The reporter was Hamish McDonald, an Australian who had written an un flattering account of Indonesian strongman Suharto ten years earlier. Suharto’s Indonesia explained how the former Indonesian military ruler’s tortured upbringing made him incapable of reining in his family’s corrupt dealings. The book, published in January 1980, was a captivating collection of first-hand impressions and accounts seamed together from his stay in Jakarta between 1975 and 1978, when he freelanced for the Sydney Morning Herald, Washington Post and Financial Times.
McDonald was well-versed with turmoil, and possessed the hard-nosed reporter’s penchant for sniffing out news. New Delhi, in that smoggy December of 1990, was certainly in turmoil, or at least the political climate was. Chandra Shekhar had only the previous month pulled the rug from under the feet of the Janata Dal-led National Front ministry of Vishwanath Pratap Singh, and become Prime Minister of the breakaway Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP)-led government supported from the outside by the Congress. Economic reforms were yet to be heard of, secessionist militancy was on an ascendancy in Kashmir, and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was running a parallel administration in Assam. The country was at a cusp, and it was an opportune time for a journalist to land in India.
The weekly FEER covered politics, business, economics, technology, social and cultural issues throughout Asia, but focused on Southeast Asia and Greater China; McDonald was therefore here to do stories that delved beyond the headlines for a non-Indian readership. The political turbulence and uncertainty in India provided only a happening backdrop; the discerning eye of the FEER’s South Asia bureau chief sifted through the political clutter and hovered around a businessman: Dhirubhai Ambani, founder of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL). The meteoric rise and the unmistakable clout of Ambani struck McDonald’s journalistic fancy: ‘Dhirubhai Ambani embodied all of the revolutionary capitalism that sympathetic and impatient analysts within the Western paradigm believed was lurking inside the Indian economy, pressing to be released from bureaucracy.’
The friendly days
Only the following month after landing in Delhi, McDonald attended the wedding of Dhirubhai’s younger son, Anil. The interaction mattered to both sides—McDonald was looking for that upbeat business story, and the ambitious Reliance, planning to expand beyond the uninspiring Indian shores, needed favourable mileage in a foreign magazine. For Reliance Industries, this would be nothing short of a public relations exercise. An exclusive with the Ambani patriarch materialised the next month, and the FEER journalist soon had a sprawling cover story which ‘portrayed Ambani as the business underdog trying to break through the government’s red tape and the prejudices of a tired Bombay (Mumbai) business establishment.’
It all went ‘swimmingly’, as McDonald remembered. ‘Tony Jesudasan (a key Reliance executive and aide of Dhirubhai’s younger son Anil Ambani) would ring me and feed me with bits of news. I was in that kind of circle, ‘Reliance friends’, I guess.’
Reliance Industries wanted to showcase itself as the modern corporation as opposed to the old family firms established in colonial times or those that had prospered in the 1950s after Independence during the Licence Raj—an era when elaborate licences and regulations had to be negotiated to set up businesses—and had passed on the company leadership to the second and third generations. What went unsaid or was muttered only in hushed tones was that Reliance too had made the best of the Licence Raj by having rules bent and regulations twisted to suit its business interests.
The Reliance story had McDonald in its grip then on. ‘I guess I was sucked in a bit. It was of course a good story. It was the usual story, you know—that of the amazing tycoon who inspired the share ownership among the emerging Indian middle class, who managed to keep his share prices and dividends rising, who amazingly, through these years had held meetings in football stadiums, and was kind of a rock star of the corporate world,’ McDonald was to say of the Ambani czar.
McDonald’s relations with Reliance remained cordial, even as the company gradually started growing bigger on foreign shores with the era of liberalisation being ushered from June 1991 onwards by the PV Narasimha Rao government, especially finance minister Manmohan Singh, the unrepentant advocate of economic reforms. McDonald needed a bigger canvas to tell both the story of Ambani and the interface between business and politics; the idea of a book to do this fleetingly crossed his mind in 1992. He shared his thoughts at his second meeting with Ambani, who was ‘receptive’ to the idea and felt that his story would indeed be an inspiration for younger Indians. McDonald agreed to bounce the final draft of the manuscript off Ambani, and the understanding was that the former would retain the right of final say.
But life has its own way of making course corrections. Towards the end of 1993, there were rumours of government tenders being rigged in favour of Reliance Industries for the awarding of contracts for oil exploration in the Arabian Sea. McDonald faced a difficult choice at hand—write about what was being seen as a ‘one-horse race,’ or soft-pedal on the issue since he needed cooperation from the family and the company for the book. The reporter decided that his loyalties at the end of the day lay with the magazine he worked for, and wrote diligently on the Panna-Mukta oilfields and Tapti gas fields in the offshore Mumbai basin off India’s west coast. The first of the two articles prompted Anil Ambani to describe it as ‘defamatory;’ not in the form of a legal notice, but in a cribbing letter to the head of Australian resources giant BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary, now the British-Australian company, BHP-Billiton), with copies marked to the heads of the Australian and American diplomatic missions in New Delhi. The journalist’s relations with the Ambanis thereafter soured.
