Ambani, Season 2
Hamish McDonald wrote The Polyester Prince in 1998, on the rise of Dhirubhai Ambani. Legal threats kept it out of the Indian market — but now there is a sequel. An interview with the author.
What is new in this book?
A third of the new book is about events since the old book finished, which was ’96-’97, so it gets the last years of Dhirubhai, including the oil refinery at Jamnagar and the jump into telecom, and then the split [between Mukesh and Anil], and it runs up until the Supreme Court judgement in May this year. It contains a lot more analysis and opinion and delves into the myths and counter-myths and tries to explore the issues this ascent has raised for India, particularly the relationship between big business and government.
Did you have to leave out anything?
Essentially not. I wish I had been able to be a bit more open about my sources.
What was Dhirubhai the man like?
I met him a couple of times. I found him a very impressive, inspiring kind of man. He thought very big, he was open to ideas, absolutely fresh in his approach to people. He’d look at newcomers and people he’d known for a long time, high and low, in a fairly open and unprejudiced way. Of course he was very flattering, he gave you his full attention. Some people thought of him as a schemer. Well, he was a schemer, but he had this big vision and that’s why he managed to get powerful people to support his endeavours.
Did he have a sense of humour?
Not so much when I met him, but from what I heard from his friends he had a very irreverent sense of humour. He was a prankster and practical joker, and loved pulling wool over people’s eyes. I think that’s what led to his political pranks, if you like. I’m pretty sure the so-called Fairfax letters were concocted by his side. That [kind of] mischievous throwing a bomb into the situation was very much part of that sense of humour taken to extremes.
Why this man as your subject?
I was in India for six years in total and it just grew on me as the big untold story of India, the one that was too sensitive for most people to touch, for local business writers who knew the story. Most of my foreign colleagues and even academics were not really up with it. They didn’t realise how big it was. They were all off chasing wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan or Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This was full of colour and also about the new India and the money side of India.
You had willing informants?
I started with Dhirubhai’s early life, met some of the people who had been with him in Aden and people who had grown up with him in Gujarat, and some of the people who were with him when he came to Bombay and started his training. I was getting some very interesting material and a lot of cooperation. When I started moving up into the more contentious areas, like the Isle of Man companies about 1982, then the shutters came down. The word went out from Dhirubhai’s office that he’d prefer not to have the book written. […] That was a bit of a red rag. I thought, “I’m not going to be stopped by this.”
You had some support from Ambani’s rivals, like Nusli Wadia.
The Ambani opponents had been looking at me with suspicion. They eventually realised that I was outside the Ambani tent, and they started opening up a bit more. [Some] gave me a lot of background material which I tested against collateral evidence. It was more the professionals around Bombay who steered me towards understanding — stockbrokers and investment bankers and people who were close to him and understood how these things worked. And one or two policemen.
Did you ever feel threatened?
No. I was careful, I tried to keep identities confidential, of informants. I keep a low profile, especially on trips to Mumbai.
Are the sons as interesting?
The fight between them has been interesting, but it’s nothing as vivid and fight-to-the-death [as] the father’s story. There’s not such a competition for licences and quotas. There are other rich and powerful business houses now, with links to the Congress. So it’s not as if one single group, even one as big as Mukesh’s, can swing politics in the way that Dhirubhai’s Reliance did.
Dhirubhai really operated in two spheres. One was to build the physical industrial company. The other was to maintain the share price, and you could say that the share price actually was the crucial one because that enabled him to raise the money to build the industry. So the pump-priming of the Reliance price preoccupied him, I would say, 60 per cent of the time. You could say a lot of it was insider trading. At the same time he kept the small stockholders very happy.
What about Mukesh’s huge new house? His father wouldn’t have done that, would he?
No. Even now Reliance hasn’t built a huge office tower in Bombay. And the Sea Wind building was fairly unobtrusive. I find it quite baffling that Mukesh made this gesture that has attracted worldwide attention.
Have you watched Guru?
I have. It launched in Mumbai, Toronto and Sydney. Anil’s company AdLabs was the distributor and I always wondered whether he was setting up a special show for me. As it was, me and my family were the only non-Indian people in the audience [in Sydney]. A lot of the story twists were lifted from my book — you could see that — including some not-so-flattering ones.
You should ask for royalties.
I should get in touch with Mani Ratnam!