Family charmed its way into the heart of British society

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Their network of friends ranges from Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and the Queen to Michael Jackson. Their commercial and industrial might, with a turnover of £6bn, stretches from Bombay to Boston, London to Las Vegas. They have been called one of the most influential families in the world.

Their network of friends ranges from Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and the Queen to Michael Jackson. Their commercial and industrial might, with a turnover of £6bn, stretches from Bombay to Boston, London to Las Vegas. They have been called one of the most influential families in the world.

Everything about the Hinduja brothers is in hyperlatives, and they are in the centre of the biggest corruption scandal in the history of independent India. The fallout from that tale of arms, bribes and subterfuge is expected to spread far and wide, and raise question marks, yet again, about New Labour, and international tycoons with shadowy lives.

For people so wealthy, so powerful, the Hindujas are remarkably reticent. Their friends say this is because they are much maligned, their critics say yes they are, but nothing like enough.

To their friends, the Hindujas are deeply religious givers to good causes, such as the £6m underwriting of the Millennium Dome Spirit Zone at the behest of Peter Mandelson, another of their good friends. The critics say this is hypocrisy because the family fortune was built trading in death, gunrunning for the Shah of Iran.

The Hindujas deny they traded in arms. Their dealings with the late Shah was, they say, to do with almost everything else apart from that. As Iran rushed to modernise, the Hindujas just happen to have been in place to supply metal pylons, cement, fertilisers and vegetables as well as, when the Shah insisted his officials should look western, trilby hats.

Paramchand Hinduja had moved from their home in Sind in British India to Iran in 1919. The money he made there enabled his sons to expand into other fields. Today the empire includes banking, manufacturing and communications, with a workforce of 25,000. They are now the richest Asians in Britain and the eighth wealthiest family in the land.

Four brothers run the international business, Srichand (SP for short) and Gopichand (GP) live in London, Prakash (PP) in Geneva and Ashok (AP) in Bombay. In 1999, Srichand,63, and 59-year-old Gopichand were granted British citizenship by the Labour government three days after Mohamed Al Fayed, whose allegations of sleaze had done much to bring down the Tories, was told he was not fit to be British.

The Hindujas, in their 12-storey headquarters in the Haymarket with commanding views of the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, are familiar in the higher echelons of British society.

Srichand, the elder brother, had led the charm offensive, dining with Royalty, Cabinet ministers and captains of industry, sometimes taking with him the vegetarian food required by his Hindu Vedic faith.

The early socialising had included Margaret Thatcher and leading Conservatives, but later the Hindujas swung towards New Labour. Tony Blair attended their soirées including a highly publicised one with Cherie Booth at a celebration of Diwali where she wore a £1,000 embroidered churidar kameez. An enchanted Srichand said she personified "wealth, knowledge and power - all three feminine aspects of the divine".

This empathy with the new government became most apparent during attempts to get backers for the Dome. The Faith Zone was desperate to get a sponsor, and the Hindujas obliged. Peter Mandelson is said to have persuaded them but Srichand said they had already agreed to get involved.

"Only then Peter started coming to our functions and receptions," he said. "He is sharp, decisive and has a good grasp of issues. Every businessman needs a politician like that. In the new millennium we need a new modern politics where there is more tolerance and less misery and suffering. Tony Blair shares these views".

The Hindujas said they insisted the Faith Zone should reflect every faith and culture. "Our family has always been concerned with the conflicts and differences between communities," said Srichand. "We are always working hard to find ways to make people understand the similarities between us all. We are all human."

Yet, tensions and conflict over religion and culture led to the death of Srichand's son, Dharam. Against the wishes of the family, he had married, a Catholic, Juliet Ninotchka Sargon. They eloped to Mauritius, but Hinduja agents were soon on the trail.

Dharam, highly emotional, doused his bride and himself with petrol and struck a match. Ninotchka, tied to a bed, struggled free and survived, Dharam, died in hospital of burns. The Westminster Coroner's report said: "Objections to the marriage on behalf of his family prevented the couple from living together and he decided that if they were going to have a life together they needed to go and live in another country." The family was not present.

More turmoil awaited the family a continent away, over the purchase in 1986 by the then Premier Rajiv Gandhi's government of 400 howitzers from the Swedish arms manufacturers Bofors for £802m. There were reports that the deal was massaged through with more than £ 30m in kickbacks.

The scandal helped to bring down Rajiv Gandhi's government, and the Opposition, once in power, ordered an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Indian version of the FBI. In 1990 the CBI said Srichand, Gopichand and Prakash Hinduja were under suspicion of receiving commissions for the deal in contravention of Indian laws.

The inquiry continued in the sedate pace of Indian bureaucracy and the Hindujas continued with their glittering lifestyle in the West. Srichand met President Clinton with the aim, he said, of improving US relations with India.

Asked why the brothers felt this consuming need to cultivate politicians, Srichand said: "It is nothing to do with our business. We go to see these leaders to reduce conflicts and so help alleviate poverty. When poverty reduces, our market shares increase and I get a bigger share of the cake."

He also denied the brothers had made substantial donations to Labour and Tories, hedging their bets.

"Why should we give money to politicians? We don't just give money away. On the contrary, I should be paid because I give them ideas. We know politicians and, yes, we attend the Conservative ball, the New Labour ball, the Liberal ball, whatever. We give money generously if it is for a good, charitable cause - but never to a party. It makes no difference to me who is in power."

Instead of spending money on politicians, Srichand said recently he intended to produce the mother of all Bollywood blockbusters. A script had already been written, and Phil Collins, Santana, and Elton John are being considered to write the music. "Michael Jackson said to me, 'Can we do it together?'," said Srichand. The highlight of the film will be non-stop 18-minute chase across six continents. " No one had thought of a chase on this scale before," he added.

With the Indian authorities at last getting access to the brothers' Swiss bank accounts, and corruption charges being filed, and the threat of extradition to follow, one now waits to where the real-life chase of the Hinduja brothers will end.

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