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Remembering Dhirubhai

All of us are here today to hear the President. So, I will be very brief. And to be briefer still, I will read what I typed on the plane las...

All of us are here today to hear the President. So, I will be very brief. And to be briefer still, I will read what I typed on the plane last evening.

My acquaintance with Dhirubhai went through an almost 180 degree turn over the years. I first learnt about him through the articles of my colleague S. Gurumurthy. The point of most of those articles was that Reliance had done something in excess of what it had been permitted to do: that it had set up capacities in excess of what had been licensed, that it was producing in excess of those capacities.

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, — and I am just paraphrasing Professor Hayek on how law evolves — 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.

From those days of contention to the day Reliance won the bid for IPCL. The price per share of IPCL was Rs 100 or Rs 120. Dhirubhai bid Rs 231 per share. He won — his bid was twice that of the nearest rival, the IOC. Government, and, as time will show, the country were the immediate, and huge gainers. But there had been unbelievable pressures throughout to disqualify Reliance. The position that eventually prevailed within the Government was that Cabinet had earlier settled guidelines for qualifying and disqualifying bidders. 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.

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But 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 process to a halt. Throughout this period, Dhirubhai never contacted me — directly or indirectly. But obviously he was getting to know what was going on — for he had sources in places where mere journalists like me don’t even know there are places.

The evening the result was announced, he rang up. His voice was choked with emotion: ‘‘I know what you have been put 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.’’ Actually, I hadn’t realised that the contest had meant that much to him. I had been merely implementing Government policy.

So over the years my acquaintance with him — confined to the rare meeting — had turned 180 degrees. In part, as I said, for an intellectual reason: we had all got convinced that persons like him had done the country a service, they had put up world-class facilities in India in spite of the shackles by which governments had sought to confine them. In part, because I had got to meet him a few times. He was always direct. He was full of ideas about what the country could do, if only it would be allowed to do it. And — what is a journalist’s staple — he was always full of information, and — even more delicious — he was full of anecdotes.

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But I looked forward to those rare meetings for another reason — the reason I look forward to this day to meeting all self-made men: to garner their guru mantras. And I always came back with a nugget or two. Let me give you an example.

Once by coincidence I met him soon after Rupert Murdoch had called on him. I asked him what they had talked about. ‘‘I asked him,’’ Dhirubhai said, ‘‘In Delhi, whom did you meet?’’. ‘‘I met the Prime Minister, the Information Minister, the Finance Minister,’’ Murdoch had narrated the names of many high-ups. ‘‘You have met all the right people, I told him,’’ Dhirubhai said. ‘‘Next time you come to India, you must spare time and meet the wrong people also — like…’’ he named a few — I won’t! — and laughed. ‘‘I always meet the wrong people also. You see, they can stop what you want to get done!’’ A guru mantra! And I can testify from personal knowledge, that one must follow it! I face the cost of not following it every day as I try to implement the Government’s decisions on disinvestment!

That is why, in my mind, associated with Dhirubhai is also a lasting regret. I had always wanted to do a series of TV programmes in which these self-made men would talk about the maxims they had distilled from life, from daring the world, from grappling with great odds, from building great empires and institutions, from moving millions, from retaining what they had acquired or losing it all. That would be the true text of ‘‘the Indian way of management.’’ I never got a sponsor. And so many of the small number from the last fifty years who would have fit that category have gone — one by one. There are many things to learn from Dhirubhai:

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Scale
Focus
Execution
Innovations in financial instruments
The faith he placed in shareholders, the faith they reposed in him

But all that, and more of what we can learn from Dhirubhai, some other day. Today, we are all here to learn from the President.

(This is the text of the remarks of the author made at the First Dhirubhai Ambani Memorial Lecture delivered by President A P J Abdul Kalam in Mumbai on July 6)

First published on: 08-07-2003 at 12:00:00 am
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