The oil exploration ventures of Reliance Industries were mired in controversy from the start. In 1991, the cash-strapped Indian government had invited private sector participation in the oil and gas sector. Under the new policy, the government allowed the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) to enter into joint ventures with private parties. The public sector unit had explored huge tracts of oil and gas fields in offshore India, which included the Krishna-Godavari gas basin off the coast of Andhra Pradesh. Going a step further, the government also leased out oil and gas fields already discovered and developed by ONGC to joint ventures clobbered together for this very purpose. In August 1992, the ministry of petroleum and natural gas invited bids for the further development of the Panna-Mukta oil fields, setting the last date for receiving tenders at 31 December 1992.
Reliance Industries, together with Enron, entered the fray and the other big contender was the Australian resources giant BHP, which pitched for the ONGC leases in partnership with the Tata group. Accusations were levelled by rival bidders insisting that tenders were being rigged in favour of Reliance Industries. McDonald investigated the allegations on his own, and reported that BHP representatives told him in turn that they found it difficult to compete in an environment where the specifications were being changed at the last minute, possibly to ease the way for RIL to grab the lucrative deals. On 31 March 1993, the government retrospectively extended the last date for receipt of the bids. In October 1993, a committee of secretaries from the finance, revenue and petroleum departments/ministries awarded the Panna-Mukta oilfield. Enron and Reliance Industries each held 30 per cent and ONGC retained 40 per cent. Incidentally, Enron’s share was bought over by British Gas in 2002.
Soon after he began investigating the story, McDonald ‘got a summons’ for a meeting with Anil Ambani who ‘was very testy.’ Anil alleged that the Australian journalist was tacitly assisting the BHP officials in town. ‘Wish I was, he (the BHP official) is Australian you know and we could show each other around the place,’ said McDonald now, with a tinge of sarcasm. ‘I started falling off the drip feed after that and I think they regarded me as no longer a friend.’
McDonald, meanwhile, stepped up work on his book; and physical work it was since he put in a considerable amount of legwork. From darting through the nooks and crannies of Bombay to running around several cities in Gujarat and distant London, he tried to re-trace the footprints of Dhirubhai Ambani. He started where the businessman himself had—in Chorwad, literally meaning ‘Settlement of Thieves’, and then in nearby Junagadh. He spoke to Dhirubhai’s contemporaries, and wrote in elaborate detail about how this youngster in November 1947 had resolutely stood up to a police officer who had mistakenly apprehended activists of the Junagadh Vidyarthi Samiti who had gone to an area to protect shops belonging to Muslims from being looted by marauding Hindi rioters in a post-Independence surcharged atmosphere. Dhirubhai Ambani was a man of guts, no doubt.
The discomfiture in the Indian business world nevertheless was pronounced—they all wanted to know if the book was to be an authorised biography. For, if it wasn’t, none wanted to be quoted out of turn, and earn the wrath of Ambani. Still, there were some others who sought a clearance on being quoted from Dhirubhai Ambani himself, only to be given the cold shoulder. In July 1995, McDonald quit his job at FEER to devote full time to the book. He would shuttle between New Delhi and hometown Sydney— work in India for a couple of months, and fly back home to put his thoughts together and pen them down. He was in no tearing hurry, and in no mood to do a rush job.
All this while, his work was an open secret, and Reliance Industries public relations executives even met him to enquire about what he was working on, and his unannounced intentions. ‘All the Reliance flacks—Tony Jesudasan, Yogesh Desai, Jacob John and Deepak Neogi and others in Mumbai—were furiously taking me out to lunch on account of what I had in mind. I played it straight and said that it would not be a hatchet job but a fair review, but received no commitment,’ said McDonald. The Australian journalist, meanwhile, remained suspect in view of his earlier reportage on the oilfield contracts.
‘Some of Dhirubhai’s old mates were telling me stories about his early days and colourful stories, getting arrested and cargo seized, bogus shipments of exports to get the credit. He would import polyester fibre and all that stuff. A picture of a prankster turned manipulator. This carried on, people started talking to me, the Aden people, the Gujarat employees and the early chapters were building up, the best chapters really. It all came to a grinding halt at the end of 1996.’
Yet, it was in early 1996 that an incident had made it amply clear that McDonald had been ‘cut off’ and that he was effectively ‘on his own.’ In January, he flew over to Mumbai to interview one of Dhirubhai Ambani’s ‘key cronies,’ Ratibhai Muchhala, who had studied with Ambani in Junagadh and had been export manager for the magnate for decades, handling textile exports through the Gujarati diaspora in East Africa, the Middle East and later the United Kingdom.
