Byline by M J Akbar: My brother’s peacekeeper
Mukesh and Anil Ambani were born fortunate. We will now find out whether they are also lucky. If they are, they will at long last discover the creative joy of independence.
Fortune is the root and fruit of fortunate; but their true wealth lies not in money but in the DNA they inherited from Dhirubhai Ambani. Controversy is the sister of success, and Dhirubhai was successful enough to have many such sisters. But you would have to be an idiot to deny that he was an authentic genius of the 20th century, a visionary who did more than any individual to lift the Indian economy from the shackles of moribund convention and place it on a platform for a 21st century take-off. Dhirubhai was the first to grasp that Dalal Street, home of the Mumbai stock exchange, consists of two words. While traditional capitalists concentrated on the first word, he took a revolutionary step towards the second. Others raised capital in the velvet atmosphere of bank boardrooms, where the murmur of deals was only interrupted by the soft sound of backs being scratched to mutual advantage. Dhirubhai created capital from the street, and left the street full of capitalists, even as he expanded the horizons of his industrial vision to a width that only the spread of his own arms could encompass.
It was axiomatic that as long as such a charismatic patriarch was alive, his sons would be willingly dependent on his genius. Dhirubhai’s death should have been the point of amicable departure, with two brothers finding their separate ways, protecting their personal relations with the glue of a close-knit family. But, like so many elder brothers before (and surely after) him, Mukesh fell victim to a misjudgement. He thought he was the new patriarch, rather than a sibling.
He should have known that Dhirubhai’s DNA would have prevented Anil from accepting a glorified, but essentially marginal, place in the family enterprise. Mukesh did not offer his brother a true partnership, just a role that would be determined by the elder brother. Anil has perhaps more of his father’s spirit than Mukesh, since he was forced to begin with very little. The pace with which he has leapt into the worldwide wealth lists is impressive, but statistics are not the compelling part of this epic.
Dependence is a curious phenomenon, since it creates uneven categories out of affection. The swivel of life can turn a parent into the child, as age shifts the nature of dependence. Every family knows the complex mix of need and resentment that accompanies this flux. The oldest story in the Bible revolves around the dilemmas and decisions of the first family, Adam and Eve; but the second is of Cain and Abel.
When Anil Ambani sought equality or independence, as a right rather than a gift, Mukesh treated it as a personal affront. It was also a challenge to the power he would command as the sole dynast of the Dhirubhai empire. The relationship quickly degenerated into a vindictive struggle more reminiscent of the Byzantine or Mughal eras rather than contemporary battles.
But time has proved that this metaphor is exaggerated, for the old definition of success was one-man-left-standing. As dramatic as the struggle has been, even more remarkable is its resolution. I am not privy to its details, but this much seems certain: the brothers realised that war consumes far more energy than peace. They must have recognised the sheer waste of their individual abilities on fratricide. The only people who benefited were lawyers, a comparatively minor expense given the scales on which the brothers operate; and their business competitors, who rushed into space that the brothers left unoccupied because they were preoccupied with each other. You do not have to be a genius to recognise that a self-inflicted wound can turn gangrenous if it is not healed in time, and effectively. Anil Ambani benefits substantially from the settlement since his companies are in competitive space rather than monopolies, for he has had to nurture them either from birth or early childhood. The elimination of the non-compete clause from the agreement is by and large meaningless for Anil Ambani, since he already faces heavyweight competition in power, mobile telephony and entertainment, the three pillars of his interests.
But these are variations to the larger theme, of peace. The vital fact is not that the brothers have found peace with the world, or even between themselves, but that they are now at peace with themselves.
If they can sustain the last, count them lucky.