Ambani & Sons
Connecting the dots between Nariman Point and Raisina Hill is hazardous activity. Hamish McDonald, author of The Polyester Prince, an unauthorised biography of Dhirubhai Ambani, discovered just how perilous it can get if you try to tell a story that is “the crucial narrative of modern India”.
Neither Ambani & Sons nor its controversial predecessor breaks new ground journalistically. The story is of a businessman with a terrific eye for backward integration and scale. It is also a story of doing business in an environment that would not permit either. What separated Dhirubhai from the rest of the pack was not his uncanny knack of spotting the opportunity but the chutzpah to convert it into a paying proposition. Crony capitalism in India was not the same after Reliance burst upon the Licence Raj.McDonald had to change his publisher and recaliberate some of the nuance to get Ambani & Sons into Indian bookstores. The court injunctions against The Polyester Prince predate Guru, a thinly veiled biopic on Dhirubhai that turned "one of the most contentious figures of modern India into celluloid myth". McDonald draws some comfort from the fact that the plot relies heavily on anecdotes recounted in The Polyester Prince. He was also kicked by the simultaneous international release of the film in Mumbai, Toronto and, hullo, Sydney.
The author is the Asia-Pacific editor of the Sydney Morning Herald after being a foreign correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing and New Delhi. His take on regulatory fixing in India — as distinct from most of Asia — is that it is more subtle here given our democratic institutions. Point taken, but do we really need a visitor to tell us how the cookie crumbles in this part of the world?
“I landed in India in December 1990,” acknowledges McDonald, and “my position reporting for a leading business magazine (Far Eastern Economic Review) gave me a ringside seat and, initially at least, personal acquaintance with Ambani and his two sons. 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.”
A chapter under the moniker ‘The Great Polyester War’ was central to Indian politics in the 80s that became “a life-and-death struggle for Dhirubhai’s company and the critical test of Rajiv Gandhi’s efforts to clean up the Indian government. Dhirubhai survived. Rajiv failed and lost power as a result.” Gripping stuff. Guess why such an endeavour was not undertaken by any of the many journalists who gave McDonald freely of their knowledge? They, after all, had seen the trade of punches.
By the time we get to the ‘& Sons’ part, McDonald’s ringside seat, such as it was, has moved a few miles away and the reader can’t escape the feeling that he’s reading yesterday’s headlines. Even then the later chapters retain fidelity to the author’s purpose of filling a gap in popular and academic writing about the relationship between government and India Inc.
Beyond the metaphor of Dhirubhai, McDonald’s six-year stint in New Delhi coincided with the birth of another corporate culture as India opened up to the world. Some of the most celebrated companies in today’s India did not exist when entrepreneurship in large measure involved management of the external environment.