Shouries 180-degree Turn With Dhirubhai

Updated: Jul 7 2003, 05:30am hrs
Though almost every politician of any consequence knew Dhirubhai Ambani well, few had the courage to admit it publicly. But a year after his death, on a rain-swept day in Mumbai, it was time for some of Indias top politicians to acknowledge the enormous influence and contribution of the late Reliance group patriarch. The occasion: the first Dhirubhai Ambani Memorial Lecture, delivered by APJ Abdul Kalam, the President of India.

But the spotlight was clearly on Arun Shourie, former firebrand journalist and now iconic minister for disinvestment, communication and information technology in the Vajpayee government. Clearly not your typical politician- minister, Mr Shourie recalled how his acquaintance with Dhirubhai went through an almost 180-degree turn over the years.

Mr Shouries brief but brilliant speech, peppered with anecdotes, came even as top political bosses of all hues and affiliations from Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to former finance minister Manmohan Singh to Digvijay Singh to Mulayam Singh, Maharashtra chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal paid tribute to the spirit of Dhirubhai Ambani, with most of them candidly acknowledging the close relationship they shared with the man.

Said Mr Shourie: I first learnt about him through the articles of my colleague S Gurumurthy. The point of most of the articles was that Reliance had done something in excess of what had been licensed, it was producing in excess of that capacity. And then, he explained how times had changed: Most 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. And that the Dhirubhais are to be thanked, not once but twice over: they set up world class companies and facilities in spite of those regulations, and thus laid the foundations for the growth all of us claim credit for today...

Second, by exceeding the limits in which those restrictions sought to impound them, they helped create the case for scrapping those regulations, they helped make the case for reforms, Mr Shourie said.

Admitting to having faced unbelievable pressures to have Reliance disqualified in the divestment process for petrochemicals company Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd (IPCL), he said: From those days to the day Reliance won the bid for IPCL, the price per share was Rs 100 or Rs 200. Dhirubhai bid Rs 231 per share. He won his bid was almost twice that of the nearest rival, the Indian Oil Corporation. Government and, as time will show, the country were the immediate, and huge gainers.

He said while there were pressures to keep Reliance out, the position in government was that the guidelines for qualification and disqualification had been settled. If Reliance fell afoul of those guidelines, it must be disqualified, no matter what; if it did not, it must be allowed to bid, no matter what. As simple as anything can be. But, he said, Those who remember their Clausewitz will remember his dictum just because a thing is simple does not mean it is easy. The pressures brought not just this transaction, they brought almost the whole disinvestment programme to a halt.

Recalling that Dhirubhai never contacted me during the disinvestment process of IPCL, he, however, said in his inimitable style: But, obviously, he was getting to know what was going on for he had sources in places where mere journalists like me dont even know there are places. Dhirubhai rang him up after Reliance won IPCL, his voice choked with emotion, Mr Shourie recalled. Actually, I hadnt realised that the contest had meant so much to him. I had been merely implementing the government policy, he said. Describing Dhirubhai as a journalists staple he was always full of information, and even more delicious he was full of anecdotes, Mr Shourie also recalled how Dhirubhai had once advised Rupert Murdoch to meet not only the right people but also the wrong people. I always meet the wrong people also. You see, they can stop what you want to get done! Dhirubai had told Mr Murdoch, recalled Mr Shourie, saying he always liked to pick up guru mantras from people like Dhirubhai.

Immediately after Mr Shourie finished speaking, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh recalled how every time he came to Mumbai, his evenings would be reserved for meetings with Dhirubhai. Dhirubhai would ask Kokilaben to find out whether I had a vrat (fast) that day, recalled Mr Singh, showering encomiums on the late Reliance group founder. I urge the President to consider awarding him a Bharat Ratna, he said, signing off. Mr Modi said his government had fulfilled Dhirubhais dream of bringing Narmada water to the Kutch-Saurashtra area, an announcement which drew immediate applause from the packed house. The Ambanis are partners in Gujarats progress, he declared. Gujarat is yours and will be so forever. Samajwadi Party boss Mulayam Singh said his decision to contest the 1996 Lok Sabha elections was in large measure due to Dhirubhai, who urged him to take the plunge.

The accolades over, the last word was left to the Peoples President, Dr Kalam. Said he, in a reference to the candour of the politicians: While I was hearing the gentlemen speak, I was thinking: what would Dhirubhai have done had he been here now I know what he would have done: he would have smiled! A knowing smile, surely.