Poor sequel

Written by Sunil Jain | Updated: Oct 3 2010, 06:02am hrs
The Ambanis might have ensured The Polyester Prince, a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani, never saw the light of day in India. The sequel, Ambani & Sons, has had no such problem. Why The first, and most obvious, when Dhirubhai was alive, no Indian industrialist even came near him, in either ambition or money (Gita Piramal suggests Ambani stands for ambition and money!). Today, the 27-storey Antilla notwithstanding, the Ambanis are a lot more approachableamong the big losers in the last burst of the Sensex, Ambani companies RIL and RCom were among the worst affected. During the 32 months it took for the Sensex to reach 20,000 points, RIL fell 34.7% and RCom 77.7% (Infosys rose 103.7%, TCS 103% and Tata Motors 44.62%). The Brothers Ambani are colossally huge, but theyre no longer the only game in town.

Second, sadly for the former New Delhi bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review, the other reason why the new book has sailed through is that it isnt a patch on the old one. Its not just that three-fourths of the book is the same as the one written way back in 1998, though thats a major minus, theres no earth-shattering new nugget of information thats not already known. So why even bother to try to ban the book

To be sure, McDonald has enough stuff to satisfy the lay the non-cognoscenti. So it has details of the inconsequential-looking Item No. 17 in the Reliance board meeting of July 27, 2004. Youd never look at an item that said it was to approve constitution of a health safety and environment committee. Well, it also said something about delegation of authority and, in that, there was a line which said Anil Ambani would work under the overall authority of Mukesh! Theres also the text of the e-mail written by one-time Mukesh ally Akhil Gupta protesting against the access deficit charge scam, where Reliance switched the numbers on international calls to pretend they were local calls, as this would help it avoid paying hundreds of crore of ADC chargesGupta even says there is an attempt to pass on the scam as his idea, while his earlier mail makes it clear he was against the idea.

Whats missing is the detail, the right dialogue, the juxtaposing of events to show the undercurrents of tension. June 18, 2005, for instance, was a day of celebrations in the post-Dhirubhai world. It marked the end of a year of a no-holds-barred fight between the Ambani brothers, nearly three years if you take the day patriarch Dhirubhai Ambani died (July 6, 2002) as the starting date. Mother Kokilaben Ambani had just put together an agreement that both brothers agreed to, after months of tough negotiations. The warring factions met at the Oberoi Towers to ink the deal. Anil was so excited, he even leaked the broad details of the agreement before Mukesh made the formal announcement. Kokilabens press release began with the blessings of Srinathji.

Not quite. Around a year later, the agreement began unraveling. On June 17, 2005 (June and July, it would appear, are always months of great significance in the Ambani family), RIL wrote a letter to NTPC, essentially saying it was pulling out of its gas contractthis should have alerted Anil as to what was in store for him. Seven months after this, in the early hours of January 10, 2006, at 12:27 am to be precise, Anil aide JP Chalasani got a mail from Atul Tandon of RIL, informing him of a board meeting of Reliance Natural Resources Ltd the next day. Heres the catch: RNRL was to go to Anil and it was the company which would get the gas from RIL, but it was still controlled by Mukesh. So, Mukeshs left hand, RIL, signed a contract with his right hand, RNRL. The board meeting lasted all of five minutes and a complicated formula, AQn= [(GPnGSn) x RP] [0.03 x GPn] Nn, ensured Anil wouldnt get too much gas. This meeting, among others, was the reason why Anil went to court and why the court told RIL it had to renegotiate and get a bankable contract. No, none of this is in the book.

If the beginning was so gripping, what followed was a lot more. Anil Ambani spilled details of his brothers sweat equity, the favours given to telecom minister Pramod Mahajan (this is in the book), made allegations about how the petroleum regulator who cleared the ramp up in his brothers capital costs of the KG basin project (the higher the capex, the less he had to pay government) had received a flat as a gift from Mukesh (the regulator was removed and an investigation is going on); a detailed presentation by the Anil gang alleged the competitive gas price got by Mukesh was actually rigged. All of this, and a lot more, it is reasonable to expect, should have been an integral part of Ambani & Sons. But till theres a book with all the detail, I suppose its okay to read this one.