Bajaj Auto Chairman Rahul Bajaj told a Mumbai daily last week, ‘‘Our government somehow listened to foreign businessmen more than Indian businessmen’’. Bajaj clearly has no problems meeting India’s power elite, but he is correct when he says that ‘‘the average CEO will not get an appointment so easily’’. Kishore Biyani, CEO of Pantaloon, has the same complaint. Biyani is the hottest star in Indian retailing and is splashed across the media on a daily basis, but he says, ‘‘Not a single politician or bureaucrat had spoken to me about retailing’’. Indian leaders, however, find plenty of time for foreign CEOs, economists and analysts. Many believe that India has promised to open up the retail business to foreigners in time for the US President’s visit to India around February. This lack of transparency and cold-shouldering of Indian industrialists only leads to widespread anger and protests after policy decisions are announced. Yet, the government refuses to learn from past mistakes. In the 1990s, our netas and babus were just as enamoured by foreign brokers and Investment Bankers (preferably Anglo-Saxon). The outsiders quickly learnt that a foreign name and accent opens doors much quicker than seeking appointments through Indian firms even if they have a 100-year history in the brokerage business. But then, Indian businessmen have no business complaining. After all, many of them seem to think it adds to their prestige to hire ‘white foreign women’ to act as ushers or even ‘guests’ at their parties and weddings.
The war between the Ambani brothers officially ended with a business settlement, but it has only led to a fragile and brittle peace. For instance, while the Mukesh Ambani camp began the process of listing the four demerged entities that would ultimately belong to Anil, the younger media-savvy sibling had no clue. While Anil Ambani claimed that he would decide the listing, the Mukesh camp had already filed under Sec 19(2)(b) for listing without an IPO. Similarly, the full-page advertisement on December 28, Dhirubhai Ambani’s birth anniversary, was issued in the name of Reliance Industries and not the family; this effectively left out Anil. Ironically, family events continue to bring the factions together. Both families dined together to mark a birthday on December 27 and on Kokilaben Ambani’s insistence, paid obeisance at the Shreenathji temple near Udaipur on December 28. If that were not enough, both Mukesh and Anil have flown to Goa with their respective entourages of family and friends to celebrate the New Year. But one group has chosen to camp in South Goa while the other is staying in North Goa. But they will certainly run into each other at all the hip parties, including the annual bash thrown by their brother-in-law Dattaraj Salgaonkar.
The one thing common to the tenure of every Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) has been turmoil or controversy. GV Ramakrishna was transferred when he refused to soft-peddle the shenanigans of then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s sons in Goldstar Steel. DR Mehta’s long stint was chequered with strange decisions and ended in a major controversy while GN Bajpai’s relatively uneventful stint did nothing to enhance Sebi’s reputation as a competent or even alert supervisor. M Damodaran, the new Chairman, is used to tough situations, but he realises that that the seat is hot enough to do with helpful fortification by the five basic elements through Vaastu Shastra. So the Chairman’s seating and flow of visitors has been reversed and a beautiful Ganesh idol watches over the proceedings, instead of being relegated to a corner. Only time will tell if the vaastu-friendly arrangement has helped. After all, Damodaran has a series of battles to tackle, starting from the appointment of an Executive Director, or the successful implementation of Clause 49 to doing battle with the National Securities Depository Ltd (NSDL). After taking exception to being named in the interim order on the Yes Bank IPO allotment, NSDL has also dragged SEBI to court over its order to scrap exit charges levied on investors wanting to switch depositories or Depository Participants. The move is bound to rile investor associations who have long demanded that DP accounts must be as freely transferable as bank accounts without a restrictive exit load like a mutual fund. Interestingly, NSDL’s appeal will be handled by Dharmista Raval, earlier Executive Director at SEBI overseeing the legal department.
Indian stock indices ended 2005 at a new high and without the anticipated year-end hammering, but not before volatile swings of nearly 200 points at the beginning of the week caused panic among large brokers and investors. We learn that a celebrated bull operator had dumped a significant chunk of his holdings in anticipation of a sharp correction and was even short in the futures market. When uncertainty over the Reliance demerger seemed unlikely to trigger a big correction, he desperately bought back everything he sold and some more, triggering Wednesday’s 197 point Sensex rise. Investment analysts are now extremely bullish in anticipation of fresh asset allocations in 2006 and there is no talk about a correction anymore.