Mukesh Ambani, Gautam Adani | PTI photo
It was Balzac, the French Novelist, who said that behind every fortune there was a crime. Mario Puzo's Godfather, the novel on the Italian Mafia in America, begins with this Balzacian sentence. 'Guru', the film by Mani Ratnam, also comes to mind. It is well known that Guru was based on the life and times of Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder of the Reliance Industries. There were reports that Mukesh Ambani, the son of Dhirubhai, had requested Mani to have a private screening of the film before it hit the screens.
Guru happened to be the film that changed the almanac of Abhishek Bachan's acting career. The way he handled the role of the business tycoon was spectacular and astounding! The performance of Mithun Chakraborty as the Newspaper owner, who resembled Ramnath Goenka, the patriarch of the Indian Express, was also extraordinary. Abhishek's character delivers a fiery speech towards the end of the film where he declares that there was a man here 40 years ago, who was against the laws and we called him `Bapu.’
Mani Ratnam had to face vehement criticism for this dialogue. It was quite atrocious that Mani tried to equate Dhirubhai, who manipulated the laws of the land to further his personal interests with Gandhiji, who broke the laws in order to liberate millions of Indians from the clutches of colonialism.
Many industrialists were close to Gandhiji. JRD Tata, Ambalal Sarabhai and GD Birla were some of his fundraisers. Among the three, Birla was closer to Gandhiji. But, Gandhiji never allowed any of these industrialists to dictate terms to him. He never consulted these industrialists on his most significant political moves. Gandhiji was very particular about maintaining a detailed account of the way he spent each rupee donated by these industrialists. Gandhiji's life was an open book. Both PM care funds and electoral bonds were alien to him.
Right wing and industrialists
Most of the industrialists including Birla preferred Patel to Nehru. They were more comfortable with the right wing within the Congress. Nehru met GD Birla for the first time in 1924 in the presence of Gandhiji. Bhupesh Bhandari mentions this meeting in an article titled 'Political Birla' written in 2013. One year later Nehru had a financial crisis. He told Gandhiji about this. Gandhiji mentioned the same to Birla in a conversation. The next day Birla presented himself at the house of Nehru in Allahabad. The intrusion incensed Nehru but somehow he saw the business man off. Bhupesh writes that the discord between Nehru and Birla started from that very day. Nehru was not deeply attached to any industrialist. When Birla expressed his desire to start a steel plant in Durgapur, Nehru made it clear that steel plants will be in the public sector only.
Nehru made it clear in 1929 when he was elected the president of the Congress: ''I am a socialist and a republican and am no believer in kings or princes, or in the order which produces the modern kings of industry, who have greater power over the lives and fortunes of men than even the kings of old, and whose methods are as predatory as those of the old feudal aristocracy.” He once told JRD Tata that he hated the word profit.
Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Nehru, was not a keen follower of her father when it came to the friendships with the industrialists. KK Birla, the son of GD Birla, had a special bonding with Indira. When the management of the Hindustan Times, the newspaper owned by the Birla group, dismissed its editor BG Varghese at the behest of Indira Gandhi during the emergency, it became a huge controversy. It should also be remembered that the Janata Govt, which assumed power after the emergency, targeted KK Birla precisely because of his connection with Indira.
It was Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then external affairs minister, who helped KKB to fly away to Paris ,when there was a move to arrest him. Birla was often referred to as the nationalist businessman. But he had the wisdom to realise that the nation and the business empire were two different entities. But the lines get blurred when it comes to the times of Adani and Ambani. Here what we see is the deadly cocktail of business, politics and power.
Feroze, the warrior
Feroze Gandhi, the Congress MP, exposed two scams when the nation was ruled by the Nehru Govt. The first was about the frauds committed by the Dalmia group. Feroze revealed the details of the financial crime in his speech in the Indian Parliament in 1955. He pointed out how Dalmia misused the funds collected as insurance premium to further his business interests. The Nehru Govt appointed an enquiry commission to look into the allegations in spite of the fact that Dalmia was a staunch supporter of the Congress. The findings of the commission were against Dalmia and he had to spend two years in Tihar prison.
The Nehru Govt nationalised the insurance companies and established the Life Insurance Corporation of India against this backdrop. Feroze's next exposure put the Mundhra group and TT Krisnamachari, the then Finance minister in the dock. Feroze revealed that TTK had a role in manipulating LIC to purchase shares worth Rs 1.26 crore, of companies owned by Haridas Mundhra, a Kolkata-based businessman. TTK was Nehru's Manfriday. Nehru was shocked to see the battle against one of his confidants by none other than his son in law. TTK had to resign eventually. The Court gave a sentence of 22 years' imprisonment to Haridas Mundhra in this case.