Muchhala operated from an office in the industrial belt behind the Santa Cruz airport. Even though he had agreed to the interview, McDonald met a ‘very embarrassed secretary’ who said that Muchhala was not there, but was at the Reliance Industries head office instead. Dhirubhai’s office had advised him not to meet the writer. He instead was put through to Dinesh Sheth, Dhirubhai’s personal assistant who was ‘very sheepish’ and said that the tycoon ‘would prefer that this project did not go ahead.’ McDonald was told that there were many others who wanted to write a biography of Dhirubhai, but the latter had indicated that he did not want to encourage or cooperate on a biography at that time.
Regardless, there obviously were some others who opened up. Among McDonald’s key sources was the ‘wonderful old businessman’ Jamnadas Moorjani. This affable man turned out to be a ‘fountain of knowledge’ on the Indian textiles industry; his office in a back lane in the Kalbadevi area was a favourite source of news and tip-offs for journalists. Moorjani, who died in December 2000, headed the All-India Crimpers Association from 1978 to 1982 and had been witness to the savage face-off over polyester control between Dhirubhai and Nusli Wadia, the Parsi businessman who owned Bombay Dyeing, a textiles brand from the Wadia Group. Wadia used dimethyl terepthalate (DMT), a feedstock used in manufacturing polyester yarn, while Ambani was a fierce advocate of purified terephthalic acid (PTA).
Wadia, VP Singh and bad press for Reliance
The Indian Express, owned by Ramnath Goenka and edited by Arun Shourie, became an ally of Wadia and published a series of exposes on duty evasion by Reliance Industries through under-invoicing that were researched and authored by Goenka’s chartered accountant, S Gurumurthy, who later went on to become the co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), the economic front of the Sangh Parivar. Moorjani himself had led a campaign by independent polyester texturisers against a duty hike in yarn in November 1982 allegedly engineered by Ambani. Sometime in 1986, Moorjani was attacked by a knife-wielding gang as he was leaving his Kalbadevi office, and he almost lost an arm. Though there were conjectures that this was a result of the business war, no link was ever established.
McDonald was briefed in considerable detail by Wadia, who shared ‘his side of the battle.’ One Friday, at 5 in the evening, Wadia asked him to reach his office in the Fort area of Mumbai. Wadia was in a talkative mood, and the two spoke for over five hours. ‘When we eventually packed up, the building was empty. Wadia himself went to the door and let us out. I rushed back to the hotel, sat for hours, and put it down while it was fresh in my mind,’ said McDonald, on how he put the fragments together.
It was not only Ambani’s colleagues and rivals who were reticent or circumspect on speaking up, or even speaking about— former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh too skirted the request for an interview on the pretext that he could not talk about a specific company. There was a reason for McDonald to look at Singh. It was the VP Singh government, unlike the two Congress ministries preceding his 343-day tenure, which had been firm with Ambani’s Reliance Industries. Singh, as a vigilante finance minister from 1984 to 1987 in the Rajiv Gandhi government, had made life difficult for Reliance. Singh had overseen a gradual relaxation of the Licence Raj and launched a drive against tax evaders. In March 1986, shortly after Dhirubhai Ambani suffered a stroke, the Indian Express published exposes accusing Reliance of smuggling by under-invoicing. There were even rumours of a raid, and Singh was soon shunted out.
Singh had been a nagging thorn in the sensitive Reliance flesh. In May 1985, Singh had removed the import of PTA from the open general licence category. As a raw material, this was crucial for manufacturing polyester lament yarn. This made it very difficult for Reliance Industries to carry on operations; Reliance was able to secure, from various financial institutions, letters of credit that would allow it to import almost one full year’s requirement of PTA on the eve of the issuance of the government notification changing the category under which PTA could be imported.
With Singh as Prime Minister, Dhirubhai suffered his first major defeat in the eyes of the public—his futile attempt to take over engineering and construction conglomerate Larsen & Toubro. In 1988, L&T was in a bad shape, and the Ambanis swooped in. Reliance, L&T’s biggest private-sector customer, bought a 12.4 per cent of the stake and propelled Mukesh and Anil Ambani on to the L&T board of directors. L&T was awarded a lucrative contract to build Reliance’s Hazira petrochemicals plant. There were reports that a state-linked financial company bought L&T shares from India’s biggest mutual fund and largest insurance company. It then sold the shares to a small-time investment company connected with Reliance Industries. The L&T chairman soon relinquished his post, and Dhirubhai took over in April 1989.
The Indian Express carried out another expose, this time alleging that the takeover had been effected by financial institutions like the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) and the General Insurance Corporation (GIC) selling their shares. Since these institutions were not legally allowed to sell to private entities, the entire process was seen as fraudulent. Matters went out of hand, and the Ambanis backtracked. An extraordinary general meeting was called to decide whether the Ambanis would remain on the L&T board; Dhirubhai resigned, and the Ambani sons had to flee the venue.
