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The return of The Polyester Prince

Bibek Debroy  |  New Delhi 

Hamish McDonald’s second offering on the rise and split and rise of the billionaire Ambanis is but a slightly revised version of his first book

Western texts on business policy and corporate strategy (say, Michael Porter) talk about processes internal to a firm and managing the external environment. “External environment” includes consumers, suppliers and competitors (existing or potential). Rarely does external environment include the government. Yet, in pre-1991 India, managing the government was the most important component of business policy. This was never a secret. Nor is it the case that in post-1991 India, management of government has disappeared. It has become less important for manufacturing, though it remains pervasive for services. When died in 2002, the then prime minister said, “The country has lost iconic proof of what an ordinary Indian fired by the spirit of enterprise and driven by determination can achieve in his own lifetime.”

There are many aspects to the story. First, there is the rags-to-riches story, against the background of taking on traditional industrialists. Second, there is an element of straining at the law, interpreting it creatively and thereby eventually leading to elimination of dysfunctional controls. This is a refrain in the film Guru and was also mentioned in a talk delivered by Arun Shourie, then disinvestment minister. “By exceeding the limits in which those restrictions sought to impound them (the Dhirubhais), they helped create the case for scrapping those regulations.” This may be stretching the point too far, but there is some grain of truth in it.

Third, retail investors and the equity cult owe a lot to Reliance, since the IPO in 1977. Fourth, the scale of influence over government surpassed anything attempted earlier. This was no longer about licences (REP or otherwise), duty drawback and excise duties. The reach surpassed this, witnessed in the Nusli Wadia, Indian Express and V P Singh episodes. It extended to influencing, even deciding, senior government appointments. It extended to controlling the capital market and, even without the abortive Observer of Business and Politics, meant considerable media clout. Fifth, there is the post-Dhirubhai conflict between and

Other than disjointed media reportage and the hagiographic compilation (Dare to Dream) by A G Krishnamurthy, no good chronicle exists of Dhirubhai Ambani, Reliance, and the man and his times. has filled that gap. More accurately, he did so in the past. McDonald has been Delhi bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review and foreign editor for the Sydney Morning Herald. He has on Suharto’s Indonesia and Indonesian violence in East Timor.

In 1998, he authored (TPP), a book for which HarperCollins acquired the rights but never sold in India because the Ambanis threatened legal action. TPP was described as an unauthorised biography and so is this new one, because the shade figures with the light. In the Acknowledgements, the author writes, “The Ambani story grabbed me as soon as I landed in India in December 1990… Inevitably, the glowing picture of an entrepreneurial hero, so beloved of business magazines, took on more light and shade with detailed study of the Ambani and Reliance story. Still, the relationship of government and big business emerged increasingly as the missing element of popular and academic writing about contemporary India.”

Fair enough, and so we have these 23 chapters. They have all the basic information, collected and collated in one place, otherwise chronicled in assorted media accounts. In that sense the book has utility.

However, there are several problems. First, this isn’t quite a new book, though there is a new introductory chapter and a chapter on the post-Dhirubhai “family feud of colossal proportions”. Versions of TPP freely float around on the Net, though one is never sure of authenticity. Barring those new chapters and some revision, there is a complete match between the earlier book and this new one, at least compared to the version of TPP I possess. This isn’t a new book. It is TPP, Mark-II and should not really have been called Ambani & Sons. It is a revised edition of TPP, now available in India. Presumably, no legal action is likely (at least from the Ambanis) because times have changed.

Second, there isn’t enough probing, despite the Acknowledgements mentioning “detailed study”. The impression one forms is of a book written by talking to a few selected people, supplemented by publicly available information in newspaper accounts. We may now have forgotten the gory details, including the Kirti Ambani murder episode, and the book serves a useful purpose in reminding us about them.

But, third, should one have double-checked and, having failed to double-check, been a bit more guarded in allegations and innuendo? In fairness, McDonald has guarded himself well against defamation suits from non-Ambanis by invariably attributing the information to others. “In November 1990, even before Chandrasekhar was sworn in, Dhirubhai had told one diplomatic visitor: ‘Mr Malhotra will be replaced shortly and the new RBI governor will be Mr. S. Venkitaramananan.’ Dhirubhai indicated that it was his recommendation.” This information is attributed to Madhav Godbole’s book.

“Indeed, so deep is Balu’s political influence that it is being said that the draft budget papers were not leaked to Balu. Balu leaked the budget to the ministry.” This is a quote from India Today, and so on. “Balu” refers to V Balasubramanian, Dhirubhai’s chief trouble-shooter and one-time group president of Reliance Industries.

However, Murli Deora, Sharad Pawar, Pranab Mukherjee and Nitish Sen Gupta (to name a few) will probably take a serious look at the innuendo. This leaves the style. McDonald is pretty good at describing people, places and relationships. However, descriptions of episodes and legal wrangles are often pedestrian. Nonetheless, we now have TPP-II published in India. n

Bibek Debroy is Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

Author: Hamish McDonald
Publisher: Roli

Pages: xi +396
Price: Rs 395

First Published: Sat, October 02 2010. 00:59 IST