services group Religare. Around two decades down the road, brothers Malvinder and Shivinder Singh have not only sold their inheritance, but have also lost Fortis Healthcare and are saddled with an enormous debt of ₹15,000 crore. Troubles began 10 years ago when they sold their stake in Ranbaxy to Japan’s Daiichi Sankyo for ₹10,000 crore. Daiichi Sankyo later took them to court over a USFDA import alert on 30 of Ranbaxy’s generic drugs being produced in India. The Japanese firm said the brothers concealed this information at the time of the stake sale. In 2016, the brothers were directed to pay a penalty of ₹3,500 crore to Daiichi. Their troubles didn’t end there. Making several acquisitions with Fortis and Religare to expand proved to be a failed strategy. The cash-strapped chain was sold to Malaysia’s IHH this year amid a controversy over allegations that former promoters Malvinder and Shivinder had siphoned off company funds into personal accounts. The brothers’ personal wealth has fallen significantly after lenders seized their pledged shares in Fortis and Religare. Matters got murkier after Shivinder filed a case against his older brother for “oppression and mismanagement of RHC Holding, Religare and Fortis”. Shivinder has since withdrawn the case, but says the split between the brothers is final.

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Raghuram Rajan, 55, former governor, Reserve Bank of India

He was best known for predicting the global financial crisis of 2008. So, when well-known economist Raghuram Rajan was appointed Reserve Bank of India governor in 2013, expectations were high. He certainly had his job cut out for him: It was the last year of the Congress-led UPA government and the country was fighting double-digit inflation while the rupee was trading at a record low at the time. Rajan got down to business rather quickly: The central bank unexpectedly raised rates in the first policy meeting after he took over, setting the tone for his focus on reining in inflation by keeping interest rates high. He succeeded to an extent. Rajan’s biggest contribution was perhaps in getting banks to recognise and clean up the nonperforming assets (NPA) mess. He also introduced differentiated banking licences for small finance banks and payments banks, to cater to the section of society excluded from financial institutions. Rajan, now a Katherine Dusak Miller Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, was also the youngest person to become chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.

Photograph : Sanjay Rawat

Chanda Kochhar, 56, former MD and CEO, ICICI Bank

A torchbearer for women in the banking sector, she was at the top position of India’s largest private sector lender, ICICI Bank, for almost 10 years. One of the most influential leaders in the Indian banking industry, Kochhar, a regular on the Fortune India Most Powerful Women in business list, has also been ranked among the most powerful businesswomen outside of the U.S. by Fortune magazine. She’s been credited with, among other things, making the lender ready for the digital age. But it has been a turbulent 2018 for the high-profile banker. Kochhar has been accused of financial impropriety—of being complicit in an arrangement that ensured investment in her husband’s firm in lieu of bank loans to the Videocon group. Kochhar first went on indefinite leave as a probe into the allegations against her began. However, on October 4, the bank’s board announced that it had accepted her request for early retirement with immediate effect, bringing the current impasse to an end. The jury is still out on whether Kochhar, who learnt the ropes of banking under the guidance of the bank’s former chairmen Narayanan Vaghul and K.V. Kamath, will eventually be cleared of the charges.

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N.R. Narayana Murthy, 72, co-founder, Infosys

Few people can take credit for being the force behind a country’s information technology (IT) sector. Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy is one of them. In a recent survey by IT learning platform TechGig, 64% of respondents, all IT professionals, agreed that Murthy was a game changer for the Indian IT sector. Although he checked out of Infosys some years ago, Murthy doesn’t seem to leave. He hit headlines last year over his discontent with then Infosys chief executive officer (CEO) Vishal Sikka over several issues, such as the severance pay given to former chief finance officer Rajiv Bansal and the acquisition of Israeli software company Panaya, which he thought was overvalued. The very public spat between the founders and the management led to criticism from stakeholders and investors who com - plained of unwanted meddling by the founders. Murthy also raised concerns over Sikka’s performance at the helm and the significant rise in his salary package, calling it too high. He even called Sikka CTO material, and not CEO material. Sikka eventually quit and Nandan Nilekani took charge as non executive chairman. Murthy has been quoted as saying that “all is now well at Infosys with Nilekani at the helm”.

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Cyrus Mistry, 52, former chairman, Tata Sons

When Ratan Tata passed on the baton to Cyrus Mistry, he wanted his successor to find the company in better shape compared to what he got when he took over. In an earlier interview with Fortune India, Tata had mentioned how he had spent the first five years of his chairman - ship sorting out internal issues. At the time Mistry took over, about 60% of the group’s revenues came from abroad and he had to maintain the growth of the company in an increasingly competitive environment. He quietly started reordering the business and was planning to use things like technology-led innovation to shape the future of the company. That was until 2016, when Mistry, the son of Pallonji Mistry, chairman of the Mumbai-based construction major Shapoorji Pallonji Group—which owns the largest block of shares in Tata Sons—was suddenly ousted from his position. The board did not give him the option of stepping down on his own. Predecessor Tata stepped in until a new chairman was found. The move brought to the fore issues like the rights of shareholders, issues of corporate governance, and the role and power of boards at companies.

