Whenever people tell me that India has changed after the liberalisation of the 1990s, that business is now independent of government and that India’s industrialists now get on with the job quietly, I always say, “Well, up to a point…”
Older readers may remember a business-politics battle that dominated the second half of the 1980s. Dhirubhai Ambani was emerging as one of India’s top industrialists. While many people reckoned that he’d bent the rules and paid off politicians to get there, only one industrialist really took him on.
That was Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing. Because Wadia had close links with politicians in all parties (he knew BJP leaders well, he had friends in the Congress, etc) and in the media (he was something of a godson to Ramnath Goenka), he was able to put Dhirubhai on the defensive.
The Ambanis retaliated with a counter-attack that rocked the foundations of India’s government. By forging letters, which Amitabh Bachchan delivered to his friend Rajiv Gandhi, they were able to convince the government that Wadia and finance minister V.P. Singh were really targeting Rajiv. The government went after Nusli Wadia in response. Wadia joined up with V.P. Singh to defeat the government.
Eventually, Rajiv Gandhi did lose the election, largely because of a coalition created by anti-Reliance forces and Nusli Wadia made it his mission to destroy Reliance.
You might think that 20 years later, everything has changed. And certainly, Nusli Wadia seems to have buried the hatchet with the Ambanis and gone on to find success in other fields (biscuits, property, etc.).
But looking at the way the Ambani battle has raged over the last couple of months, I am beginning to wonder if India has really changed that much. In this version of the story, Mukesh Ambani, with his Congress links, is playing the Dhirubhai Ambani role. Anil Ambani is playing the Nusli Wadia part. Like Wadia, he has friends in the BJP (he thinks Narendra Modi should be Prime Minister), in UP politics (just as VP Singh backed Wadia so Mulayam Singh is backing Anil) and the Congress.
Just as Wadia was consumed by his mission to destroy Dhirubhai, Anil seems consumed by a desire to destroy Mukesh. Wadia was constantly launching salvos against Reliance just as Anil does these days. Wadia would attack Congress ministers for their closeness to Reliance; Anil is doing the same. Wadia would hire such lawyers as Ram Jethmalani to fight Reliance in the courts; Anil has done the same thing.
And the impact on India in the 21st century is not that dissimilar from the impact on India in the 1980s. Already, the papers are obsessed with this battle — it gets far more coverage than it deserves. Already, we are looking at ministers in the government and deciding who is on which side. (“Shinde is in Anil’s pocket, Mukesh knows Pranab well,” etc.) Anil has done what no industrialist since Wadia has dared to do: he has openly taken on the government and made no secret of his links with the Opposition, allowing Mulayam Singh to disrupt Parliament on his behalf.
All this is ostensibly a battle over rates charged for gas. I don’t know who is in the right in this case: Mukesh or Anil. My friend Tony Jesudasan who represents Anil took me out to lunch and made out a case for Anil. I was totally convinced till my friend Niira Radia, who represents Mukesh, gave me the other side, which frankly, seemed just as convincing to my inexpert ears.
The truth is that the vast majority of Indians are not qualified to judge the rights and wrongs of this very complicated issue. It’s a matter that judges and top lawyers should settle away from the glare of publicity.
So here’s my point: why should the people of India be expected to judge who is right or wrong? We are rarely asked for our opinions on corporate battles. And when other companies have a problem with a ministry, this rarely merits much attention.
Why then is Anil Ambani headline news day after day, week after week? Why is Parliament disrupted because of the battle? Why is the government of India being forced to defend itself at public fora?
Who are these people, anyway? And why do the Ambanis think that all of us should take sides in their battle? Or that we should care what happens to them?
Our problem, I fear, is that we have forgotten the lessons of the 1980s. In that decade, we allowed Nusli Wadia and Dhirubhai to turn their corporate war into a national issue. We allowed corporate greed and financial manipulation to threaten the very foundations of the Indian government.
Nothing good came out of that experience. When the dust cleared, the corporate situation was exactly what it had been before the fight began. Dhirubhai continued to rise. And Wadia continued to be edged out of the textile business.
But the rest of us all lost out. Rajiv Gandhi’s mandate was frittered away because his ministers took sides in a corporate battle. The Indian middle class was conned into backing VP Singh, who gave us a few disastrous months of governance, leaving us with a Mandal legacy. The bureaucracy was corrupted and spoilt. The media were forced to take partisan stands.
My worry is that history is repeating itself. When a corporate war begins to emerge as the biggest news story in a country that faces so many problems, then you know that something has gone badly wrong.
Worse still, the rest of the world has begun to question the India story. Last week, the Financial Times (London) featured the Ambani dispute and wrote that if oligarchs could create so much havoc in India, then there was something wrong with our system. It made the familiar point about how India’s natural resources were being hijacked by oligarchs.
So, here’s my advice to the Ambanis: I like you guys. I’ve known you for a long time. But please fight your battles elsewhere. They have nothing to do with us. And you are damaging India with your media campaigns and with your political friends who disrupt Parliament on your behalf.
And here’s my advice to the politicians: Don’t make the same mistakes all over again. Are you Samajwadis or Ambaniwadis? For India’s sake, let the Ambanis solve their problems on their own.
Just do the jobs we elected you to do. Because your loyalty should be to the people of India not to Mukesh, Anil, or any other industrialist. It is us you represent.