He was the quiet brother. Anil Ambani had his father’s gift for public relations, his entrepreneurial flair and his ability to pack a lot of warmth into every short encounter. Mukesh was the strong, silent one; the brother who travelled with his father, stuck to a small set of close (but never famous) friends and rarely gave interviews.
When the brothers split, the balance of power seesawed between the two. At first, Mukesh seemed to have initiated the battle with his remark about ‘ownership issues’ though in retrospect it now seems more like a slip than a strategic move. The conventional wisdom was that he was preparing to squeeze Anil out, to send him packing with a tiny portion of the vast Reliance empire.
Then, Anil counterattacked. The alacrity with which his aides fed the eager media with documents purporting to list Mukesh’s manipulations of the political system suggest that Anil had spent a long time preparing for this battle -- years before Mukesh’s unguarded remark, certainly.
By the time the split actually took place, the divisions were more equitable. Some of the public hostility seemed to have dissipated. Mukesh actually paid a generous tribute to his brother at the Reliance annual general meeting (after which Anil left the building).
Then, an unexpected political upheaval seemed to have changed the balance yet again. Anil had hitched his wagon to the Samajwadi Party (with whose support he got into the Rajya Sabha) and rarely appeared in public without Amar Singh by his side. As the SP fell out of favour with the UPA government, Anil seemed to have ended up on the losing side. Mukesh, on the other hand, seemed to have made the right decisions.
Today, the situation is much more equitable. Anil has resigned from the Rajya Sabha, has not been photographed with Amar Singh for several months and his aides are eager to deny any closeness to the SP. And Mukesh, for his part, seems to have got ahead by announcing mega project after mega project rather than by flaunting his proximity to the powers that be.
The Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Haryana promises to achieve a world-class standard. There's Rs 2,000 crore in ethanol plants in Maharashtra. And he's announced a massive investment of Rs 25,000 crore in the retail sector.
Wherever Mukesh goes, he is feted by local communities: welcomed by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, courted by the Punjab government and regarded as a saviour by businessmen all over the country.
Says Gita Piramal, managing editor of the Smart Manager, “I think after GD Birla, Mukesh Ambani is the most outstanding entrepreneur India has produced in the last 100 years. I say this because both of them had tremendous vision. Picking CDMA over GSM, building oil refineries and other huge challenges -- Mukesh is a risk-taker who believes in the first mover advantage."
That's high praise indeed -- because it suggests that he's better than his father was. But even those who are not willing to go quite so far do not hesitate to express their admiration. Says Harsh Goenka of the RPG group, “In the 25 years that I have known him I may have occasionally suspected his grandiose plans but he has always pulled them off with aplomb. His businesses have all been path breaking, whether it's telecom or retail. I have been in the retail business myself for a while -- but he probably knows more about it than I do.”
Of course, there are the critics. Many people argue that the land acquisitions for the SEZs were facilitated by the use of political contacts. Mukesh will forever be haunted by the allegation that Reliance paid off the NDA government to turn the telecom policy upside down so that his own CDMA operation became economically viable. (Ironically, that company went to Anil in the split.) And there is the charge that Anil levelled: that he is dependent on a network of cronies and chamchas, many of whom have been his friends since school, all of whom have become extremely rich and that they count for more than the many professionals on his pay roll. As Gita Piramal points out, Mukesh has created a support structure of individuals and depends entirely on that structure.
The man himself is both simple and complicated. His home life is easy to understand: basically, his wife Nita calls the shots. As she says, “Mukesh is my mentor, friend and guide. I have learned so much from him and he has helped me evolve as a person.” This is probably true but Mukesh has evolved a lot too -- to the extent that Anil's friends suggested that one of the reasons for the tension between the brothers was the role of Nita (and of Anil's own wife Tina).
At present, the Ambanis live in Sea Wind, the apartment block that Dhirubhai purchased at Bombay's Cuffe Parade and then converted into a massive family residence. It is expected that Mukesh and Nita will now construct yet another residence for themselves in the more upmarket Altamount Road area and move out of Sea Wind -- which they share with Anil, Tina and Mukesh's mother Kokilaben.
That's the simple part. The more complicated part is that Mukesh is often seen as inscrutable and difficult to read. Unlike Anil who is more transparent and much more demonstrative, Mukesh is an introvert who only opens up to his wife and a few close friends. At the height of the family feud, Anil complained that Mukesh had become emotionally unavailable.
But you can't argue with success.
While Gita Piramal's praise (“Only GD Birla was greater”) may seem over the top, there is little doubt that judging by present performance, Mukesh seems set to surpass his father's achievements -- and he has done this in the post liberalisation era when there were fewer laws and quotas to manipulate. What he lacks, of course, is his father's aggressive charisma. But then, with this kind of spectacular success, who needs charisma?