Covaxin maker Bharat Biotech gave Rs 25 crore to the TDP through electoral bonds

Bharat Biotech bought bonds worth Rs 10 crore, while Chiron Behring, RCC Nutra Fill, and Biovet cumulatively donated Rs 15 crore.
Covaxin maker Bharat Biotech gave Rs 25 crore to the TDP through electoral bonds
Gobindh VB

Fresh data released by the Election Commission of India on March 21 has revealed that the vaccine manufacturer Bharat Biotech International Limited and related firms donated Rs 25 crore to the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in January 2024. The state votes in its assembly elections on May 13. 

Bharat Biotech shot to national prominence after its production and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine Covaxin. It was at the centre of a political storm two years ago, when the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) head and Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy alleged that there was a correlation between Bharat Biotech’s links to Naidu and the shortfall of vaccines in the state.

Bharat Biotech’s sphere of influence extends to another towering personality in Andhra Pradesh known to be close to Naidu, the media baron C Ramoji Rao. In 2017, the son of Bharat Biotech’s founders Krishna M Ella and Suchitra Ella, Raches Virendradev Ella, married Ramoji’s granddaughter, Sahari Cherukuri.

The Ellas, Ramoji, and Naidu all belong to the Chowdary or Kamma community, a landed and politically influential group within the state. Since the ascendancy of the TDP in 1983, political power in Andhra Pradesh – even after the bifurcation of the state in 2014 – has typically changed hands between Kamma chief ministers from the TDP and Reddy chief ministers hailing from the Congress and the YSRCP. The Kamma community has historically been dominant in industries including health care and information technology, building a mutually symbiotic relationship with Naidu through his years in power.

Within this landscape, Bharat Biotech’s donations to a party that is currently out of power appear to be linked to professional and personal relationships forged over deeply-rooted caste affiliations. 

The connections between Bharat Biotech and Naidu

The connections between Bharat Biotech’s Krishna Ella and TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu date back to at least three decades ago. Ella said that in 1996, he had advised Naidu, then the state’s chief minister, to set up a biotechnology park to enable manufacturing and research. Bharat Biotech was one of the first companies to set up base there after it was established. The park in Hyderabad, now known as Genome Valley, has since grown into a hub for businesses in the life sciences sector and is home to more than 200 companies.

In 2020, when Modi visited Bharat Biotech’s facilities to review the production of Covaxin, Naidu counted it as a personal triumph in a series of tweets about the cluster’s inception, which also thanked the “brave and brilliant minds at Bharat Biotech”. A year later, NV Ramana, the former chief justice of India who also belongs to the Kamma community, argued that the vaccine was being criticised “because it was made in India”.

Since the outbreak of the global pandemic, Bharat Biotech has frequently faced scrutiny for Covaxin, in particular over the approval that was granted to it by India’s drug regulator, the Central Drug Standards Control Organisation, in January 2021, even before results from Phase 3 of the vaccine’s clinical trial were known. 

A few months later, as the second wave of COVID-19 devastated lives across the country, the company was mired in political controversy within Andhra Pradesh. When Naidu attacked Jagan’s government over the lack of vaccines, Jagan was quick to retaliate. He accused Naidu of “influencing his relatives who own the Hyderabad vaccine-making company – Bharat Biotech – to deny vaccines to Andhra Pradesh.”

The case against Ramoji Rao’s Margadarsi

Over the past two decades, Ramoji and his family members have been embroiled with legal authorities over alleged financial irregularities in Margadarsi Chit Fund Private Limited (MCFPL), with the case gaining renewed momentum since 2022. Among the largest businesses of its kind, Margadarsi Chit Funds was founded by Ramoji in 1962. This operation became the financial backbone for the expansion of his empire as he forayed into varied industries including advertising, news, and fertilisers.

In August 2023, the Andhra Pradesh Crime Investigation Department (CID) registered ten First Information Reports (FIRS) against MCFPL under varied sections of the Indian Penal Code including those on cheating, breach of trust, and fraud. Ramoji as well as C Sailaja Kiron, his daughter-in-law and the managing director of MCFPL, were named in the FIRs among others. (Kiron is Raches Ella’s mother-in-law.)