There was another reason, more or less immediate, that possibly made the Ambani family cagey about McDonald’s intentions— it had just got the kind of bad press that the Indian media had never dished out to Ambani. In May 1991 (a month before Narasimha Rao would take over as Prime Minister and launch the Liberalisation Era), the Economist weekly of the UK carried a survey on India titled ‘Caged’ with the photograph of a caged tiger on the cover. The author of the survey, Clive Crook, singled out Reliance Industries in his article. Crook contended that the huge Reliance empire epitomised all that was wrong with India — how the country’s corporate captains took advantage of favourable regulations to build monopolistic empires. Reliance came across as a corporate entity that had survived and prospered not through someone’s keen business acumen, but as a result of political patronage. This upset Dhirubhai Ambani and he reportedly vowed that henceforth the world would look up to Reliance. A foreign reporter (McDonald) with nothing to lose could just well be a loose cannon.
Reliance thereafter put in more effort into media management. By the time Narasimha Rao’s Congress-led government was voted out in May 1996, the company had the Indian media firmly in its vice-like grip. There were few news establishments or journalists who spoke or wrote against Reliance. Even the Indian Express, the Ambanis’ trenchant critic from the mid-1980s, not only threw in the towel, but even went to the extent of supporting the company through its favourable and acquiescent reportage.
Mystery of Birla House: Repeated history?
Meanwhile, the more McDonald moved around and spoke to people, the more he got sucked in. ‘It was the story that no foreign correspondent writes about. They write on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, they write on caste wars,’ said McDonald. ‘When I was thinking of the book, I thought that the political economy of India was something that had not been done since Mystery of Birla House.’
The book by Debajyoti Burman, about one of India’s most politically in uential businessmen, Ghanshyam Das Birla, was published by Jugabani Sahitya Chakra of Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1950. The book disappeared from the market and was reported to have been sold to the Birlas through a deal possibly in the very late 1950s which eventually included its copyright. Very few copies survived, including one preserved in Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Library in the ‘rare books’ section. McDonald, who had read up enough on Indian business history, saw a parallel here: ‘Birla was the golden boy of the Nehruvian years. Dhirubhai was the golden boy of the Indira (Gandhi) and Rajiv (Gandhi) years. Dhirubhai was more or less dictating industrial policy to the government, not just by way of gaining favour, but scuppering his business rivals.’ There were to be other parallels too later, albeit differing on hostility levels.
Even as he started getting a ‘lot of warnings from people, especially fellow journalists, imploring him to be careful,’ McDonald ‘kept working’ but started covering his tracks especially when he was in Mumbai. However, as a result of the freeze in information flow, Dhirubhai Ambani’s opponents gradually started opening up to him. They had probably begun to recognise that the writer was not out to do a ‘hagiography of Dhirubhai,’ that he was not one of Dhirubhai’s infamous Dirty Dozen.
This nomenclature was untangled later by McDonald: “Reliance was a pioneer of envelope journalism. A senior commercial journalist in Bombay recalls that journalists would get vouchers worth up to 2,000 rupees for goods at a Vimal [a Reliance brand] retail outlet called Laffans. Some in senior positions would get regular monthly payments or issues of Reliance shares and debentures at par. Ambani’s moles in the press were known as the ‘Dirty Dozen’, the journalist said. ‘The point man was Rasikbhai Meswani. He was a thorough gentleman. His door was open 24 hours a day for journalists. People would go to collect on first of the month.’ Dhirubhai also realised that the reporter was not the final arbiter of what got published.”
“He also cultivated desk editors and even editors. One who accepted Reliance debentures for himself, and help in arranging bank finance to pay for them, was Girilal Jain, editor of the Times of India for much of the 1980s. The close journalists in the ‘Dirty Dozen’ would not only be used to get favourable news about Reliance printed prominently. They also became an extension of an intelligence network, asking rival businessmen for their frank views off the record about Reliance and then reporting them back. On the theory that rumour and gossip are more keenly heeded because they carry an aura of exclusivity, the pressmen would be used to plant opinions about the merits of Reliance activities and the failings of other companies.
Burying the book
Dhirubhai Ambani certainly had an inkling that McDonald’s biography of him would not be a gushing hagiography. The Ambani tycoon, used to having journalists play ball, now faced a man who seemed intent on completing his work and could not be either won or bought over. What is little known is that Reliance Industries reacted even before McDonald could finish the manuscript. In January 1997, he received a letter from Kanga & Co, lawyers for Ambani and Reliance Industries, warning that ‘their clients understand and apprehend that the proposed publication contains material which is defamatory to our client.’ It was obvious that word had somehow trickled out to Ambani.
The legal letter in a way pre-empted what McDonald was going to write, insisting that at no time had there been any attempt to verify the material with the clients, and action for exemplary damages and injunction would be made if the book was defamatory. The veiled threat did not deter McDonald; he carried on undaunted and unrattled. The pre-emptive strike did not work.
Reliance Industries was unwilling to give up lightly. Its lawyers in Sydney—Blake Dawson (now known as Ashurst Australia)— sent legal notices to McDonald’s Australian publisher Allen and Unwin warning of punitive action if their clients were defamed. The notices quoted passages verbatim from the HarperCollins India version in support of their contention that the author was aiming to defame Dhirubhai Ambani.
