Subrata Roy was held in almost godlike esteem, but his vast empire spectacularly fell apart after he was accused of scamming millions of India’s poorest families.
Subrata Roy, who died Tuesday aged 75, was selling snacks to support his family when he established Sahara. The conglomerate eventually grew into what was at one point the country’s largest private employer.
He became a regular fixture of the society pages due to his lavish lifestyle which included building replica homes of the White House and Buckingham Palace.
His company was a household name in better times, sponsoring the national cricket team for over a decade as well as Formula One’s Force India racing team.
Roy was born in 1948 in a small town in Bihar and graduated with a diploma in mechanical engineering before taking up a job selling snacks and electronics to support his family after his father’s death.
He founded Sahara at the age of 29 with just 2,000 rupees (then $250), roaming India’s towns and villages on his Lambretta scooter, and signing up shop owners and taxi drivers to his aggressive investment programme.
The scheme offered generous returns on deposits as low as a dollar, and largely targeted daily wage earners who had been spurned by the traditional banking sector.
Sahara grew in tandem with the economic boom through the 1990s, with more than a million people on the payroll at one time.
Roy enjoyed a cult-like following, with employees and investors prostrating themselves at his feet as a sign of respect.
He later developed a 10,000-acre luxury township in India, with Russian tennis star Anna Kournikova as the project’s brand ambassador, and built up a portfolio of luxury properties including New York’s Plaza Hotel and Grosvenor House in London.
A double wedding for his sons in 2004 — one of India’s most lavish in recent memory — counted then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar among its 11,000 guests.
‘He steals from the poor’
But after regulators began to probe irregularities in Sahara’s finances, Roy was arrested in 2014 and thrown in India’s largest prison after failing to obey an order to pay back his customers.
“He steals from the poor,” a protester told media, after coating Roy’s face in black ink as the disgraced mogul arrived at a court hearing that year.
Authorities claimed that Sahara had unlawfully raised 240 billion rupees ($2.9 billion) from 30 million people, many of whom found themselves unable to withdraw their life savings after news of the scandal broke.
Most of Roy’s properties have since been sold off to cover claims against the company, but Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in late 2021 that Sahara still owed regulators nearly 103 billion rupees from the sum they had sought to recover.
Roy spent two years in Tihar Jail before he was released on parole, and the ongoing case against him never reached a verdict.
His downfall was chronicled in “Bad Boy Billionaires”, a Netflix documentary series released in 2020 that also profiled several other Indian tycoons who fell afoul of the law.
But years after his spell in prison, the release of the episode on Roy was temporarily blocked after a local court agreed with his complaint that the series had unfairly maligned his reputation.
Roy was dogged by rumours that his company helped launder money for rich politicians, but he always maintained that he was nothing more than an honest businessman.
“If they can find out one thing in the last 32 years Sahara has done against the law, they can hang me,” Subrata Roy told a talk show host in 2013.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)