Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Difficulty Of Being Wise - Is Anil Ambani akin to Duryodhana ?

#POST 0032

Duryodhana had many flaws but the most dangerous one was envy. He could not stand to see the Pandavas succeed and his envy is the driving force of the Mahabharata—driving it to war, death and destruction....
The sort of envy evinced by Duryodhana was not unfamiliar to me when I was growing up in Simla. My mother had a great and unrequited desire to be a part of Simla’s fashionable society. She envied those who belonged to ‘the club’, the glamorous Amateur Dramatic Club. She must have transmitted this to me, for I grew up with an acute concern over my position in society, comparing myself to those who had things that I did not possess, boys who were more attractive to girls than I was, and especially those who made it to the school cricket team....
In 2007, Anil Ambani was the fifth-richest person in the world according to the Forbes list of billionaires, but he was consumed with a Duryodhana-like envy for his more accomplished older brother, Mukesh, who was placed a notch higher on the list. Each brother had his Shakuni, who was happy to rig a game of dice in order to win the prize and destroy the other brother. Sibling rivalry within India’s wealthiest family was the longest-running soap opera in the country, having mesmerised millions for the past four years. It mattered to the nation because the enterprises of the two brothers accounted for three per cent of India’s GDP, 10 per cent of government tax revenues and 14 per cent of India’s exports. Millions of shareholders worried if their epic fight might devastate their life-long savings. I saw in this corporate and family feud a morality play and I wondered if the Mahabharata could shed some light.

Anil’s envy of Mukesh is as dangerous as Duryodhana’s. He cannot bear the fact that his brother has more fame than him.
The first scene of the play opens in Mumbai’s Kabutarkhana in 1964. The Ambani children are growing up in a single room in a fifth floor walk-up ‘chawl’ along with six members of their family. Their father, Dhirubhai Ambani, has just set himself up as a trader in synthetic yarn in the Pydhonie market. The son of a modest schoolteacher from a village near Porbunder in Gujarat, Dhirubhai has returned from Aden with Rs 15,000 in capital. He discovers that the demand for nylon and polyester fabrics is monumental whereas supply is scarce because of rigid government controls on production and imports. This is due to India’s socialist, command economy, created by Jawaharlal Nehru. Businesses have to contend with dozens of controls in this period, which Indians wryly call ‘Licence raj’. Dhirubhai takes great risks and soon corners government licences in the black market, and begins to make large monopoly profits. His competitors cry ‘foul’; his critics call him ‘corrupt’. He understands what Leftist politicians do not—polyester is destined to become a fabric for the poor whereas they tax and control it as though it was a luxury of the rich. Hence, the mismatch between demand and supply and a black market.
Act Two: Dhirubhai ploughs his profits from trading into a technologically advanced factory to make synthetic textiles, which is up and running in record time thanks to his proximity to prime minister Indira Gandhi’s secretary. The village boy soon becomes a master gamesman of the Licence raj, manipulating a decaying and corrupt regime of controls to his advantage. He integrates backwards to create an outstanding petrochemicals company, which first makes the raw material for the textiles—polyester fibre—and then basic polymers and chemicals, until he reaches the magic raw material, petroleum.
By now his sons are grown up. They are back from business school in America, and have plunged into his company, Reliance, which is growing at a scorching pace. Opponents predict its fall after the economic reforms in the 1990s, but Reliance continues to expand and it is soon India’s largest company instead. It builds the world’s largest oil refinery in the shortest time, thanks to the project management skills of Mukesh. Next, the company begins to explore for oil and gas. As luck will have it, Reliance makes the biggest petroleum find in the world in a decade—a mountain of gas off the shore of Andhra Pradesh. It is monumental and holds the promise of easing the import burden of a fast-growing, energy-starved nation. From the ‘prince of polyester’, Dhirubhai has become the undisputed king of industrial India.
In ’07, India had a Bhishma-like person on the throne. But he deferred to his party’s choice of Pratibha Patil as President.
Act Three opens in 2002 when the ‘king’ is dead. Three-and-a-half million middle-class shareholders (the largest in any enterprise in the world), who have become rich beyond their dreams, mourn his death. He leaves behind two highly accomplished sons, and power passes to the older, more sober Mukesh. The younger, flamboyant Anil marries a film star, Tina Munim, a girl with a past. He loves glamour and cultivates powerful politicians, and this does not go down well with the serious, older brother. Mukesh tries to marginalise his brother, but Anil retaliates. Filled with monumental envy for ‘the new king’, he launches an attack on his brother. In the fight, governance failures are revealed for the first time (about the family’s shareholding and the ownership structure of their new telecom venture). The stock plunges and the country watches in fear at the unfolding of an awesome tragedy. Finally, their mother—an anguished, Kunti-like figure caught in the middle—intervenes and splits the kingdom like Dhritarashtra. Three years later, both have prospered beyond their dreams and the value of the empire of each brother is more than double of the undivided kingdom.
The Ambani saga raises troubling moral questions. It is a classic rags-to-riches story—the ascent of a simple village boy who against all odds created a world-class, globally-competitive enterprise that has brought enormous prosperity to millions. But it is also a tale of deceit, bribery and the manipulation of a decaying and corrupt Licence raj. Ambani’s defenders argue that since his enterprises brought so much good to society, what is the harm if he manipulated an evil system and bribed politicians and bureaucrats? The government itself realised it and has been dismantling the system since 1991. But Ambani’s opponents counter, saying that it is never justified to break a law. Ends cannot justify the means. Other defenders believe that the uncertain business world is full of danger and surprise, and a certain amount of deception is necessary for business success.
Anil’s envy of Mukesh is as dangerous as Duryodhana’s. He cannot bear the fact that his brother has far more power and fame than he does. He burns inside each time the media extols Mukesh’s awesome managerial skills. Had the mother not intervened, the rivalry might have hurtled over the top towards a Kurukshetra-like war, which might have destroyed the whole enterprise, and with it the lives of millions of people. The drama is by no means over. In 2009, Mukesh had moved up to being the third-richest person in the world while Anil had slid to being number seven. There continued to be a huge amount of bad blood and dozens of court cases were pending between the two brothers.
But envy had certainly driven Anil to perform to great heights, and the value of the enterprises of each brother was far greater than if they had kept united. Dharma draws a fine line between the positive and negatives sides of competition, and it is easily crossed as we have seen recently in the global financial crisis in 2008. Competition did put great pressure on investment bankers, rating agencies and other players to bend the rules of decent conduct in the market for US housing mortgages. But when they justified their acts as rational behaviour based on the healthy competition, they slipped into the arena of self-deception. To meet the relentless demand of the bottomline and the incentive of a huge but unseemly bonus, many senior executives compromised their character.

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