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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 37, Dated September 18, 2010


Hamish McDonald takes a second whack at his notorious ‘Ambani book’ but he still doesn’t get the Indian psyche, says SHANTANU GUHA RAY

LIKE THE Nehru- Gandhis, the Ambanis have also come to mirror the state of the Indian mind. This is due to three factors: they’re capable of springing a surprise anytime, remain unruffled by the worst controversy and never take No for an answer. The incidental frills they enjoy are legend: a hotline to the entire Cabinet and almost 90 percent of the central bureaucracy, and the capacity to develop, if required, similar hotlines with state bureaucracy.

So it’s expected that any book on the first family of Indian business will be dissected, castigated, hated and eulogised, depending on which side of the fence you’re on when reading it.

That it took an Australian journalist to write about the Ambanis — without competition from an Indian writer who could have, perhaps, written a more fleshed out narrative — is interesting. Hamish McDonald worked in India as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and appeared once as a part-time anchor for a show in the now-defunct Business India Television channel. He made his foray into the Indian business out-back with The Polyester Prince — a tome on Dhirubhai Ambani — which did not see the light of the day in India, thanks to court notices issued to him both in Sydney and New Delhi.

Now an updated version of the same book, called Mahabharata in Polyester: The Making Of The World’s Richest Brothers And Their Feud, will hit the stands in India soon — hopefully without court notices or pressure from the brothers. Many have said that McDonald’s first book was better. There are many pirated versions of the first book but I’m yet to lay my hands on the original version. Some chapters were apparently missing in these pirated versions — especially on the Ambani money machine as well as the million-dollar quote (“Everyone has a price”) that the old man always denied.

McDonald has played it safe with his second book and excised some juicy bits about Dhirubhai Ambani present in the first one. TEHELKA obtained the international edition of the new book for this review, which has much information on the Ambani- Wadia rivalry — some of which the Indian edition may not use.

Expectations for this new book are sky-high, since Mc- Donald had all the time in the world and was far away from the Reliance hawks who’d messed up his previous effort.

The book is like a B-school student's crafty cut-n-paste job of floating Ambani stories

That neither brother granted McDonald access for this new book is a serious handicap in an otherwise racy read that culls much of its information from Indian and foreign media.

But this isn’t enough to write about a family that’s presided over the Indian business and political scene for the last 30 years. It requires access and — more importantly — an understanding of the Indian political and business psyche. McDonald lacks both.

That he relied on second-hand information and briefings by Ambani hate club members (Nusli Wadia, RV Pandit, S Gurumurthy, etc.) is evident when he says Murli Deora — the Congress’ main fundraiser — refused the post of Petroleum Minister when Sonia Gandhi offered it. This claim would make even Delhi’s paanwallas snort in disbelief. The book is akin to a safe play in journalism, almost like asking an intelligent B-school student to do a crafty cut-n-paste job with all the floating Ambani family stories.

WHY DOES McDonald open the book with a scene from the movie Guru without informing us how Mani Ratnam planned the movie? Why quote writers whose knowledge of the Ambanis is as limited as an intern’s? And if one is writing about the brothers, shouldn’t one discuss how their fight started and ended?

There are great stories of how Mukesh Ambani planned the fight during a holiday at Kruger National Park, South Africa and stymied the junior brother’s attempt to acquire African telecom operator MTN, as well as attempts to seek gas at a lower rate.

Who helped them bury their differences? Where did they go — was it minus their wives? — for the final patch-up? The book’s polyester quotient makes it a smooth read but the Mahabharata of the squabble is missing. It’s a pity, because McDonald knows all the characters — their extraordinary wealth, power, influence and legendary hatred for each other — almost too well.

‘The difference was billions of dollars in cash flow’

Hamish McDonald
UNSW Press
402 pp; AUS$34.95

THE ROW over gas pricing was central to their rivalry. It put Murli Deora in an awkward position. Asked by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to be Petroleum Minister, he had tried to refuse: better to stick to the familiar role of Congress fund-raiser. But to no avail. His main task was to adjudicate a national gaspricing formula, with a decision rewarding either Anil or Mukesh. Anil was insisting on the low cost plus price he believed had been promised. Mukesh was arguing for parity with the landed price of imported gas: world petroleum price, plus shipping, plus 30 percent duty. The difference was billions of dollars in cash flow.

In August 2006 Manmohan Singh met Deora and at his request, so it was reported, decided to relieve him of the decision. The issue was handed to an ‘empowered group of ministers’ under the chairmanship of the External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, the same Congress veteran who had been so helpful to Dhirubhai in the 1980s.

Furious lobbying began, with Anil marshalling the Samajwadi and Communist Party (Marxist) to oppose ‘goldplating’ of the Krishna-Godavari project, while Reliance warned that its delicately poised financing could be upset, creating a two-year delay in commencement of gas production. The decision, announced 12 September 2006, was interpreted as both a blow to the free market and a capitulation to Mukesh, since, as the Supreme Court later noted, it was based on a formula very close to the one suggested by Reliance. It set a price of $4.20 per million British thermal units, based on a five-year peg to an oil price of $60 a barrel, a hefty slug above the $2.34 that Anil claimed to have promised, setting Mukesh in a position to dominate downstream industries, including the vital sectors of power generation and fertilisers.

shantanu.guharay @fwtehelka.com

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 37, Dated September 18, 2010

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