Trump’s Conflicts of Interest in India

An man reads a Bengali-language newspaper in Kolkata, India, November 10, 2016.

A dangerous mix of politics and business

To better understand President Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest in India, it is critical to first understand how intertwined the real estate business and politics are in the country. As summarized by the Los Angeles Times, “In India, political leaders are deeply entangled in a construction business that can produce eye-popping profits.” The article also quoted a former Mumbai housing official: “The entire housing industry in India survives and thrives on corruption and bribe money. No approvals are given, nothing gets built without giving bribes.” Similarly, The New York Times noted:

In India, real estate is the main vehicle politicians and businessmen have used to invest so-called black money, on which taxes have not been paid. In cities, where land is scarce and extraordinarily valuable, special favors from top political leaders can lead to windfall profits, and negotiations between developers and officials are informal affairs.

It is so routine for developers to pay bribes at every step of the approval process that many bureaucrats have informal rate sheets showing exactly how much must be paid to each official.

According to a Trump Organization spokesperson in a January 2017 statement to ProPublica, the organization has five active projects in India that will continue to “proceed as planned.” Kalpesh Mehta, a managing partner of Tribeca Developers, the Trump Organization’s “exclusive representative in India,” stated, “The gross development value of the five projects is $1.5 billion.” Prior to these five projects, however, Trump also had at least one unsuccessful venture in the country.

In 2011, Trump signed a deal with Indian developer Rohan Lifescapes to develop a Trump-branded luxury skyscraper in Mumbai. However, at the end of 2011, the project stalled after the Bombay Municipal Corporation issued a stop-work notice to Rohan Lifescapes—the result of several irregularities. For instance, the state claimed that city officials had approved building plans despite the fact that the building site overlapped with a proposed freeway and the apartment sizes exceeded what was permissible under Mumbai zoning restrictions. At the time, Rohan Lifescapes acknowledged having “built beyond what was permitted.”

After the project stalled, according to reporting by the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, Donald Trump Jr. traveled to Mumbai to meet with the state’s chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, hoping to persuade him to intervene and allow the project to proceed, but he was unsuccessful. Chavan, commenting on the meeting to The New York Times, stated that Donald Jr. and his partner, Harresh Mehta from Rohan Lifescapes, were “requesting a concession that could not be given.” Chavan noted that Donald Jr. “thought the [Trump] name was so big, we would bend backwards to satisfy him, but that was not the case.” Kalpesh Mehta confirmed to The New York Times that the meeting between Donald Jr. and Chavan took place but denied that Donald Jr. had asked for any special favors. The Trump Organization eventually pulled out of the deal, and Rohan Lifescapes later partnered with an Indian firm to resume the project.

Active projects

Trump Towers Pune

In 2012, Trump signed a deal with Panchshil Realty to develop two Trump-branded towers in Pune that were finished in 2016. Panchshil Realty was co-founded and is run by brothers Atul Chordia and Sagar Chordia, who are both active in the Nationalist Congress Party and who have a long-standing relationship with the head of the party, Sharad Pawar. Pawar’s daughter, who is also a member of parliament, said in an interview with The New York Times that she has a 2 percent share in Panchshil Realty’s parent company. Sagar Chordia had previously told The Wall Street Journal that the company had been planning another Trump-branded residential project, which the Journal later reported would be called Trump Riverwalk. After the 2016 election, however, Chordia said there were no plans to launch new projects.

The deal for Trump Towers Pune is a licensing agreement under which Trump provides the use of his name for the tower in exchange for royalties. According to Sagar Chordia, all of the housing units in the towers have been sold for 35 percent more than comparable housing units in other buildings, an increase driven by the licensing agreement. The Pune project is reportedly the subject of two investigations being carried out by the Pune city government and local law enforcement. In an August 2016 Guardian interview, Pune’s top administrator Saurabh Rao said that the land on which Trump Towers Pune is built “passed through various hands and eventually reached Panchshil, or a company that is definitely related to Panchshil.”

A complaint was eventually made by a local builder who called into question the permit documents, saying that the documents corresponded to a different property. In response, Panchshil Realty has said that the “title of the said property was duly verified through our solicitors and to the best of our knowledge all the approvals taken in respect of the said project are legal and valid.”

Trump's Conflicts of Interest

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This interactive map of the world spells out President Donald Trump’s and his family’s conflicts of interest in 25 countries around the globe.

Shortly after the election, as Trump was leading his transition, the president-elect took time to meet with the Chordia brothers and Kalpesh Mehta, who had flown to New York to congratulate him on his victory. In an interview with the Indian paper The Economic Times, in an account he later confirmed with The New York Times, Sagar Chordia said that during the meeting, which also included three of Trump’s children, the discussion centered on the possibility of expanding the Trump business in India. A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization did not dispute Sagar’s account to The New York Times and stated only that the meeting was brief. However, Atul Chordia said that the meeting was only a congratulatory one in which business was not discussed. Ethics lawyers interviewed by The New York Times noted that while Trump’s meeting did not violate federal ethics laws, the activities nonetheless “created the appearance that Mr. Trump and his business partners are using his status as a way to profit.”

Trump Tower Mumbai

In 2013, Trump and India’s largest real estate developer, Lodha Group, announced a deal to develop a Trump-branded tower in Mumbai due to open in 2019. The deal for Trump Tower Mumbai is a licensing agreement under which Trump provides the use of his name for the tower in exchange for royalties.