The chief executive officer of Allen and Unwin, Patrick Gallagher, did not cower down either. Once the manuscript had been completed, he had a Sydney barrister go through it meticulously. Changes were suggested and the author was asked for material to back up facts. Towards the end of 1997, Allen and Unwin moved ahead with an initial print run of 3,000. The detailed chronicle was at long last published in early 1998, and titled The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani.
The Indian edition ran into trouble. HarperCollins India, which had the Indian rights, had completed editing the manuscript and even started having pages printed, though those had not been collated and bound as a book. The tittle-tattle that made their way to McDonald and his publisher in Australia was that Reliance was seeking injunctions against the book’s publication at the high courts in Ahmedabad and Delhi.
‘The interesting thing was that in the papers sent to us were passages from the book which at that stage had not been published. Reliance claimed that the pages had been sent to them by ‘a well-wisher’,” recollected McDonald. Towards end-1998, the company moved the lower district court of Tis Hazari in Delhi, and procured an injunction against publication. It was a temporary injunction that was never vacated (a temporary injunction restrains publication for a specific period of time).
And then, the much-awaited book simply disappeared from the Indian landscape. Even ahead of the injunction, HarperCollins had pulped its edition; and the Australian publisher refrained from selling into India’s jurisdiction. McDonald could never have guessed that his work would effectively meet the same fate as the book that he had admiringly talked about: Mystery of Birla House. Rumours abounded and conspiracy theories wafted through corridors of power and in press clubs. Where did the copies disappear?
Towards the end of 1998, during a chance meeting with HarperCollins editor Renuka Chatterjee at the Frankfurt Book Fair, McDonald came to know of the reason for pulping the book. HarperCollins had received legal threats as well as notices of pre-publication injunctions warning that Reliance Industries would launch applications for injunction at every high court in India, and with twenty-two of them, the publisher was distraught about having to spend a fortune defending the book. Cases like these drag on for years, and the book would never be published. Chatterjee also received calls dissuading her from going ahead with the publication, though she was not physically threatened. HarperCollins decided not to proceed with the publication and all printed-but-unbound copies were pulped.
When injunction notices reached Allen and Unwin in Sydney, the publisher sent back a note saying they were not publishing the book in India, that it was confined to Australia, and therefore Indian courts had no jurisdiction over their actions. Allen and Unwin said that it would not attend the court hearing, and never got a copy of the ruling. McDonald recalled that journalist friends who went down to the court to obtain information for a story returned empty-handed.
The Ambani story continues
The book disappeared, but the story didn’t—it kept developing. In July 2002, Dhirubhai Ambani died intestate—without leaving a will. The sons, Mukesh and Anil, remained united for two years after Ambani’s death. But the undercurrents of tension between the siblings were known only to company insiders till November 2004 when Mukesh Ambani publicly acknowledged that there were ‘ownership issues’ between him and Anil. Then on, till July 2005, the two brothers fought a bitter, no-holds barred battle in the public. Allegations and counter-allegations flew thick and fast, till a cease fire was brokered by their mother Kokilaben and leading banker KV Kamath, ex-head of ICICI (formerly Industrial Credit & Investment Corporation of India) Bank. The truce lasted for three years.
In January 2008, almost ten years after it was effectively banned in India (technically it was never banned since it had never been published), photocopied versions of The Polyester Prince mysteriously appeared on the crowded pavements and at busy traffic signals in Mumbai. Pirated copies were sold at varying prices—from a measly 100 rupees to an exorbitant 1,600 rupees. The timing of the curious incident raised eyebrows, since copies of the book had landed with street vendors and hawkers on 13 and 14 January, just two days before the IPO (initial public offering) of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Power Ltd opened for subscription. Very curious, indeed. Both Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) and his younger brother’s Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) declined to comment on the pirated book that sold like hot cakes.
This also came in the backdrop of the blockbuster film Guru, said to have been loosely strung around the life and times of Dhirubhai Ambani. The 2007 biopic, written and directed by Mani Ratnam, had ostensibly drawn substantial ‘inspiration’ from McDonald’s chronicle. That, of course, was a mix of speculation and hearsay. Ratnam described Guru as having been inspired by stories both past and present, but the cheeky allusions were clear and unmistakable. There were hawkers in Mumbai who peddled the book as being the source material for the film. McDonald recalled being gravely disappointed at the time. ‘Let a book be published and then be sued,’ he told an Indian newspaper at the time. ‘It getting blocked even before it can hit the stands is a serious infringement on the right to free speech.’ And then he thought aloud, and gave an inkling of either an update or a sequel: ‘I have been keeping up-to-date with the actions of the two brothers and am thinking of an update. I wish I find a publisher who is brave enough to publish the book in India.’