Rahul Gandhi gets his surname from Feroze Gandhi who married Indira in 1942. When Rahul asked about the relationship between Adani and Modi, the PM countered it by asking why Rahul didn't have the surname of Nehru instead of Gandhi. This was an ugly defense indeed! Feroze never had any compromise with injustice. Maybe the fearlessness of Rahul has something to do with the genes that flow from Feroze. It must also be recalled that the Nehru regime didn't turn against Feroze for taking on two major industrialists and one of its own prominent faces. Democracy was not serving the corporate oligarchy in Delhi then. The crisis of Indian democracy right now is that we can't even think of any BJP MP taking a stand against either Ambani or Adani in the parliament.
It was not a coincidence that Modi flew in a private jet owned by Adani to reach Delhi to assume power in 2014 after the Lok Sabha election results. Adani was one of the few industrialists who stood by Modi in 2002 in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. Then onwards it was almost a symbiotic existence that saw both scaling greater heights in their respective fields. And one cannot but miss the criticism that the trajectory of both these individuals has been intertwined with the shadow of the Gujarat riots.
It is not known if anybody has done research on the topic 'the politics and economics of the Gujarat riots’. PM Modi's economic views are known as 'Modinomics.' Arjun Appadurai, the Indo American anthropologist described Modinomics in an article in the Wire two years ago thus: '''Modinomics is about siphoning national wealth to the Adanis and Ambanis and to their myriad regional and local counterparts, who are sucking the blood out of Indian rivers, soils, forests and fields, supported by local militias and corrupt local officials. These local elites are the counterparts of the 'white ants' of the colonial period, who ate away local resources while serving the extractive interests of urban and national elite.''
One must go back to the Appadurai article in order to have a clear perspective of the Adani fiasco. Appadurai makes it clear how these leaders who accuse BBC of having a colonial mindset, behave in the same way. Appadurai points out how Modi's contempt for Gandhi, Nehru and the Muslims reminds one of the attitude of the British empire towards them. The Modi regime has never failed to deploy the draconian colonial laws against their opponents.
Appadurai finds out that the way the Modi Govt uses the agencies like CBI and ED to hunt down the adversaries which has its roots in the colonial administration. The Central Vista that the Modi regime is constructing in the capital reflects the imperial designs rather than the democratic aspirations of the Indian people.
India against corruption
Modi and BJP came to power in the wake of the anti corruption campaigns by Anna Hazare and his team. The Modi government made a significant announcement on May 28,2014, the first day after assuming power. It was the formation of a special investigation team (SIT) to investigate cases of black money. Josy Joseph writes in his book ' The Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business Of Democracy In India' that the biggest case that came up before the SIT was of the Adani group, promoted by Gautam Adani, one of Modi's closest associates. ''It is in his chartered aircraft that the soon-to-be prime minister zipped around India, accusing the incumbent government of not fighting corruption. The Adani group allegedly took out over Rs 5,000 crore to tax havens, using inflated bills for the import of power equipment from South Korea and China, the SIT on black money was told by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED).''
''Since Modi's ascension to office, what has happened in the ED, which had registered a preliminary case against Adani in Ahmedabad and was handed details of DRI findings, is illustrative. The officer heading the Ahmedabad branch of the directorate was raided by the CBI, which accused him of possessing disproportionate assets. It failed to prove anything at all, despite months of investigation. The two senior-most officers in the Mumbai regional office, who oversaw the investigations in Ahmedabad, were forced out of the agency. The tenure of Rajan S. Katoch, who was heading the directorate when the case was opened, also ended abruptly. Apart from the Adani case, the Ahmedabad ED investigators were also pursuing some of the biggest money launderers of Gujarat. According to a senior ED official associated with the SIT, if the Adani case reaches its logical conclusion, the group will have to pay a fine of around Rs 15,000 crore. 'It is a watertight case,' he said, about the trail of documents showing how the group diverted Rs 5,468 crore to Mauritius via Dubai. The Adani group vehemently denies any wrongdoing. Modi, after his rhetoric-filled ride to power, has been silent.''
Arun Shourie and S Gurumurthy
We should remember Arun Shourie and S Gurumurthy at this critical juncture. Right now Shourie is not in the camp of PM Modi while Gurumurthy remains one of his close associates. Shourie and Gurumurthy led the journalistic battle against the Ambanis and Reliance in the 1980s under the guidance of Ramnath Goenka, the patriarch of the Indian Express. The role enacted by actor Madhavan in 'Guru' was a combination of Gurumurthy and Shourie.
