And how he defines India’s Gilded Age
James Crabtree | 12 Jul, 2018
Talk that Mukesh Ambani would build a magnificent new house began drifting through Mumbai in the early years of the new millennium, not long after his father died. The business magnate bought a plot of land on Altamount Road and quietly launched an architecture competition. Early designs showed a soaring ‘eco-tower’ with lush green plants spilling down the sides. Residence Antilia, as the structure was first called, quickly became known as the world’s most expensive private home. It was to be a vertical palace with a rumoured price tag of $1 billion, towering over a city where half the population still live in slums. As gossip it was irresistible. A petrol pump attendant turned industrial titan, Dhirubhai Ambani’s was corporate India’s most celebrated rags-to-riches story. Now the scale of his son’s plans hinted at the grandeur of his own ambitions, not simply to run his father’s business but to seize his mantle as the nation’s pre-eminent tycoon as well.
For those who knew the Ambani clan, the building carried still deeper symbolism. Dhirubhai Ambani passed on without leaving a will, assuming that his sons— Mukesh, then forty-five, and Anil, two years his junior—would go on to control Reliance together. The pair had contrasting reputations: the elder unflashy, introverted and well organised; the younger a flamboyant financial wizard. They worked together amicably enough under the old man’s gaze. But relations soured quickly without him, and a ferocious battle for control began. Over three acrimonious years their feud gripped India, playing out first in the press, then in the courts. Associates of the two men still refer to this period as ‘the war, a corporate Cain-and-Abel battle so fierce it appeared as if the country itself was being forced to take sides.
Back then both brothers lived in a fourteen-storey residential tower called Sea Wind, a thin, white structure with a helipad on the roof, about a fifteen-minute walk from my own apartment in southern Mumbai. The Ambanis had the whole building, with each brother living on separate floors. During their feud, the two men co-ordinated their entry and exit, to avoid running into one another in the lifts. The intimacy of these arrangements gave their squabbles an added frisson, replicating the plots of Indian soap operas in which members of big business families plotted against one another under the same roof. Their mother, Kokilaben, lived in the building too; her early attempts at detente went nowhere. India’s most powerful business family was tearing itself apart. And if Mukesh Ambani planned to leave Sea Wind and build a new home of his own, there was no clearer signal that it would not come back together.
Dhirubhai Ambani grew up in a poor village in the western state of Gujarat, before moving in his late teens to seek work in Aden, a British imperial port in what is now Yemen. He tended a Shell petrol forecourt at first, then worked as an office clerk. On the side he learned to trade in the souks. Eight years later, having married and had his first son, he moved back home to start a business in Bombay, as Mumbai was known before its name changed in 1995. Dhirubhai founded what would become Reliance Industries in the late 195os, trading yarn, importing polyester and exporting spices. It was profitable work, but money remained tight. Mukesh Ambani spent much of his early childhood living with his three siblings in a two-roomed chawl or tenement house, in a poor midtown area packed with belching mills.
Reliance began to grow even when entrepreneurs remained shackled by the restrictions of the Licence Raj, all set up in the name of Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘scientific socialism’. Dhirubhai Ambani proved masterful at navigating these rules, learning both to work the system and to work around it. He realised the value of favours in New Delhi, where he befriended politicians and coaxed information from bureaucrats. ‘His philosophy was to cultivate everybody from the doorkeeper up,’ as his unofficial biographer Hamish McDonald put it. Regulations or licences helpful to Reliance appeared mysteriously, aiding Ambani’s move into textiles manufacturing, then enabling him to open a giant polyester plant. At the time Mukesh was living in America, studying for an MBA at Stanford University; his father told him to end his studies early and return home to Mumbai to run the facility.