All this time, McDonald stayed abreast of the Ambani goings-on, and meanwhile worked on other projects. In July 2000, he and Desmond Ball, a professor at the Australian National University and world-renowned expert on intelligence matters, published Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra that was an incriminating documentation of the criminal connivance of the Australian government in the deaths of five journalists in Balibo, East Timor. The meticulously-researched and riveting study had revealed the workings of a clandestine system of deceit, and named those involved in a 24- year trail of flagrant cover-ups and abject denials. McDonald and Ball explored how, at first light on 16 October 1975, Indonesian special forces stormed the East Timor village of Balibo, killing the five reporters.
Between 1997 and 2000, as foreign editor with the Sydney Morning Herald, he covered the Asian financial crisis, the collapse of the Suharto regime, and the East Timor crisis. In 2002, McDonald moved on to Beijing, and in 2005 won the Walkley Award for newspaper feature writing for his article What’s Wrong With Falun Gong, a story about the brutal suppression of the Falun Gong religious movement by the Chinese government.
All the while earlier that McDonald had been researching and writing The Polyester Prince, he was told more than once that the Ambani family was itself working on a volume on the life and times of Dhirubhai Ambani. The family indeed was, and the effort saw the light of day in the form of a voluminous, slickly-produced opus titled Dhirubhai Ambani: The Man I Knew, published in March 2007 under the name of his widow Kokilaben. The bulky, 300+ paged product (the Gujarati edition was titled Dhirubhai Ambani: Maara Jeevan Sathi) was a coffee-table book, one that was conceptualised and supervised by Dipti Salgaocar, Dhirubhai’s elder daughter. It was described as Kokilaben’s own effort to ‘present him as a man who was much more than the person the world saw.’ It was personal, colourful.
Later in the year, another book was released, this one by an old associate of Dhirubhai Ambani—AG Krishnamurthy, founder of advertising agency Mudra Communications. When Krishnamurthy started Mudra in March 1980, he had only one client: Reliance. The agency’s first major campaign was the launch of Reliance’s apparel and textiles brand Vimal with the catchy tagline ‘Only Vimal’. Mudra was later acquired by the Omnicom Group in 2011, subsequently rebranded as DDB Mudra group, and merged with DDB Worldwide. But Krishnamurthy’s association with Ambani had withstood the onslaught of time.
His Dhirubhaism—The Remarkable Work Philosophy of Dhirubhai Ambani was published by McGraw Hill Education in April 2007. It was that typical hands-on book for budding entrepreneurs and managers. Krishnamurthy followed this up with another title in less than a year: Dhirubhai Ambani—Against All Odds: A Story of Courage, Perseverance and Hope. The Ambani patriarch was long gone, but public interest in him hadn’t faded away; he remained an inspiration for budding entrepreneurs.
And just as McDonald kept returning to Indonesia (he had co-authored another book on that country in the interregnum: Masters of Terror: Indonesia’s Military & Violence in East Timor, 1999), India too kept beckoning him through the never-ending Ambani saga, that kept him fascinated with its innumerable twists, unseemly turns and intriguing plots. Soon, he got cracking on an updated version of The Polyester Prince. ‘India was now the new darling of the business world. So I said, well, here is a chance to actually make some money; so I added a few more chapters,’ said McDonald.
Ambani & Sons: A sanitised version of The Polyester Prince
In 2010, an updated but sanitised version of The Polyester Prince was published by NewSouth Publishing as Mahabharata in Polyester: The Making of the World’s Richest Brothers and Their Feud. The Indian edition was published by Roli Books, New Delhi— albeit with a different title, Ambani & Sons. It was later learnt that the head of Roli Books, Pramod Kapur had met an important functionary of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) before the title was published. The functionary reportedly told Kapur that he need not worry too much about the legal consequences of publishing Ambani & Sons as, by then, the open battle between the Ambani siblings had attracted considerable media attention. Still, the detailed introduction from the original work where McDonald had delineated his encounter with Dhirubhai down to the pre-publication injunction against the book was left out.
Passing mention of an alleged attack on Tina Munim, whose wedding with Anil that the writer had attended, was expunged, as was another passing remark about a murderous attempt on the life of Nusli Wadia. The English explanation of Chorwad as a ‘settlement of thieves’ was inked out, though the original book had clearly said ‘though no one seems to remark on that.’
References to the Gandhi family and others like then finance minister and later President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, were either toned down or removed altogether. A so-called ‘parting gift’ by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi before the general elections of 1977 which she lost, found no mention.
“In March 1977, however, Indira and Congress were swept from power in the elections called after her two years’ rule under Emergency powers was lifted. But her government gave Dhirubhai a parting gift. Over the 1976–77 fiscal year (April- March) Dhirubhai had accumulated REP licences both from its own exports and from purchases in the market, worth some 3 crore rupees. On 7 February, about three weeks after the elections were announced; the government was persuaded to exempt all polyester yarn imports under REP licences issued since April 1976 from customs duty, which was then 125 per cent. It was a gift of 3.75 crore rupees to Dhirubhai.”