A senior official from the state CID claimed that thousands of subscribers of the fund had not received payments that were due to them and that the company was running chit memberships without the knowledge of some of the people who were listed as supposed members, amounting to impersonation, to misappropriate funds. Margadarsi maintained that there had been no financial irregularities and that all its profits had been earned without “touching” the money of its subscribers. 

The case is seen as part of a storied clash between the Ramoji-owned Eenadu, Andhra Pradesh’s largest-selling Telugu newspaper, and the Jagan-led state government. The origins of the proximity between Eenadu and the TDP can be traced back to 1983, when TDP’s founder, the actor-turned-politician NT Rama Rao (NTR) led the party into a historic victory against the Congress.

A little over a decade later, when NTR was ousted in an intra-party coup waged by his son-in-law, Naidu, Ramoji deployed his newly-launched channel ETV in favour of the younger politician. Sakshi, a rival newspaper, was founded by Jagan in 2008 and continues to be owned by his family. Jagan frequently disparages a selection of media organisations, in particular Eenadu, as being “yellow media” – an allusion to the propaganda he believes they spread against his party, and to their alleged links with the TDP, which has a yellow party flag.

In February 2024, the Supreme Court dismissed the company’s petition for a criminal appeal pending against it in the Andhra Pradesh High Court to be transferred to the Telangana High Court. Both the courts have been hearing similar matters pertaining to Margadarsi. The Supreme Court while dismissing the transfer petition, stated that if need be, the company can file a stay of appeals before the Andhra High Court. 

The special courts of Guntur and Visakhapatnam in August 2023, returned two chargesheets filed by the Andhra Pradesh CID in relation to allegations of financial irregularities, diversion of funds, and other charges against Ramoji Rao and Sailaja Kiron. While the chargesheet was filed in these two cases, the state CID has not filed any chargesheets in relation to the remaining cases. 

The break-down of Bharat Biotech’s donations to the TDP

Bharat Biotech purchased ten electoral bonds worth Rs 1 crore each on January 6 this year. Three firms linked to Bharat Biotech also contributed to the TDP’s coffers under the now-defunct electoral bonds scheme in the same month.

Chiron Behring Vaccines Private Limited, which Bharat Biotech announced it was acquiring in February 2019, bought bonds worth Rs 5 crore on January 6 as well. Three days later, on January 9, RCC Nutra Fill Private Limited—which manufactures microbiology media—purchased bonds worth Rs 5 crore, while chemical products manufacturer Biovet Private Limited bought bonds for Rs 5 crore.

RCC Nutra Fill and Biovet share directors with Bharat Biotech. Sai Prasad Devarajulu, Bharat Biotech and Chiron Behring’s whole-time director, is also a director at RCC Nutra. The Ellas’ son Raches Virendradev is a whole-time director of Biovet and the chief development officer of Bharat Biotech according to his LinkedIn profile. Their daughter Jalachari Ella is the other full-time director at Biovet. Her LinkedIn profile states that she is the head of corporate strategy at Bharat Biotech. The total donations by Bharat Biotech-related companies to TDP amount to Rs 15 crore.  

Project Electoral Bond reached out to representatives from the TDP and Bharat Biotech, the copy will be updated if they respond.
With inputs from Anand Mangnale and Siddhartha Mishra.

This report is part of a collaborative project involving three news organisations – Newslaundry, Scroll, The News Minute – and several independent journalists.

Project Electoral Bond includes Aban Usmani, Anand Mangnale, Anisha Sheth, Anjana Meenakshi, Ayush Tiwari, Azeefa Fathima, Basant Kumar, Binu Karunakaran, Dhanya Rajendran, Divya Aslesha, Jayashree Arunachalam, Jisha Surya, Joyal George, M Rajshekhar, Maria Teresa Raju, Nandini Chandrashekar, Neel Madhav, Nikita Saxena, Parth MN, Pooja Prasanna, Prajwal Bhat, Prateek Goyal, Pratyush Deep, Ragamalika Karthikeyan, Raman Kirpal, Ravi Nair, Rokibuz Zaman, Sachi Hegde, Safwat Zargar, Shabbir Ahmed, Shivnarayan Rajpurohit, Siddharth Mishra, Sumedha Mittal, Supriya Sharma, Tabassum Barnagarwala and Vaishnavi Rathore.

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