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Home > Business > Columnists > Sucheta Dalal

The Ambani dream, and a mysterious absence

January 02, 2003

Anil Ambani, Reliance vice chairman. Photo: ReutersThe high-voltage launch of Reliance Infocomm was billed by Corporate India as the Mukesh and Nita Ambani mega event. But the person who really stole the show was Anil Ambani -- and he wasn't even there.

Although the media has made just the one cryptic comment about Anil Ambani's conspicuous absence, the business community hasn't stopped buzzing about its implications since December 27.

For many months now, the corporate grapevine has been rife with reports that all is not well between the two brothers.

For starters, Mukesh Ambani has taken over as the Reliance spokesperson -- a job that Anil handled for several years. And Anil has been spotted mainly at FICCI seminars, or playing journalist-interrogator or moderator at high profile corporate events.

However, the launch of Reliance Infocomm -- billed as the fructification of Dhirubhai Ambani's dream -- seems to have brought the problems out in the open.

The Ambanis certainly aren't going public with their differences yet; but yes, a discussion about a possible rift in the Ambani family, more specifically between Reliance's chairman and managing director (Mukesh) and vice chairman and managing director (Anil) is a matter of public interest.

Reliance is India's largest private sector company with massive on-going investments running into several tens of thousand crore rupees in areas as diverse as oil exploration and telecom, and its investors are interested in any issue that could impact its management and performance.

The Economic Times reports two official explanations for Anil's absence -- one version says that he was ill and at home being looked after by his star wife. The second version (from a PR official) said that he was in Delhi negotiating some business proposals.

Neither version seems plausible. In the past, the Ambanis have always presented a public image of the big happy Bollywood style Indian joint family -- the patriarch and his wife, their devoted sons, dutiful daughters-in-law and a gaggle of happy grandchildren.

This was the first time that a Reliance mega event had only two stars --Mukesh and his wife Nita.

There was a cameo performance by his mother, Kokilaben Ambani and of course an 'item' by Communications Minister Pramod Mahajan, who persuaded the prime minister to launch the service with a poem.

Even Reliance Infocomm's long television advertisement geared to cash in on brand Dhirubhai is all about Mukesh fulfilling his father's telecom vision.

Anil has been carefully edited out, even from an annual general meeting clip, where the two sons had invariably flanked the father on two sides.

There was another notable difference. As I see it, Mukesh Ambani is attempting to project Reliance as a professional company by airing his top management team for the first time.

Although it is well known that Reliance hires top talent, its senior most executives have always remained in the shadows. Mukesh Ambani's team, are also his close friends or former classmates. Starting with his cousins, the Meswani brothers Nikhil and Hetal, it also comprises Akhil Gupta, Manoj Modi, Anand Jain, Satish Sheth and Amitabh Jhunjhunwala.

Anil Ambani's friends are mainly outside the company -- the Godrejs (Adi and Parmeshwar), Amitabh Bachchan and businessman-turned-MP Amar Singh.

None of them was present at the launch of Reliance Infocomm. Most of them weren't even there at the release of the Dhirubhai Ambani stamp on December 28, the day that would have been his 70th birthday.

But Anil Ambani confounded corporate watchers by being present at what was a personal honour to his late father -- and in doing so extended the mystery about what is going on with India's first business family.

But let us move on to Reliance Infocomm, which is more about Mukesh Ambani's vision rather than the publicity line about it being Dhirubhai Ambani's dream. What is it offering to consumers? And how will it change the telecom business and the nation?

Well, nothing much is known about it yet, other than Pramod Mahajan's endorsement of its nerve centre in Mumbai being 'better than NASA.'

It has only announced several schemes and a marketing plan that involves recruiting and army of 'Dhirubhai Ambani Entrepreneurs' (DEA) who will pay Reliance some hefty deposits before they work at bring in the subscribers to its telecom services.

These would-be Dhirubhai Ambanis are busy using mass mail databases to hard sell its phone service.

One mail that I received says -- Talk Free Unlimited Time for Incoming Calls, Access Internet and Get Handset JUST for Rs 300 / Month for next three years.

The details show that you need to make hefty down payments -- either Rs 21,000 (plan I) or Rs 3,000 on a three-year loan plan.

The schemes offer several freebies, but I, like many of Reliance's potential customers, am not really interested in the details yet. I am more interested in how the tariff structure will change when Reliance's schemes actually become operational.

Like everybody else, I am looking carefully at what the competition has to say. The Tatas with Hughes Tele and Tata Teleservices and the exact same technology as Reliance, are a company to watch out for.

Furthermore, Sunil Mittal and Prithipal Singh, chiefs of the Bharti group and Bharat Sanchar Nigam, respectively, have already asked consumers to watch out for their new tariff plans.

The BSNL chief told the media, all operators will undoubtedly switch to a 15 second pulse. Also, if Reliance finds ways to lower local call tariffs, they may match its offer.

As for Sunil Mittal, the man who initiated the steep dive in telecom tariffs and is the most watched man in the business today, has promised tariffs that will 'delight' consumers in January. And one can safely bet that consumers wait for Mittal to make his move.

But then, Reliance Infocomm is pitching itself as more than a mere telephone company. Mukesh Ambani's media interviews suggest that he wants to draw you into the Reliance family and give you everything you need -- from piped gas in your house, your Net connection to the world entertainment via the optic fibre links, schools, and hospitals for the family.

One report said that it would even set up cyber cafes, which would make your favourite coffee bar redundant.

Has this happened anywhere in the world? No.

Even the biggest companies in the world have some degree of synergy between the services it provides. They are either into food, or telecom or oil exploration -- nobody has ever aspired to become the one-stop shop for all your living needs.

Reliance this time is dreaming a dream that the world's biggest companies haven't dared to. A bigger plan than a Bill Gates has ever envisioned.

Can it be done? Well, Dhirubhai's answer would probably be: "Of course. Why not."

But the more rational among us would be forgiven for our doubts.

Sucheta Dalal

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