This fiscal move had been allegedly facilitated by Mukherjee, a great friend of Dhirubhai. McDonald said Roli Books primarily wanted the references to Pranab Mukherjee to be slashed out. ‘Pranab was back as minister for finance in Manmohan Singh’s government and Roli (Books) was pretty worried that he still had the power to turn the inspectors on Roli’s books,’ contended McDonald, later a fellow at the American think-tank Woodrow Wilson Centre.
Other references to Mukherjee too were truncated, robbing the new book of the compelling context: “As well as an always-open connection to the prime minister’s office, he now had a close and sympathetic friend as minister of commerce, the Bengali politician Pranab Mukherjee. His ministry not only helped set trade policy, including tariff levels and anti-dumping duties, in conjunction with the ministry of finance, but conducted the system of import licences through the powerful office of the chief controller of imports and exports—whose corridors in New Delhi’s Udyog Bhavan were thronged with importunate businessmen and their agents.”
“At the beginning of 1982 Mukherjee became minister of finance, giving him charge of broad economic policy as well as the details of revenue raising and tax enforcement. The ministry of finance also supervised the Reserve Bank of India, the central bank, whose governor is often a recently retired head of the ministry. Through its banking division the ministry also effectively directed the 26 nationalised banks through highly politicised board and senior management appointments. It supervised the insurance companies and other financial institutions such as the Unit Trust yarn imports under REP licences issued since April 1976 from customs duty, which was then 125 per cent. It was a gift of 3.75 crore rupees to Dhirubhai.”
In another instance,
“Editorials asked how closely the central bank had scrutinised the eligibility of the 11 companies under the NRI [non-resident Indian] scheme, if the finance minister could not even get their domicile right. ‘Pranab Mukherjee: Minister of Finance or Reliance?’ went the headline in the Telegraph’s leader. Facing more questions in parliament and an attempted breach of privilege motion (rejected by the Congress majority) on 14 December (1983), Mukherjee insisted the different place of incorporation ‘did not make any material difference’ about eligibility and appealed to MPs not to ‘kill the scheme’.”
“Editorials asked how closely the central bank had scrutinised the eligibility of the 11 companies under the NRI scheme, if the nance minister could not even get their domicile right. On 14 December, Mukherjee insisted the different place of incorporation ‘did not make any material difference’ about eligibility and appealed to MPs not to ‘kill the scheme’.”
In 1984, Reliance was given letters of intent for a 75,000 tonne a year purified terephthalic acid (PTA) plant at Patalganga in Maharashtra. The fait accompli of its 25,125 tonne polyester lament yarn plant was retrospectively endorsed by raising the permitted capacity from the original 12,000 tonnes. Sunday magazine reported the granting of this largesse under the tell-tale headline ‘Pranab Mukherjee’s Slogan: Only Vimal.’ The mention of the headline was left out of Ambani & Sons.
Thus, many could argue that the book was more of an indictment of the moth-eaten Indian fiscal system than of Ambani himself.
The New York Times review (almost a year later) felt ‘McDonald is respectful of Ambani’s remarkable trail of innovation and success,’ and went on to remark: “Much of the criticism of Ambani is, in effect, of the Indian system of bureaucratic controls, state intervention, high but variable tariffs, industrial and import licensing, state control of unit trusts and life insurance. To beat the system to get ahead, it was necessary to exploit the human frailties of its power holders. Everyone did it. Ambani did it most effectively.”
Some of these, mentioned in the context of bureaucrat Nitish Sengupta, were dropped as well:
“In 1969, Sengupta had helped in the abolition of the managing agency’s system, whereby families such as the Tatas wielded control over affiliated companies with very little equity, and in preparing the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1969 which intensified the industrial licensing regime first introduced in 1951. Other measures which followed included the ‘convertibility clause,’ whereby the government financial institutions (development banks providing long-term nance and insurance companies) were given the option to convert a proportion of long-term loans to companies into equity, and the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act 1973 which sharply restricted the freedom of Indians to hold foreign currency or assets.”
“On his arrival at the Ministry of Finance in 1979, Sengupta had already begun the transition in thinking that led him to write in his 1995 memoir, Inside the Steel Frame: ‘The possession of vast unregulated power in the hands of the ministers and the bureaucrats inevitably led to complaints of extortion, inducement and enormous politicisation of the machinery. From 1970 supreme power was appropriated by the cabinet committee on economic co-ordination which was headed by the prime minister and for all practical purposes the prime minister’s office became the main decision-making authority. No worthwhile project could be cleared without the prime minister’s approval. Those who managed to get industrial licences also managed to see to it that others did not. This was done by money, influence and political muscle power. A nexus came to be established between a section of industrialists, a section of politicians and a section of bureaucrats. The principle of market forces guiding or dictating investment, or of production targets being determined by demand and supply, was given the go-by, and everything was decided by administrative fiat’.”