Housing units in the tower range in price from $1 million to $3 million—prices that are listed at around 30 percent higher than comparable units in other buildings, an increase which, like the units in the Pune towers, is driven by the licensing agreement. Lodha Group briefly paused sales for the luxury housing units following the 2016 election, although the sales have now resumed, with Lodha Group stating in April that the building was about 60 percent sold.

Lodha Group’s chairman and founder is billionaire Mangal Prabhat Lodha, who is the vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party in India’s national parliament. Lodha’s sons Abhisheck and Abhinandan run the company. As a side note, in 2011, the Lodha Group was ordered to pay a $1 million fine and settle a tax bill for an undisclosed amount after it was discovered to have had roughly $30 million in unreported income.

The elder Lodha has consistently aligned with the most extreme elements of the BJP, including those who have stoked anti-Muslim bigotry and violence. He has also repeatedly sponsored legislation that would jail Christians for up to a year for playing a part in converting Hindus to their faith. Lodha also recently called for the former Mumbai residence of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to be razed and replaced with a cultural center, claiming that its upkeep was costing the government millions of rupees every year. His remarks have the potential to create a diplomatic row between India and Pakistan, placing Trump in a position where he might have to mediate between his Indian politician business partner and the Pakistani government.

Trump office and residential towers, Gurgaon

In April 2016, Trump signed a deal with Indian company IREO Management Pvt. Ltd. to develop a Trump-branded office tower in the city of Gurgaon. Additionally, according to several reports, prior to the election, Trump also signed a deal with Indian developer M3M India Pvt. Ltd. to develop a Trump-branded residential tower in Gurgaon, although the deal does not appear to have been formally announced. IREO’s director, Lalit Goyal, is the brother-in-law of one of the BJP’s leading members, Sudhanshu Mittal. The president of IREO, Madhukar Tulsi, is also a relative of Mittal.

Trump Tower Kolkata

In 2016, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Indian developer Unimark Group confirmed a previously unannounced deal with Trump to turn an already planned apartment building into a Trump-branded building. The head of Unimark’s marketing, Dipanjan Ray, told The Wall Street Journal that he could not verify if the deal was made before or after Trump was elected president. However, according to The Times of India’s reporting on November 20, 2016, the Trump Organization was about to review the tower designs at that time, with one source stating, “If the deal goes through, senior Trump Organization officials will visit Kolkata to make the formal announcement.” If true, this reporting suggests that the Kolkata deal was not made until after Trump’s election. The status of this project is unclear, and there do not appear to be any official Trump Organization remarks about it.

Follow the paper trail

According to Trump’s July 2015 financial disclosure—which was not verified by regulators and therefore may not include all of his foreign deals or assets—Trump was paid as much as $2 million in royalties for his India projects during the previous year and owned, had ownership interest in, or was a managing member of several companies related to projects in India, including the following:

  • DT India Venture LLC, member, president
  • DT India Venture Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • DT Marks Pune LLC, member, president, received between $100,001 and $1 million in royalties
  • DT Marks Pune Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • DT Marks Pune II LLC, member, president
  • DT Marks Pune II Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • DT Marks Worli LLC, member, president, received between $100,001 and $1 million in royalties
  • DT Marks Worli Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • Trump Marks Mumbai LLC, president, member
  • Trump Marks Mumbai Member Corp., president, director, chairman
  • DT Marks Gurgaon LLC, member, president
  • DT Marks Gurgaon Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • DT Tower Gurgaon LLC, member, president
  • DT Tower Gurgaon Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president

According to Trump’s May 2016 financial disclosure—which was not verified by regulators and therefore may not include all of his foreign deals or assets—Trump was paid as much as $6,000,201 in royalties for his India projects during the previous year and owned, had ownership interest in, or was a managing member of several companies related to projects in India, including the following:

  • DT India Venture LLC, member, president
  • DT India Venture Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • DT Marks Pune LLC, member, president, received “None (or less than $201)” in royalties
  • DT Marks Pune Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • DT Marks Pune II LLC, member, president
  • DT Marks Pune II Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • DT Marks Worli LLC, member, president, received between $1,000,001 and $5 million in royalties
  • DT Marks Worli Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • Trump Marks Mumbai LLC, president, member
  • Trump Marks Mumbai Member Corp., president, director, chairman
  • DT Marks Gurgaon LLC, member, president
  • DT Marks Gurgaon Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • DT Tower Gurgaon LLC, member, president, received between $100,001 and $1 million in royalties
  • DT Tower Gurgaon Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president
  • DT Tower Kolkata LLC, member, president
  • DT Tower Kolkata Managing Member Corp., director, chairman, president

Based on these disclosure forms, Trump has more business projects in India than in any other country. Additionally, Trump was paid as much as $8 million in royalties from his India projects over the previous two years, and he and his children will presumably continue to receive money from these arrangements.

In short, Trump and his family continue to have a breathtaking array of conflicts in India, and the president’s financial well-being is now very much linked to the fortunes of often extreme and corrupt politicians in India. This is a dangerous combination, and it could well make Trump and his administration reluctant to flag worrying behavior by Indian politicians and leaders, even when their actions risk destabilizing the region and undermining American interests.

Read the full series of columns here.

Carolyn Kenney is a policy analyst with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center.