Book Reviews
An odyssey revisited: Hamish McDonald retells the Ambani saga

Hamish McDonald launches his second take on India’s most talked about business family in the presence of Sucheta Dalal, managing editor, Moneylife  

"I don't see any men in black suits waiting for me outside," quipped Hamish McDonald, tongue firmly in cheek, playing down the fears of a backlash surrounding the India launch of his highly anticipated work on the life and times of Dhirubhai Ambani, the highly successful but controversial business tycoon. Mr McDonald, Asia-Pacific editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, was speaking on the occasion of the launch of his book Ambani and Sons at a Crossword bookstore in south Mumbai. Sucheta Dalal, managing editor of Moneylife, was in conversation with the author at the launch.

The launch of this book in India has been a patient struggle for Mr McDonald, who has had to deal with many vested interests in his quest to bring out the undistorted truth about the man who built a colossal empire from scratch, but not without the use of some questionable tactics. His first book, The Polyester Prince, was blocked before its release in India by the simple trick of filing a case and obtaining a stay order from a small court. Years later, at the height of the war between the Ambani siblings, the book found its way into the hands of Indian book readers in the form of pirated editions or through other surreptitious means. Mr McDonald reminisced the journey which finally led to the launch in India, as Ms Dalal engaged the author in an interesting discussion on the events surrounding the eagerly anticipated book.

Responding to Ms Dalal's question on his thoughts on the book seeing the light of day this time around, Mr McDonald said, "The original book, The Polyester Prince was shelved by Reliance in 1998-99 and the Indian publisher decided not to proceed with the book. The pages were already printed and I assume they eventually ended up as wrappers for chickpeas. This book was published earlier this month by the University Press in Sydney. They were astonished to find several Indian publishers competing for the South Asian rights and apparently confident that it could be published back here in the country. After having their lawyers go through the book in minute detail, the Indian publisher decided to take the plunge; so far without any adverse reactions from any of the subjects. I must admit, though, that when getting off the plane at New Delhi, I wondered whether a lawyer would be waiting at immigration to serve me a writ. Thankfully, nothing has happened so far."

The circumstances have changed a lot since the time of the supposed earlier launch. The events that took place in the wake of the patriarch's unfortunate demise earlier in the decade, with the much publicised split between the feuding brothers, Mukesh and Anil, have brought in a change in perspective in the corridors of the Ambani camp(s). Ms Dalal highlighted this aspect as she prodded the author on why things worked out without much of a hiccup this time. "The fact that the brothers have thrown so much muck at each other in the intervening years, made a film that sort of paints Dhirubhai Ambani in shades of grey, do you think that the Ambanis have turned a bit more tolerant now?", she asked. Mr McDonald replied in the affirmative, "A lot of dirty linen has been washed in the last five years. One side of the family was actively involved in the movie Guru which certainly painted a black-and-white picture of Dhirubhai and borrowed many episodes from my original book. So that showed a mature approach by the sons. Both of them have been educated abroad and moved around the world. I think they are more willing to let the dogs bark."

Mr McDonald, who has previously worked as a foreign correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing and New Delhi, admitted that he had to go to great lengths in order to woo the Ambanis into co-operating with his research. He recounted his initial meeting with Dhirubhai Ambani in the 1990s, when he proposed the idea of writing the industrialist's life story. Mr Ambani appeared flattered but a bit concerned at the same time, admitted Mr McDonald. He sent birthday greetings to the Ambanis and even tried to soften Dhirubhai's wife, Kokilaben Ambani, by presenting her with a copy of a rare and expensive art book, which he thought would interest her. There was neither a reply nor an acknowledgement. "I went ahead and started researching on the early part of his life. It was only when I started getting into the first of the really big scandals that people started to be reluctant to talk to me. Finally, one of Dhirubhai's  henchmen opted out of an interview and I was subsequently told that they didn't want the book to go ahead."

Mr McDonald, however, kept on working at his research. It was during the final stages of his book that lawyers representing the company approached him and threatened to take legal action if the book went ahead, as they found the book defamatory. This was when the Indian publisher pulled out. The book was subsequently launched abroad, but not on Indian shores. 

Responding to Ms Dalal's question whether he got a lot of titbits from the patriarch's 'enemies', Mr McDonald said, "I did, but not all of them are enemies - just victims in some cases." He revealed that it was only after the Ambanis cut him off that many people on the outside started trusting him. They were initially quite suspicious of his intentions and hesitated to open up to him. "Being cut off helped allay that suspicion and opened a number of doors that were only half-opened before," said Mr McDonald.

An interesting member in the audience at the book launch was YP Singh, the former IPS officer, who headed the CBI investigation into the lease of ONGC's oil fields to the Enron-Reliance combine more than a decade ago, and was subsequently transferred under controversial circumstances. Commenting on the developments surrounding this issue and whether the fountain built atop the field is likely to get opened up again, Mr McDonald said, "I don't see any political party willing to delve into that. The crushing silence in the Lok Sabha when the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal was debated is a pointer to how much interest there is in turning off a fountain and digging underneath."

