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Ambani was direct and full of ideas: Shourie

A correspondent in Mumbai | July 06, 2003 16:52 IST

The eight portraits of Dhirubhai Ambani, founder chairman of the Reliance Group of Industries, smiled down from the wall behind the dais, even as Divestment Minister Arun Shourie rose to speak at a function where President A P J Abdul Kalam delivered the first Dhirubhai Ambani Memorial Lecture at the NCPA in Mumbai on Sunday.

Shourie's tribute the patriarch of the Reliance group on his first death anniversary was a blend of sparkling wit and some hard talk.

He said that he had learnt of Dhirubhai's 'guru mantra' (a truism) that everyone must follow. He recounted Rupert Murdoch's meeting with Dhirubhai some years ago, after the media baron had met with some top Indian politicians in matters pertaining to his foray into the country.

Ambani, said Shourie, told Murdoch that "you have met all the right people. But, apart from meeting the right people, you must also meet the wrong people. You see, they ('the wrong people') can stop what you want to get done."

"This was his guru mantra. And I can testify," Shourie said, "from personal knowledge, that one must follow it. I face the cost of not following it every day as I try to implement government's decisions on divestment!"

Shourie said that Dhirubhai was a very resourceful industrialist and always knew exactly what was happening in the corridors of powers. "He had sources in places, where mere journalists like me did not even know there were places!" he said making the auditorium resound with guffaws.

The divestment minister said that his relationship with Dhirubhai Ambani, over a span of time, went through 'an 180 degree turn'.

"I first learnt about him through the articles of my colleague S Gurumurthy (the Chennai-based convenor of Swadeshi Jagran Manch). The point in most of the articles was that Reliance had done something in excess of what had been licensed to do. It was producing in excess of capacity. Most people would say today that those restrictions and conditions should not have been there in the first place, that they are what held the country back," he said.

"But Dhirubhai should be thanked for exceeding the limits in which those restrictions sought to impound them as it helped to create a case for scrapping those regulations and helping push forward India's (economic) reforms," he said.

"We were all convinced that persons like him had done the country a service. He was always direct and full of ideas about what the country should do, if only it would be allowed to do it," he said.

Striking a slightly serious note earlier on, he said that there were 'unbelievable pressures to disqualify Reliance' from buying a stake in Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd, when it came up for divestment, and these forces almost derailed the entire sell-off process.

"The pressures brought not just this transaction but almost the whole divestment programme to a halt. However, Reliance, which ultimately won the bid for IPCL, had quoted a price of Rs 231 per share as against the then prevailing IPCL price of Rs 100-120 per share," he said.

"The bid was almost twice that of the nearest rival, IOC (Indian Oil Corporation), and the country was the immediate gainer," said Shourie.

He said the government was quite firm on the issue and strictly followed the divestment guidelines, which would either qualify or disqualify bidders.

"If Reliance fell foul of those guidelines, it must be disqualified, no matter what. If it did not, it must be allowed to bid, no matter what," said Shourie.

"Throughout the period, Dhirubhai never contacted me as he knew what was going on from his sources," said the divestment minister.

"After Reliance won the bid for IPCL, Dhirubhai called me and in said choked voice 'I know what you have been put through -- anyone else would have given up. I will never forget. I do not care about business. I care about relationship. No one in my family will never forget'," the divestment minister reminisced.

When Shourie walked back to take his seat on the dais, Dhirubhai's portraits were still smiling. . .

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