When Dhirajlal Hirachand, popularly known as Dhirubhai Ambani, passed away in 2002, his companies had a turnover of Rs 75,000 crore. Dhirubhai started his career as an attendant at a gas station at Aden in Yemen. He landed in Mumbai from Aden in 1955 with Rs 500 in his hands. He lived in a single room flat at Jaihind estate in Bhuleswar. 53 years later in 2010 Mukesh, son of Dhirubhai, constructed his house, the Antilia, reportedly at a cost of Rs 15,000 crore.
The business rivalry between the Ambanis and Nusli Wadia, the owner of the Bombay Dyeing, in the 1980s is history. The investigative reports that shook the Ambani empire to the core by Shourie and Gurumurthy were published in those days. The reports brought to light the manipulations and machinations of the Ambanis in misusing the stocks and the import licences to promote their business interests.
Dhirubhai was not the first Indian to realise the potential of political power. But there is no other businessman in India who could exploit this potential to the core. There is a saying in economics that one shouldn't put all the eggs in the same basket. Dhirubhai might have learnt this lesson the hard way when VP Singh ministry turned against him in 1989. Dhirubhai suffered a severe setback when his move to take over Larsen and Toubro was stalled by the VP Singh govt.
Keep Your friends close and your enemies closer
The rift between Shourie and Dhirubhai didn't last forever. When the Reliance Industries purchased 26% of the shares of the Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd in 2002, Arun Shourie was in charge of the divestment portfolio. Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurtha recalls in an article that Shourie was under heavy pressure to stall Dhirubhai's move to gain control of IPCL. Reliance bought the shares of IPCL at a price of Rs 231. The second bid was by Indian Oil Corporation, which offered Rs 128 for a share. It remains a mystery why IOC, the public sector company, put a much lower price for the gold mine called IPCL. The purchase of 26% shares bought two thirds of the petrochemicals market in India under the control of Dhirubhai.
Shouie only delivered the first memorial speech at the first death anniversary of Dhirubhai. Shourie remembered the meeting between Dhirubhai and Rupert Murdoch,the media baron. He recounted the conversation between the duo where Dhirubhai told Murdoch that when he came to India he might have met the right people. But then Dhirubhai reminded Murdoch that he must also have met the 'wrong' people. According to Shourie this was a guru mantra. Michael Corleone, the mafia don in 'Godfather' says the same when he advises that ''one must keep his friends close and enemies closer.''
Dhirubhai seemed to have kept Shourie closer. According to Paranjoy Guha Thakhurta, after the deal, Dhirubahi called up Shourie and spoke to him in a voice choked with emotion: ''I know what you have been through. Anyone else would have given up. I will never forget. I don't care about business. I care about relationships. No one in my family will ever forget.'' But it appears that the Ambanis couldn't keep Gurumurthy that close.
When the Reliance group entered the telecom market it was Gurumurthy who wrote some of the most aggressive reports on the alleged violations of the rule of the land by the Ambanis. The ambitious project of the Ambanis was inaugurated by none other than the then PM Atal Behari Vajpayee. And Gurumurthy described the act thus: ''The first illegal call was received by the PM himself.''
Democracy and Business
It may be a coincidence that Gurumurthy preferred Modi to Vajpayee. It may also be another coincidence that Gurumurthy didn't attack the Adanis the way he took on the Ambanis. The relationship between the political world and the corporate houses is extremely complex and deep. It is beyond the capabilities of the common folk to decipher who meets whom at the labyrinths of the political game centres.
The fight between Hindenburg and the Adanis brings to mind Feroze and the Indian Express. The characters only change, the plot remains the same- the siphoning of the national assets by the corporations. Nehru was the PM during the time of Feroze. Modi is ruling the country when Hindenburg takes on the Adanis. This is a fundamental difference. It was this difference that resulted in the resignation of TTK and the imprisonment of Dalmia. It is this difference that causes the raids on the BBC offices.
RIchard Nixon, the American President, had to quit in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The reports of the decision by the Air India owned by the Tata group to buy 400 aircrafts from the Boeing , the American firm, comes amidst the battle between Hindenburg and the Adanis. Varghese George examines how this deal strengthens the camaraderie between the US, British, French regimes and the Modi govt in an article in the Hindu few days ago. Business is business in democracy as well. That is why the IT raids on BBC offices don't make the British and the US regimes concerned about the freedom of the press. These spectacles once again prove that it is not the regimes but the media and the civil society who will be there to protect democracy.