Some believe that Dhirubhai Ambani was a product of his times, and that the closed nature of the Indian economy in those days forced him to cut corners and take recourse to questionable measures in getting his way. It is easy to say that what happened in India was a by-product of the Indian system, corruption and bureaucracy. However, even in the most open economies, there have been larger scandals like Enron, WorldCom etc. Commenting on this aspect, Mr McDonald said, "Some people believe Dhirubhai would have been quite different in other conditions. But the temptations of businessmen to grow fast and push the rules to the limit and go beyond if they think they can get away with it do exist in any country."



Aparna Ramachandra

6 years ago

Dhirubhai may have creaed shareholder wealth, helped investors ge their daughters married or sons educated, I dont deny any of that. But the fact remains that you name the rule and it has been broken/twisted/abused first by the father and now the sons. There is nothing ethical there.....Even during the Licenses Raj business houses survived, thrived but not everyone esored to such blatant misuse. Today with an open economy more liberal laws the misuse continues. Starting from the school adission process in theAmbani school to the mobile connections to the mutual fund distribution to the deals overseas......the attitude that the system can be bought out needs to change......


6 years ago

Must read and then form the opinion.
My friend whose co. was taken over and having worked for some time for Ambani and then left it told me "the rule of my earlier employer was 'bend the rule always, if possible, but do not break'. But now 'break as far as possible and bend somtimes. The success is yours" - Borkar

ADB ups GDP forecast to 8.5%; expresses concern over inflation

New Delhi: The Asian Development Bank (ADB) today raised India's growth forecast for the current fiscal to 8.5% from 8.2% but expressed concern over persistent high inflation and rising value of rupee, which could undermine future economic expansion, reports PTI.

"Growth is being supported by robust investment, increased capital inflows, and stronger industrial output, buoyed by rising consumer demand," said ADB Outlook Update.

The multilateral lending agency had projected a growth rate of 8.2% for 2010-11 in April. For the next financial year (2011-12), ADB has retained its earlier projection of 8.7%.

ADB's growth projection for current fiscal is the same as had been forecast by the finance ministry, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council.

The multilateral lending agency, however, expects the average inflation to be 7.5% during the current fiscal as against its earlier projection of 5.5%. "High food prices (will) remain a near-term concern", it added.

The rate of price rise, according to ADB, is likely to be at the same level during the next fiscal.

The inflation, according to the new Wholesale Price Index with base year 2004-05 was 8.5% in August and food inflation was 15.10% for week ended 4th September.

ADB also warned that the raising value of rupee does not augur well for the Indian economy in the coming years.

The rupee appreciated more than 11% in real terms between August 2009 and August 2010, it added, "Poses an additional challenge for policy makers as they seek to maintain high growth while winding back the monetary and fiscal stimulus measures used to help the economy recover from the global economic crisis".

High inflation and rupee's sharp appreciation, it added, could erode India's export competitiveness and its plans to further expand economic growth to 9%-10% in coming years.

Pointing out that RBI was projecting overall inflation to moderate to 6% by March-end, the report said, "If price pressures do not abate as expected, the central bank will be hard pressed to intervene in the foreign exchange market to dampen rupee appreciation."

A well-grounded and robust recovery for India, ADB chief economist Jong-Wha Lee suggested, would depend "on the ability of the various policymakers to coordinate effectively amongst themselves to achieve macroeconomic stability, and striking a right balance amongst growth, inflation and competitiveness objectives."


Finmin confident to meet Rs40,000 crore disinvestment target

New Delhi: Despite only Rs2,000 crore mopped in the first half through disinvestment, the finance ministry today said it is "confident" of meeting the Rs40,000 crore target for the current fiscal, as there is enough appetite in the market, reports PTI.

"We are confident of meeting the Rs40,000 crore target... There is enough appetite in the market," disinvestment secretary Sumit Bose told reporters here.

He further said that disinvestment in many big ticket companies, including Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation ONGC, Steel Authority of India (SAIL), Coal India (CIL) and Power Grid are expected in the current fiscal.

"We expect IOC, ONGC disinvestment in the current fiscal," Mr Bose added.

Aiming to raise Rs40,000 crore through disinvestment this fiscal, the government has mopped up over Rs1,000 crore by divesting stake in Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam, and around Rs 1,000 crore through Engineers India FPO.

Besides, the government plans to sell 5% stake in ONGC and 10% in IOC to raise about Rs 21,000 crore this fiscal, oil secretary S Sundareshan had said.

The government is diluting its 10% stake in CIL through a public offer to raise Rs16,000 crore. At present, the government owns a 100% stake in the company.


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