Ambani compared to Gandhi for ‘bold ideas’ to transform India

By Parveen Chopra, IANS,

New York : Even as Reliance Industries chief Mukesh Ambani is caught in a renewed feud with Anil Ambani over hs younger brother’s company Reliance Communications’ merger deal with MTN, the New York Times has compared Mukesh to Mahatma Gandhi for being “a revolutionary thinker with bold ideas for what India ought to become”.

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The richest person in India who many of his countrymen expect will be the richest person on earth before long, told the Times in a rare interview that his goals are for India’s benefit as much as they are for his sprawling company.

The highly regarded US paper, however also noted the difference in his approach and Gandhi’s in a lengthy, 4,000-word profile on Mukesh Ambani Sunday.

“In the last century, Mahatma Gandhi was the most famous and powerful private citizen in India. Today, Ambani is widely regarded as playing that role, though in a very different way,” the paper’s Mumbai correspondent Anand Giridharadas wrote.

While Gandhi was an ascetic, a champion of the village, a sceptic of modernity and a man focused on spiritual purity, Ambani, a fellow Gujarati from bania caste, too, is a vegetarian and a teetotaler but is “an oligarch, a champion of the city, a burier of the past and a man who deftly – and, some critics say, ruthlessly – wields financial power.”

“Can we really banish abject poverty in this country?” Ambani was quoted as saying by the Times. “Yes, in 10, 15 years we can say we would have done that substantially. Can we make sure that we create a social structure where we remove untouchability? We’re fast moving to a new India where you don’t think about this caste and that caste,” he added.

Ambani has promised that his company with $39 billion in revenue will funnel money from the flourishing cities into the struggling agricultural heartland. Having opened a chain of nearly 700 stores selling food and various wares; he sees the company providing incomes to 12 million to 30 million Indians within the next five years by buying from farmers and employing new workers in its stores, the Times said.

Ambani appears to be a new architect of modern India. To meet rising energy demand in the country, Reliance is plowing billions of dollars into energy exploration and is building the world’s largest oil refinery. And as Mumbai, his hometown and the commercial and entertainment capital of India, grows ever more populous and less habitable, he has proposed that Reliance simply build a new, improved city across the harbour, the New York daily said in a glowing profile that ran to almost two pages.

Taking note of 51-year-old Mukesh’s feud with his younger brother after their father’s death six years ago, the paper noted that after taking control of roughly half the company, he has entered new areas while maintaining his family’s dominance in its petrochemical, oil and gas and textile manufacturing businesses.

While Ambani is motivated by “the ability to change the face of the country” as K.V. Kamath, ICICI Bank’s chief executive said, he is also known as someone who lets little stand in his or Reliance’s way, the paper said.

Some businessmen say Ambani has already established himself as India’s great transformer, with a legacy that has much in common with American industrialists of the 19th century.

“When we talk about Rockefeller and Carnegie and all these guys, they really each changed one industry,” said Nandan Nilekani, the Infosys co-chairman. “But if you look at what he’s doing, he’s really changing three or four industries.”

Now Ambani is toying with an ambitious plan to make India a rival to China in manufacturing. Unlike China, where large factories in urban areas have sprung up populated by millions of migrant labourers who produce goods at cheap prices, the model does not work in India because of difficulty in acquiring land from farmers and corruption in large infrastructure project.

Ambani’s vision, the Times said, is to promote and channel small-scale and fragmented manufacturing. “The next big thing is how do you create manufacturing with decentralised employment,” he said. “The Chinese have got very disciplined top-down systems. We have our bottom-up creative systems.”

Reliance would have disparate villagers make products like handmade leather sandals and pottery, tie-dyed Bandhani saris, clothes and jewellery, oversee quality, gather the wares and market and distribute the products.

Gandhi, famous for his passion for small-scale rural production, would have endorsed Ambani’s plan to profit on such goods, the Times commented.

Ambani himself invoked the man whom India calls The Father of the Nation. “How do you really bring about, in a country of a billion people, the individuality of every single individual?” Ambani asked. “How do you make sure that you create systems that empower everybody and bring them to their true potential? This is what actually Gandhi taught us.”

“The optimistic part to me,” he added, “is that now these goals look achievable.”

But no, unlike Gandhi, Ambani is not interested in entering politics.

“I think I can do much, much more in my particular job,” he told the Times.