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In India, Trump's Business Interests Raise Anticipation, And Questions

A billboard for the Trump Tower Mumbai luxury residential apartment complex is seen next to a busy road in Mumbai in June.

Men walk past Mumbai's "Trump Tower" in July 2015. It is still under construction.

The Trump Organization has more interests in India — at least five — than anywhere outside North America. With an ever-increasing taste for luxury, India offers the Trump brand a lucrative market, no matter who runs the company after President-elect Donald Trump separates from his global enterprises, as he's said he would do.

While Mumbai real estate prices average $1,000 per square foot for exclusive living, a four-hour drive away, past billboards beckoning the newly moneyed with images of infinity pools and palatial homes, luxury apartments in Pune seem like a bargain at $250 a square foot.

An automotive manufacturing and IT hub, Pune is the site of Trump's first standing project in India. The interior designer for the twin 23-story glass towers that bear Trump's name — one residential, the other for offices — offers a tour through the showcase apartment.

Sonalee Choudhari, as elegant as the units she furnishes, says, "It's very tastefully done" and in keeping "with the Trump theme." Airy and decorated with tony Italian lighting fixtures and leather lounge chairs, the flat exudes earth-tone understatement, all 6,000 square feet of it. Price tag: $1.5 million to $2 million.

Several floors above, Sheetal Sagar Surywanshi rents her own floor — for nearly $6,000 a month — from an A-list Bollywood star. Heels clicking on the Italian marble floor, Surywanshi sweeps past large bedrooms, peeking on her sleeping children as she talks me through the amenities, from the high security to a sumptuous spa.

The website of this Trump property boasts a concierge service called Quintessentially, which it claims once delivered "a metal detector up the French Alps to help a member who had lost his house keys in the snow."

Surywanshi, 35, cruises around town in a red Rolls Royce and says she "deals in land," didn't think twice about the high rent. "The amenities, modern technology, very close to American taste, Mr. Trump has designed everything so well that everything is at its place. I just had to move in," she says.

While the Trump name — in gold — graces the project, he has put no money into these properties, says Mumbai-based developer Ramesh Jogani, who at one time met and discussed business with Trump. Instead, Jogani says the property developers pay the Trump Organization for use of the Trump name as an enticement to buyers — because to many, Trump's brand means quality.

"As a developer, you see no skin in the game, there's very little in the involvement in the whole process of building," Jogani asserts. "But as a buyer, he believes that Trump would only lend his name if everything was in place. It lends credibility to the project."

Jogani also says each of these Indian brand-licensing agreements has the potential to earn the Trump Organization at least several million dollars. They also allow Trump to enter the Indian market to learn at no real risk, he says. The costs are borne by his Indian partners.

But if it was worth it before, an association with Trump now counts more than ever. Even with the president-elect announcing that he intends to separate himself from his business, Gulam Zia, based in Mumbai with the global property consultancy Frank Knight, says the Trump brand will be irreversibly amplified. His name will be visible on the buildings.

"The whole additional interest will be because that brand today is the president-elect of the United States," Zia says. "I'm sure there'll be a beeline for other interested developers to draw the same benefit, like what the two or three existing developers are doing."

The Pune property developers flew to the U.S. to congratulate their partner a week after he won the election. In a widely circulated photo on Twitter, subsequently taken down, they could be seen beside the victor in New York's Trump Tower, giving the thumbs-up.

The developers seemed unprepared for the onslaught of publicity that followed.

Trump's Pune collaborator Atul Chordia declined to be interviewed on tape by NPR and would communicate only via text messages, one of which read, "The media is doing negative stories for no reason."

But the projects have attracted attention in part because of the nature of property development in India: It is prone to political entanglement.

The founder of the Lodha Group, Mangal Prabhat Lodha, Trump's partner in Mumbai, is not only a property magnate but the vice president of Maharashtra state's BJP party, the most powerful in the country. Such connections could be used to cut corners, and risk the appearance of favoritism.

Architect Chandrashekhar Prabhu, a former president of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, says developers "clearly influence" the process of decision making.

"Every political party has their own set of property developers, and there is a complete nexus between them," Prabhu says.

Construction is underway at the 75-story, gold-facade Mumbai Trump Tower, with half of the 412 units already sold.

"The consumers here are those who have arrived in life, who have got about $2 million to spare," says Prashant Bindal, Lodha's chief sales officer.

Trump has three other projects underway in India, two in the New Delhi capital region and one in Kolkata.

Indian property development requires permits from between 17 to 30 different agencies. Analysts say therein lies the potential for corruption. The hazard would not be so great, says Mumbai-based developer Vikas Kasliwal, if Trump's business was in an industry that didn't require a lot of interaction with regulators.

"The real estate industry, on the other hand," Kasliwal says, "is filled with regulation, and filled with regulatory intervention and filled with the need to have blessing of regulators."

With Trump as president-elect, Kasliwal suggests those blessings would not be hard to come by. But even if his children were to run Trump's affairs in India, Kasliwal warns they should tread lightly.

"No Indian regulator would refuse to meet with Donald Trump Jr.," he says. "They would love to meet with Donald Trump Jr. But are they actively going to tell people, 'Why don't you bring Donald Trump Jr. to meet me'? They're not. I don't think any mischief can be created, but people could take advantage of perceptions," says Kasliwal.

Neither the Trump Organization nor the transition team has responded to requests for comment.

Gulam Zia, meanwhile, anticipates intense scrutiny of anyone partnering with Trump's firm in India.

"Any permission, any license, any favor that this product attracts because of the brand," he says, "will be noted, magnified, spoken about, debated and fought over in the media."

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