On the third floor of a government complex in New Delhi, the National Company Law Tribunal’s appeals court is crammed with lawyers wearing formal black suits and white neckbands that hark back to the British Raj. Two judges have just been seated by ushers in white-and-gold turbans. The lawyers start arguing. “Everyone knows who his real client is!” yells one, as the crush of surrounding advocates lean in to hear what’s going on.
It might not be immediately apparent, but here in this courtroom, billions of dollars—and the reform record of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—are at stake. On this sweltering afternoon, two of India’s best-known lawyers are arguing over assets belonging to one of many overextended Indian corporations—the bankrupt giant Essar Steel. One bidder is ArcelorMittal, the industry leader, which explains the presence here of Aditya Mittal, son of billionaire steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. The other bidder is a consortium backed by Russian investment bank VTB Capital, which has offered $5.4 billion. (The amount of ArcelorMittal’s bid hasn’t been disclosed.)