Dhirubhai Ambani and the stories that need telling
July 26, 2000
Why aren't there more accurate biographies about Indian leaders? Or rather, why are Indian biographies usually worshipful eulogies of their subjects? The answer probably lies in the fate of Hamish McDonald's book on Dhirubhai Ambani titled The Polyester Prince.
Usually biographies in India are commissioned works -- sanitised and censored. As McDonald says -- 'No one (the subject of the biographies) drank, cursed, cheated or philandered. Their workers were part of the family. Almost everyone lived an abstemious vegetarian life, accumulating wealth only to give it away to temples, hospitals and schools.'
That is indeed true. Forget about biographies, Indian journalists are normally very reticent about being critical unless their subject is caught in a scam or a scandal. Independent biographies do not pay because publishers claim that the market is too small to cover research, marketing and publicity costs.
Newspaper groups too are uninterested in helping their journalists in doing detailed reportage into books. Hamish McDonald's experience with his book on Dhirubhai Ambani -- one of India's most controversial industrialists -- is a good example of what would happen to authors who dare to be frank and independent.
Published in 1998, the book is still not available in Indian bookshops because the Ambanis have threatened legal action for anything they perceive as defamatory in the book. This ban of sorts has, in fact, increased the curiosity value of the book. A small but steady stream of books continues to be brought into India from friends or relatives living abroad. Those who know of its existence want to buy/borrow or photocopy it. In fact, the book probably made it to print only because the publishers -- Allen & Unwin -- are Australian and decided to take a chance selling the book outside India.
Why should Reliance work overtime to block the book? After all, the author, a senior journalist, was the Delhi bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review for several years, and had written a responsible and painstakingly researched account that respects Ambani's undoubted genius but is candid about his ethics and methods. Also, I know about Hamish's persistent efforts to get the Ambanis to co-operate with its writing. He sent birthday greetings to the Ambanis and even tried to soften Kokilaben Ambani (Dhirubhai's wife) by presenting her with a copy of a rare art book, which he thought would interest her. There was neither a reply nor acknowledgement.
Sources close to the Ambanis bluntly say the first book about Dhirubhai will be a pretty, airbrushed hagiography in the style of those published by all major industry houses.
The Polyester Prince is an accurate portrait of one of the most colourful, controversial and brilliant of Indian businessmen, who converted into an art; the bending and twisting of the stifling license-permit system to his advantage. It traces his humble beginnings at Chorwad in Gujarat to being in the Forbes list of the world's richest men.
As McDonald says in the book, 'Everything about the Ambanis, in fact, was a good magazine story.' If Anil Ambani's stormy courtship of Tina Munim, whom Hamish describes as 'a girl with a past' has all the ingredients of a Bollywood potboiler, then the saga of Dhirubhai's rise to being among the most powerful men in India is significantly more dramatic and awesome. There is the fight-to-the-finish battle with Ramnath Goenka -- the fiery and fearless proprietor of the Indian Express; then the war with industrialist Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing; the much publicised allegations against some Ambani staffers over a plot to murder Wadia; Reliance's travails during the V P Singh government, which almost brought the business house to its knees, and sundry other controversies over licensed capacities, export manipulation and share switching. It also narrates how Reliance created the equity cult which got the general public investing in equity and investors' reciprocal adulation for the man for over a decade.
McDonald uses his skill as a journalist to paint an accurate picture and to bring in the unsavory aspects of Reliance's dealing with business rivals without attracting charges of defamation. The book candidly traces Dhirubhai's uncanny knack of tweaking and capturing political and bureaucratic power -- Ambani's equation with Indira Gandhi and her family and their powerful minions, as well as the suitcases of cash which Indian business houses used to engineer changes in tariffs and duties for specific products. At the same time, McDonald finally portrays Dhirubhai as a visionary with unconventional ways of fulfilling his mega plans.
India needs more books like The Polyester Prince to create a real record of business leaders and the corporate sector -- warts and all. Personally, I believe that a market for such work already exists, but it would require publishers to do some hard selling.
While working on my own book, a biography of A D Shroff -- a financial genius who straddled several banking, finance and insurance institutions, until his death in 1965, I realised how much was lost in presenting a sanitised picture. My book too was a commissioned job -- by the Forum of Free Enterprise, but probably because of AD's fiercely forthright personality, it allowed me a little more freedom to discuss his shortcomings. But a lot was kept out, and again the book was restricted to his brilliant career and not his equally colourful personal life.
The same goes for J R D Tata. I read all of R M Lala's works on JRD and they are indeed detailed and fascinating works. But while researching the A D Shroff book I had an opportunity to sift through records of his interaction with JRD and Sir Homi Mody and others. Their correspondence brings alive the impish humor, caustic sarcasm, occasional pettiness, temper tantrums and other little shenanigans.
To me, for the first time in 16 years, JRD changed from a revered business leader into an extremely human and lovable personality. In fact a person with such a towering personality that he was able to attract brilliant people around him and allow them to grow without any sense of threat or insecurity.
I would personally like to see genuine biographies of several Indian businesspersons who are clearly fascinating subjects. Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing, Homi Mody, Darbari Seth and Ajit Kerkar are others from the Tata empire whose lives need to be documented. Similarly there are stories to be told about organisations and institutions. Unfortunately, without a little awakening on the part of publishers all these will probably remain untold.