July 8, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

A Superman named Ambani

The statistics are mindboggling. Reliance manufactures a full 3% of India's Gross Domestic Product. It is responsible for 5% of India's exports. It contributes 10% of the indirect tax revenues of the Government of India. It commands 15% of the weightage on the Sensex. It makes 30% of the total profits of all private companies in India put together...

But, it is not about the numbers. To know Reliance, you had to know Dhirubhai Ambani the man -- the flinty businessman who was generous to a fault, gruff yet blessed with a sly sense of humour that spared nobody -- including himself.

In 40 years as a scrivener it has been my privilege to know many of the mighty in this land. But it has been rare to record that it has also been a pleasure to meet them. Dhirubhai was one of those few.

We had a private joke. After bombarding me with those statistics cited above, Dhirubhai would pause. Then he would add, "And I did it all single-handed!" And then he would guffaw. Because he lost use of his right hand after his first stroke in 1986; for 16 years he was literally single-handed. It was his way of mocking that cliche about rags-to-riches entrepreneurs doing everything 'single-handed.' And, perhaps, of cocking a snook at the fates as well.

Which he did rather well for decades. The odds were certainly against his achieving even a minimal financial security when he set out all those years ago, leave alone becoming a billionaire. We all know the story -- the son of a Gujarati school-teacher, a man whose first job was as a petrol-pump attendant in a remote corner of the Persian Gulf.

I have known corporate bluebloods who tried to rewrite their histories, but not Dhirubhai. When Reliance entered the petroleum sector, he came up with a classic quip: "I began by pumping oil and my family has ensured I shall end by pumping more oil!"

Setting up the fifth largest refinery on Earth -- the largest greenfield plant ever -- wasn't even a twinkle in Dhirubhai's eye 30 years ago. In 1972 he was a yarn trader, driving around Bombay in a ten year-old Fiat with samples in the boot and on the back-seat. All he thought of then was starting a textile mill -- which he did, in Ahmedabad, the genesis of the corporate giant we call Reliance.

Somewhere along the way he became 'India's first Public Sector entrepreneur.' Much of this country's so-called 'private sector' was nothing of the kind. They would raise money from the public sector -- IDBI, IFCI, LIC, UTI, and various banks.

In the history of the Indian market, there are two distinct eras -- 'Before Dhirubhai' and 'After Dhirubhai'. In the first, we invested in gold (land if we could afford it). The exchange was just another arena reserved for the rich. That changed forever when Reliance went public in January 1978. Dhirubhai Ambani didn't just go over the heads of the financial institutions, he created a new class of Indians -- middle-class investors.

Buying into the Ambani legend was one of the wisest decisions they ever made. They may not have known the intricate dances of the bulls and the bears. But they knew what the Reliance scrip represented -- money to pay for a child's education, a parent's hospital bills, or just a long-cherished holiday.

Owning Reliance stock was as good as money in the bank. (Better, it kept pace with all that pesky inflation.) That confidence in Reliance stood on a bedrock of performance. When did you hear of Ambani projects being late or over-budget?

It wasn't just Indians who bought into Dhirubhai's dreams, so did the hard-nosed analysts in the New York Stock Exchange. Which other Indian had even hoped to raise capital with a 100-year bond?!

Reliance's success in the tough American market was foreordained. Dhirubhai's company carries his genes, and if there is one thing that everyone agreed about him it was that he was a competitor. It never mattered who the opponent was -- media baron Ramnath Goenka, corporate rivals like Bombay Dyeing, or even, in V P Singh's day, the Government of India itself -- you could always trust the Ambanis to fight. And win.

But Dhirubhai was like the coconut -- tough outside, soft inside. A friend was someone to be cherished at all costs.

Dhirubhai, an unabashed admirer of Indira Gandhi, supported her decision to impose the Emergency. But there are at least two families who have reason to be grateful to him; when the bread-winners were jailed, Dhirubhai ensured the families didn't suffer, the education of the children least of all. And there are hearts in Delhi -- I know of half-a-dozen -- which continue to beat because of timely aid from the patriarch of Reliance. (It was never Dhirubhai's style to grab credit for all this; respecting this I draw a cloak of anonymity over names.)

Physical disability and advancing years never seemed to leave their mark on Dhirubhai. "The problem with Indians," he once told me, "is that we have lost the habit of thinking big!" That fault could never be laid at his door.

Two years ago he stunned me with his vision of a canal system that could solve water problems in Gujarat and Rajasthan once and for all. It was as if he wanted to revive the river Saraswati, drawing her back to her Rig Vedic course (though he didn't put it that way). It was a mammoth scheme, one that might have entailed Pakistan's cooperation (which Dhirubhai waved away as a minor detail).

'Faster than a speeding bullet!' runs the description of Superman, 'Able to change the course of mighty rivers...' Those privileged to know the man, and millions of investors who adored him from afar, knew that Superman's true identity was not 'Clark Kent' but a quick-thinking Indian called 'Dhirubhai.'

The Ambani saga

T V R Shenoy

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