There was more: the virtual extortion of Nusli Wadia by Congress scion Sanjay Gandhi, with tacit approval of his mother Indira, who had just stormed back to power in January 1980.
“Wadia was directed first to meet Sanjay Gandhi, who made a blunt demand for a political donation. Wadia demurred. ‘’Sorry, we just don’t do that,’ he said. ‘None of us – the Tatas, the Mahindras, us give money to political parties. We do not have black income. It’s just not something we do.’ On being shown in to Mrs Indira Gandhi, and having presented the company history, Wadia broke the subject directly. He knew the reason he had been summoned, but really it was not the way his company operated. He talked on, and then noticed Indira was doodling on papers on her desk, looking away. Wadia took his leave, and received a curt nod from Indira Gandhi.[The struck out instances were removed in the modified version.]
Historian Ramachandra Guha, writing in the Telegraph newspaper about book bans in India much later (in July 2011), explained that ‘the descendants or devotees of biographical subjects are often too nervous or insecure to have them discussed with objectivity and rigour. Second, these fanatical or insecure followers have found an ally in the courts. Although the Supreme Court has tended to act on the side of the freedom of expression, lower courts have been less wise. Judges who are malleable or publicity-hungry pass injunctions forbidding the free circulation of books and works of art. Few petitioners have the time, or money, or energy, to wait and fight till the case reaches the Supreme Court (a process that can take years). A ban once invoked is therefore rarely revoked.’
McDonald was to write in Outlook magazine much later in March 2014, ‘In the case of my book The Polyester Prince, about the Reliance patriarch Dhirubhai Ambani, my main surprise was that HarperCollins India, under Renuka Chatterjee, had the chutzpah to even attempt to publish. Threats to seek injunctions in every high court across India, and some heavy phone calls, got the edition pulped. The injunction, obtained without contest from a junior beak in the Tis Hazari court house, was a superfluous coup de grace. Ambani’s sons had the grace not to attempt the same with Roli Books’ updated version, Ambani & Sons, and let it stand or fall on its merits.’ McDonald’s observations came in a feature section where six authors wrote about their books being banned in India.
Why The Polyester Prince didn’t quite make it
All said and done, Ambani & Sons, however, never became a talking point as its earlier avatar. In 2010 and even now, if a book is bandied around as one that should be read and discussed, it is The Polyester Prince. There are many reasons why this remains a classic case study.
First, the book came to be pulped even before it had been published. There is a perceptible difference between something that ‘is defamatory’ and something that ‘might be defamatory.’ Unless an entire body of work or an extract or even an insinuation has been proven to be defamatory, it is only a conjecture. In that, the injunction set a deadly precedent. This was not about a book being banned; it was about a book being stopped from being published altogether.
Second, the publisher buckled under pressure over threats, and not an actual legal action (except for the Delhi injunction). HarperCollins was allegedly threatened with multiple injunctions. The very prospect of such a scenario, wherein it would have to fight out a legal battle in a number of courts, made it drop the manuscript like hot coals—it was not willing to fight for free speech. There have been innumerable instances when publishers, soft targets themselves, have caved in to threats or pressures, leaving their writers to fight lonely battles. These Indian publishers come across as duplicitous when they even talk of free expression—track records show that they are often the first to flee the battle field.
Third, the disappearance of the book raised questions on whether India had grown mature enough to browse through unapologetic and unflattering accounts of captains of industry who the Indian public held in high esteem and even revered. It was clear that a corporate entity could arm-twist a publishing house from publishing an incisive and investigative narrative about its alleged misdoings.
Fourth, while neither the (Indian) publisher nor the writer could make any money from sales, the action of Reliance Industries did have its Streisand Effect. Though a handful of copies did find their way into India initially, the fact that pirated copies sold like hot cakes even ten years after the virtual ban, showed that people were curious, that they hadn’t forgotten the book all this while, and that people certainly wanted to know what was it that the Ambanis did not want the citizenry to know. Worse, it conjured up an image of the Ambanis that they might not have wanted in the first place: that of a sinister corporation that not only outed laws, but also did everything to suppress that information.
Fifth, McDonald’s work was of exemplary journalistic value. Here was a reporter who wasn’t a son of the soil, but had both the percipience and drive of a hard-boiled reporter: he dug out dirt and pieced things together. McDonald’s was the classic journalism style: follow the evidence, and go wherever it leads you. His tenacity and copybook style of investigative journalism would go on to inspire and provoke others to work on long-form, narrative pieces of journalistic work.
Yet, non-action by the Ambani brothers against Ambani & Sons was seen by many as the maturing of the two; that they had learnt to live with the times, and also live with the irrefutable fact that not all reportage and opinions need necessarily be in your favour. Their individual reactions to Gas Wars probably told a different story; but then, neither had let the push come to a shove.
Excerpted from Sue the Messenger: How legal harassment by corporates is shackling reportage and undermining democracy in India by Subir Ghosh with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, published by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, to be released on May 4