Sutanu Guru

By no means was he a saint. But the impact he has left behind on India is simply unmatched. For once, please postpone your obeisance to “socialist” deities and pay tribute to this giants… 

Who are the five Indians post-independence to have done things that have transformed the country in fundamental ways? Many will opt for powerful and charismatic politicians like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi. Given a choice, I would opt for P. V. Narashima Rao.

Dhirubhai Ambani with his employees

Sports aficionados would single out Milkha Singh, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, P. V. Sindhu, Sania Mirza…Folks with a keen social conscience might pick up Vinoba Bhave, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Mother Teresa…Those inclined towards entertainment would bicker over Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and others.

Some naïve Indians might even want to add the likes of Medha Patkar to the list. But do note: I am talking about individuals who transformed the country in fundamental ways.

I don’t really know who will be in my personal list of top five. But there is no doubt that Dhirubhai Ambani will certainly find a place. Twenty-one years ago on July 6, Dhirubhai passed away at Beach Candy hospital. By contemporary standards of life expectancy, he was not very old. Yet, there is not a shadow of doubt that his path breaking and pioneering-often controversial decisions have had a profound impact on Indian business, economy, society and mindset. I know many “left liberals” would be shocked. How can anyone pick up a robber baron and place him in a list of five greatest Indians?

Here is what Arun Shourie, the journalist at The Indian Express who relentlessly hounded Dhirubhai Ambani and “exposed” his corporate sins had to say during a meeting organised in Mumbai to pay tribute to Ambani after his death: “I first learnt about him through the articles of my colleague S Gurumurthy. The point of most of the articles was that Reliance had done something in excess of what had been licensed, it was producing in excess of that capacity.

And then, he explained how times had changed: 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, 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.”

As Shourie says, Dhirubhai Ambani loved to break silly and stifling rules and regulations. An entrepreneur was forced in those “glorious days of socialism” to come to Delhi for everything. You needed a license to start a business or a factory. You needed permission to even expand your business. You needed special licenses to import capital equipment because “precious foreign exchange” needed to be conserved.

Once an ambitious Dhirubhai understood how the “system” works, there was no stopping him. The upstart tycoon outsmarted old business families who had more than a generation of lobbying experience and expertise. The standard criticism against Dhirubhai those days (I too have written plenty of negative articles about him in The Times of India) was that he would get a license to build a factory with say a 1000 ton capacity but actually build one with a 3000 ton capacity.

The other, more serious charge against him was that he lobbied to deny other business families the opportunities that Reliance Industries grabbed. No wonder, many cynics and critics wondered if Dhirubhai and Reliance would survive competition when the Indian economy was liberalised and opened to global competition.

Ironically, it was in the post reforms era that Reliance has truly blossomed. As the accompanying chart reveals, the revenue of Reliance in 199-92 when reforms were unleashed was just about Rs 4,000 crores. Dhirubhai Ambani died in 2002. By then, the revenue of the company had skyrocketed to almost Rs 100,000 crores.

His vision was so extraordinary and the foundations laid by him so strong that Reliance revenue in 2021-22-twenty years after his death-was a shade above Rs 800,000 crores. There is no aspect of Indian life that is left untouched by Reliance. It has the largest petroleum refinery in the world at Jamnagar in Gujarat. The Vimal brand of textiles still sell. Reliance Retail is now a global powerhouse that competes successfully with the likes of Amazon and Wal Mart.

Reliance Jio with more than 430 million subscribers is now one of the largest telecom companies in the world. Due credit must be given to Dhirubhai’s elder son Mukesh Ambani who has not let the Reliance momentum flag. The younger son, Anil Ambani unfortunately crashed and destroyed all his business projects.

I admire Dhirubhai Ambani and rate him as one of most influential post-independence greats for three reasons: the first is the equity and stock market cult among middle class Indians. Reliance first went public in 1977. If you are lucky enough to have a father or grandfather who invested Rs 10,000 in Reliance shares then and left them for you, the value of that investment is Rs 25 million today. It is Dhirubhai who encouraged a generation of middle class Indians to start investing in stock markets.

The second reason is the sheer scale of his vision and operations. Even when the Indian economy was cut off from the global economy, Dhirubhai somehow built factories with capacities that matched the biggest in the world. The third reason is manufacturing. India has spawned many a billionaire in the last two decades or so. Barring a few, almost all deal with IT & ITES, services and internet-based businesses. Dhirubhai focused on world class manufacturing.

(Author has been a media professional for over 3 decades. He is now Executive Director, C Voter Foundation. Views are Personal)