Early one evening in April, Asia’s newly minted richest person strode onto the stage of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, in Mumbai. Stocky and mustachioed, Gautam Adani was there to deliver a speech at the India Economic Conclave, a gathering of the country’s financial elite. Historically media shy, Adani’s become more prominent in recent months, and not just because of the meteoric surge in his wealth. A rapid diversification spree has pushed his vast, largely fossil-fuel driven conglomerate into a raft of new sectors in and outside of India, and Adani is seeking to reinvent himself for the global stage. His public appearances now have renewed purpose: to persuade the world — especially the gatekeepers of global capital markets needed to fund his grand ambitions — that a coal tycoon is now a champion of green energy.
Though Adani isn’t the only coal baron attempting such a pivot, he’s by far the richest and one of the most influential, with close ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s most powerful leader in decades. Surging energy prices and a breathtaking jump in the shares of his listed companies have pushed Adani’s fortune to an estimated $143 billion — only Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are wealthier. But it’s his alignment with Modi, who like Adani hails from the prosperous coastal state of Gujarat, that has been the foundation of the tycoon’s empire. It’s also what could become Adani’s Achilles heel, as he seeks to move into a world that increasingly values environmental considerations over Modi’s mantra of economic development.