Posted by: John Elliott | October 3, 2010

Ambani & Sons – revived from the Polyester Prince they pulped

There are several ways for an author to measure the success of a book, the most obvious being reviews, circulation, and royalties. Three others apply to The Polyester Prince, Hamish McDonald’s first book on Reliance, one of India’s two biggest groups, which was published in Australia in 1998, but not in India because of intense legal and other pressure from the Ambani family that controls the group. 

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Firstly, the non-appearance of the book in India boosted its value to such an extent that five copies are currently on sale on Amazon.com for between an astonishing $350 and $999, and two are on Amazon.co.uk for £250 and nearly £800. The book was originally priced in Australia at Aus$29.95.  

Secondly, a scruffy and badly printed pirated version has been on sale for the last couple of years on the streets of Mumbai and Delhi (for around Rs300). 

Thirdly, the first book and its subject have been regarded important enough for Mr McDonald to have written, and found an eager Indian publisher (as well as one in Australia), for this second work Ambani & Sons, which includes 16 of the original chapters plus six more (and a short epilogue) that bring the story more or less up to date. 

This is a significant book because it details the controversies when Reliance Industries (RIL) was being built up by Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder who died in 2002. Unlike most other Indian businessmen, who prospered mainly by manipulating the country’s pre-1991 economic controls, he combined ruthless fixing of government decisions with strong and effective management. 

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 Pramod Kapur of Roli Books, the publisher of Ambani & Sons, persuaded Mr McDonald to sanitise parts of the book by removing or trimming some controversial passages from The Polyester Prince. Many of them however still appear in a new Australian edition, Mahabharata in Polyester

An alleged physical attack on Tina, a film star whose pending  marriage to Anil Ambani, Dhirubhai’s younger son was being opposed by the Ambani family, has gone from the introductory chapter, along with an attempted murder allegation (though the latter appears later). 

Several references to the Gandhi family and their acolytes and senior ministers (including Pranab Mukherjee, now finance minister) have been toned down or deleted, along with reference to a “parting gift” given in March 1977 by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Just before a general election (that she lost), she exempted polyester yarn (a major Reliance input) from import duties, giving “a gift of Rs37.5m to Dhirubhai”. 

Hamish McDonald

 The most disappointing deletion is how Mr McDonald started work on The Polyester Prince but, after some initial co-operation, was blocked by Reliance and eventually received legal warnings –culminating in the Indian edition being abandoned by Harper Collins, the publisher. 

But this does not detract from the value of Ambani & Sons. The book successfully chronicles the rise and rise of the Ambani’s both in terms of huge commercial success, and in terms of how government was suborned and policies bent, stock markets manipulated, competitors unethically harassed and undermined, opponents pursued with vendettas, and business partners and suppliers treated roughly. Politicians, bureaucrats, editors, journalists and others were corrupted and used to achieve monopoly or dominant market share at the expense of competitors. 

The book’s new section reports that this is continued by Dhirubhai’s two sons, Mukesh and Anil, in the separate businesses (RIL and R-ADAG) that they run following their very public spats and eventual split five years ago. The book cites manipulating government officials and decisions on land for special economic zones and a seaport, and on other project approvals, plus possibly illicit use of some land in Mumbai where Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man (worth $27bn), and his wife Nita are building an outrageously ostentatious multi-storey home. 

The early years are chronicled in detail because Mr McDonald was in India for part of the time as the correspondent for the Far East Economic Review. Now living in Australia, he has inevitably had to be more broad brush with the new chapters. 

There could for example have been more study of Reliance fixing government policy on mobile telephony, and the broader significance of the Ambani-sponsored Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation which, as the book says, cultivates influential figures such as Brajesh Mishra who ran the prime minister’s office and much else in the 1998-2004 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

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 There is little mention of Anil Ambani’s financial inventiveness and controversial stock market flotations, nor analysis of the significance of Mukesh Ambani’s problems with ventures in retail shops and stores, petrol stations, farm produce and special economic zones. Would Dhirubhai have allowed such calamities to develop, or were they inevitable when Mukesh Ambani moved out of RIL’s core areas, and in a changed economic era? Certainly the problems show that Mukesh Ambani’s clout has limitations. 

The rights and wrong of doing business Ambani-style are still being debated. As the book mentions, some argue (amazingly) that busting government regulations, such as India’s old economic controls, is justifiable if they were bad regulations and were subsequently changed. That is an argument controversially put forward by Arun Shourie, a writer and former BJP minister, at a meeting to commemorate the first anniversary of Dhirubhai’s death. 

But whatever the moral judgments, there is no doubt that the brothers – especially Mukesh Ambani – are emerging from the past in terms of image, and are being accepted internationally at the top table of business and government.  Perhaps to underpin that, Mukesh Ambani is rumoured to be writing his own book focussing on his father’s achievements 

It is noteworthy that he has just been chosen by P.R.S. ‘Biki’ Oberoi as a white knight and 14.8% investor in East India Hotels (EIH), which runs the hotel chain and needs both cash for expansion and a guarantee of a long-term future. The Ambanis have not been seen in the past as reliable or comfortable joint venture partners, so this will be watched as a test case, as is a joint venture struck two years ago with Marks & Spencer, a British store group that nominally has control with a 51% equity stake. 

And the Ambanis have not tried to stop publication of Ambani & Sons –  indicating perhaps a new level of maturity as well as acceptance. 

This book review also appears today in a slightly shorter form in the Mail on Sunday, a Delhi newspaper – http://epaper.mailtoday.in

* Ambani & Sons – The making of the world’s richest brothers and their feud
by Hamish McDonald, Publisher: Roli Books, New Delhi

* Mahabharata in Polyester – The making of the world’s richest brothers and their feud
by Hamish McDonald, Publisher: New South (University of New South Wales Press), Sydney 

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