The writer is Editor of Chennai-based eveninger, News Today
The closing years of the 20th century, particularly the pre-globalisation ‘80s, were the high point of entrepreneurship and enterprise thanks to just one person: Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani and his Reliance Industries Ltd. But the opening decade of the 21st century began with the demise of this dynamic doyen and the painful splitting of his cherished legacy between his sons.
We have known popular political icons and filmy idols who have drawn masses to them with their leadership and histrionics. In my view, Dhirubhai was the first corporate hero in an otherwise colourless and dour world of balance sheets and sundry numbers. In a milieu wherein corporate czars controlled big companies with negligible stakes — a substantial chunk was held by government-controlled institutions like LIC and Unit Trust of India, etc., and the paltry rest by random shareholders — Dhirubhai launched a daring onslaught against this entrenched lot.
The crony capitalists were cruelly jolted out of their comfort zones as the neo-revolutionary with novel ideas, indomitable will to succeed and a deeper insight of the devilish details of the system used the very system with greater agility and ability to turn the tables. In one fell swoop, Dhirubhai had rewritten the rules of business and stock market for posterity. In doing so, he was not being an opportunity-businessman but actually a great visionary for whom the current scenario was just an irritating stumbling block. He was preparing himself and his legacy for the cataclysmic changes and the cut throat competition of the globalisation era. He started with nothing, left a Rs 65,000-crore empire at the time of his passing in 2002 and today his Reliance is one of the greatest conglomerates of our times. However to measure Dhirubhai’s success in mere monetary terms is to belittle him. His was the vision of a leader, a leader who rose from very humble origins to the pinnacle of glory, a people’s leader unknown in the corporate world.
In his obituary, I had written: ‘He had a fan following that was much broader in its base, wider in its spectrum and deeper in its love and reverence for him than any other celebrity of his time…. And one does not have to look far for the reasons for such undiminished faith and adoration that he commanded amongst his countrymen, a confidence that remained undented by reams and reams of calculated calumny unleashed by vested interests and envious enemies. While all the other stars enriched themselves at the expense of their followers, here was a super star that shone in every household that reposed trust in him. Dhirubhai’ s prosperity was also the prosperity of millions of his shareholders and as his wealth ballooned, so did the wealth of his investors. Dhirubhai achieved through his capitalism what socialism was supposed to!’ (NewsToday, 12 July 2002)
After Dhirubhai’s passing, the division of his empire, not to speak of the accompanying gossip and bad press, were the most distressful episodes in recent corporate history. Dhirubhai neither envisaged nor deserved this posthumous heir-splitting as he believed his was a rock solid, unbreakable family.
My father, T R Ramaswami (TRR), enjoyed an excellent and lasting friendship with Dhirubhai. I had the good fortune as an ambitious 20-something to meet him very often. On most such occasions Mukesh and Anil used to be around and the combined presence of the doting father and the devoted sons and their visible mutual bondage was a sight to behold. Indeed, when Dhirubhai suffered a debilitating stroke in 1986, while at the receiving end of a relentless witch-hunt, I still remember the way the two sons rose as a single entity and despite their young age, steered the company through the turmoil and insulated their ailing father till he was back on track. And he was, in good time, back in usual form despite his physical difficulties. When I attended Dhirubhai’s funeral in July 2002, the sons received me with affection and I was, despite the gloom of the occasion, in a way happy at their brotherly bonhomie. Indeed, it came as a rude and bewildering shock as a well-wisher of the family when things turned from bad to worse to ugly.
It is in a way improper to compare siblings, but Mukesh and Anil were not just another pair of brothers. They were the sons of the great Dhirubhai Ambani, inheritors of a legacy that was just one generation old, the result of the hard work and business acumen of one man. The spat was grist to the media and enemy mills that were silenced for more than a decade by Reliance’s soaring successes. Anil was flashy and seemingly fast on his feet, while Mukesh was sedate and steady. Both were risk-takers in their father’s mould. But while Anil made big business bids eager to be first off the block, Mukesh’s ventures were underlined by patience and diligence. Mukesh knew the virtue of waiting, a characteristic that has put him in a good stead in business — and family, as recent events now show.
This is not to speak ill of Anil, but the way things have turned out since Dhirubhai’s passing, it is clear he committed the mistake that most businessmen do in these tempting business world of false opportunities. Anil fell for many baits which only bit his hands. Dhirubhai, too, was a man in a hurry. But he tread the treacherous terrain of business with great caution thanks to his inborn street smartness and natural, native survival skills. The same timeline of events shows Mukesh has inherited and imbibed the traits of Dhirubhai. His calm, cool demeanour, in contrast to his brother’s rather reckless disposition, hid a keen intelligent mind. Mukesh is vintage Ambani.
To the friends of the family and admirers of Dhirubhai, this is an occasion for rejoicing, to see the brothers building their burnt bridges and replacing rancour with reconciliation. Anil’s desperation which had reached a point of him being jailed, may have been the agent provocateur but Mukesh and Nita Ambani’s timely intervention was a commendable act of family bonding. Mukesh and Nita could have just thrown up their arms and walked off, saying that his younger sibling should pay for his misadventures not to speak of all the unilateral mudslinging. There is much in the public domain (recall Anil’s front-page advertisement onslaught against Mukesh during the gas pricing dispute) that proves Anil’s constant potshots and even preposterous allegations and acts against Mukesh. But Mukesh maintained admirable composure, ignoring all that in the interest of the family and instead concentrating on building what was left to him. Mukesh is where he stands thanks to his maturity.
Indeed, it was this attitude of Mukesh, an attitude of filial feelings of responsibility and love – evidently shared by his wife Nita Ambani, too — that has now saved Anil from a truly grave crisis. Anil’s thanksgiving, a graceful response albeit a bit late to an understanding big brother and sister-in-law, is still heart-warming. The coming together of the two is also a warning to other barons of the Bombay Club as the Ambani steamroller now has a clear leader beyond all doubt, leading it from the front aided by a humbled but able lieutenant.
The repercussion of this unified and powerful force on business and consumers needs a separate study as do the intricacies of the financial deals and legal proceedings. But let’s look beyond economics. Many see Mukesh and Nita’s rescue act as just financial help at the least and brotherly handout at best. While that may be true in a narrow sense, the media, particularly, seemed to have missed out on the larger aspect of the issue. Big or small, traditional Indian businessmen and their businesses are family-oriented. Unlike the Western model where an individual is a unit, in India it is the family that counts, like it or not. Mukesh and Nita have, with good intelligence and intentions, used business that once divided, to act as a glue now to seal and heal a disrupted relationship. In doing what they did, Mukesh and Nita have emulated Dhirubhai Ambani, the hardened business magnate and a soft family man, with a melting heart both ways.
The father was magnanimity personified, a pioneer of the sharing economy that enriched everyone, the common shareholder, his employees, family and extended family, thousands of other beneficiaries and, incidentally, himself. Mukesh, the businessman who for his part has made great strides and fought his way beyond formidable frontiers in the quest for fortune for his shareholders and himself, has with this simple, small, saviour step made a giant leap in his father’s cherished path, decorated by forgiveness and goodwill. By doing so, not just in business but in benevolence, too, he has proved to be the true inheritor of Dhirubhai’s legacy.
As I see it, it’s a win-win for both brothers. Mukesh has now won over the prodigal sibling, thus ending an enduring pain in his heart. But Anil is the bigger gainer. In Mukesh, he has got back his dear father.