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Nirav Modi, 47, founder, Firestar Diamond International

He was once famous for being jeweller to Hollywood royalty like Kate Winslet. The stars seem to have abandoned Nirav Modi now—literally and figuratively. After news of his and his uncle Mehul Choksi’s role in the alleged $1.77 billion fraud case at the Punjab National Bank (PNB) emerged, actor Priyanka Chopra terminated a contract for global brand ambassador of Nirav Modi Jewels. The sheen faded in February when PNB, India’s second largest public sector bank, in filings to stock exchanges revealed that companies associated with Modi and Choksi were issued unauthorised letters of undertaking that were used to give buyer’s credit to their companies by overseas branches of other Indian banks. Modi, who had already flown out of the country by the time the news broke, is suspected to have since travelled to Hong Kong, the U.S., the U.K., and France though his passport was revoked in February and despite an Interpol notice. When the CBI wrote to Modi to join the probe in India, he refused on the grounds that he had business to take care of. The CBI has received official confirmation that Modi is in the U.K., but India’s extradition request is yet to see a favourable response.

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Vijay Mallya, 62, chairman, UB Group

In the 2000s, flamboyant liquor baron Vijay Mallya was in the news as his company entered the league of five in terms of sales globally; he started Kingfisher Airlines; bought an Indian Premier League franchise; become the first Indian to own a Formula One team—Force India; and brought back Tipu Sultan’s sword to India. He was the king of good times—and the good times seemed like they’d never end. Cut to the 2010s. He is still in the news, but the good times seem to be behind him. Well, sort of. Kingfisher Airlines is grounded. He is facing a probe by the ED and CBI for failing to pay `9,990 crore outstanding amount and interest to banks. Mallya, the erstwhile poster boy of India’s aviation industry, now complains he has been made the poster boy of bank defaults and a “lightning rod” of public anger in the country. In June, he finally broke his silence on the banking fraud charges against him. In a statement, he said he had written letters to both the Prime Minister and finance minister before leaving the country in 2016, to clear his stand but “no response was received from either of them”. Mallya, a two-time Rajya Sabha MP, is currently fighting a move to extradite him to India from the U.K. The question is: Will he succeed?

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Mukesh Ambani, 61, chairman, Reliance Industries

It was 2011. A Yale University student, back home in Mumbai for the holidays, was struggling to submit her coursework. Throwing up her hands in frustration, she complained to her dad that the Internet at home “sucks”. Anyone who used the Internet in those days will remember how frustrating it was then. But while our complaints fell on deaf ears, this student’s father decided to do something about it. He launched a telecom company, which offered fast Internet via 4G and free calls. Currently, the company—which launched in 2016—has more than 215 million subscribers. No points for guessing that the student is Isha Ambani, and her father Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and chairman of Reliance Industries. The company, Reliance Jio Infocomm, this year also made it to the top of Fortune magazine’s list of ‘Change the World’ firms, which are using the profit motive to help the planet and tackle social problems. Its next stop: broadband. The company opened registrations for JioGigaFiber—its high-speed, wired, broadband service offering—in August. Parent Reliance Industries is already a Fortune global 500 company, with a hand in everything from energy, petrochemicals, textiles, natural resources, and retail.

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Vijay Shekhar Sharma
Vijay Shekhar Sharma

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, 40, founder and CEO, Paytm

In many ways, he was, in the right place at the right time. When the government suddenly announced the demonetisation of ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes in November 2016, Vijay Shekhar Sharma was in business. His digital payments app, Paytm, became the go-to app to pay, lend, and borrow money. Until then, the app was largely used for recharging phones, paying bills, and booking tickets. Suddenly, as the cash crunch hit, street-food vendors, sabziwallas, and cab and autorickshaw drivers began accepting payments via Paytm. Sharma founded Paytm in 2010 and in barely eight years the startup has grown into India’s largest digital financial services provider with a valuation of $10 billion. Sharma, who comes from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, has managed to draw some of the biggest investors in the world: Japan’s SoftBank Group, China’s Alibaba, and more recently Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Paytm’s legend was established when it became the first payments app in India to cross 100 million downloads last December. But One97 Communications, the company that owns Paytm, saw its losses jump 80% in FY18 on the back of the launches of its payments bank and mutual funds app. Still, the industry isn’t worried. Why would it be? Berkshire Hathaway isn’t.

This was originally published in the October 2018 issue of the magazine.

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Photograph : Narendra Bisht