Styling himself as a populist, Dhirubhai Ambani floated Reliance Industries on the stock market in 1977, becoming an icon to India’s first generation of retail investors and addressing giant crowds at shareholder meetings held at football grounds and cricket pitches. As his businesses grew so the tycoon moved his family as well, first taking an apartment in a prestigious residential high-rise, then buying the entire Sea Wind block. Yet for all his ability to work India’s system, he still chafed against its limitations. Arun Shourie, a former newspaper editor and otherwise staunch critic of the tycoon’s business style, gave a speech not long after his death, praising him for exposing India’s failing bureaucracy. ‘The Dhirubhais [of this world] are to be thanked, not once but twice over,’ Shourie argued. ‘They set up world-class companies [and] by exceeding the limits in which those restrictions sought to impound them, they helped create the case for scrapping those regulations.’
The 1991 reforms began that clear-out, giving Indians a taste of a new world of mobile phones, multi-channel television and foreign consumer goods. For business leaders like Ambani it meant the ability to import freely and expand into deregulated sectors. By the time Mukesh Ambani took over, Reliance had spread out into many of these new areas, using its connections and commercial heft to build an industrial behemoth with divisions stretching from petrochemicals and oil refining to energy and telecoms. The company’s growing powers were once captured in a joke, emphasising the shift from state-dominated socialism to a rapacious market economy: the history of independent India, the joke went, could be charted in the shift ‘from self-reliance to Reliance’.
Yet even this rich legacy was not enough to hold the company together. After years of feuding, confirmation that Reliance would be partitioned arrived in June 2005. Kokilaben, the matriarch, finally hammered out a peace accord, concluded with a ceremony at the family’s temple. ‘With the blessings of Srinathji, I have today amicably resolved the issues between my two sons, Mukesh and Anil, keeping in mind the proud legacy of my husband,’ she wrote in a statement. The younger sibling would get half of the company, including its telecoms and power divisions. The elder would keep the energy and petrochemicals operations. Both would use the name Reliance. The armistice did not end the brothers’ bad feeling exactly. Instead a kind of cold war began, in which the duo scrapped over the terms of their separation. Nor did it reassure those who viewed Reliance as the epitome of a more worrying trend: the growing concentration of corporate wealth in India, and its corrosive effects on political power.
A gated community in the sky, Antilia provided a sense of privacy for a man whose fame made it complicated to appear in public
At first both brothers fared well during India’s mid-20oos boom. But as the decade wound on it was the elder man who prospered, building projects that were bold in scale and ruthlessly well managed. He finished the company’s giant oil refinery and set up a new energy exploration arm. His operations, which were mostly set up early in his father’s career, easily outperformed the newer concerns inherited by his sibling. Mukesh grew wealthier too. In 2005 he ranked third on the Forbes India Rich List, one place ahead of his brother But over the next few years he powered upwards, taking the title of richest Indian that he has never since relinquished. At the time of his death Dhirubhai Ambani was placed 138th in the Forbes global billionaire rankings. By 2008 his son had elbowed his way into the top five. Mukesh Ambani rarely spoke in public and cloaked his ambitions in bland corporate language when he did. But those who knew him told a different story. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ a friend from his university days once told me. ‘He wants to be the richest man in the world:
The Mythical Island
ANTILIA’S TERRACES FACED WEST TOWARDS THE SEA, but visitors arrived at the entrance at the back, the only one on Altamount Road, where heavily armed guards stood outside on the street. An imposing three-metre-high rust-and-gold- coloured gate slid slowly from right to left to let guests inside, revealing a short driveway up towards the lobby. Inside, the building doubled as an opulent private hotel, foyer festooned with cut flowers and garlanded images of Dhirubhai Ambani. The ground floor’s ballroom hosted Reliance corporate functions, as well as the many gatherings the family threw for local charities and dignitaries. Its ceiling was covered almost entirely in crystal chandeliers. A giant golden Buddha statue stood in the garden, surrounded by elegant water features. ‘It’s all very bling: an occasional guest once told me. ‘Lots of chandeliers. The chandeliers have chandeliers.’
Part of the building’s grandeur came from its adaptability, allowing Mukesh Ambani to host private events on almost any scale within his own court walls. Those invited back noticed how the fixtures would change from one gathering to the next. His wife Nita often took charge of remodelling the space, adding or removing walls and staircases as the occasion demanded. Catwalks and foreign DJs were brought in for fashion shows. Stylish interior canopies appeared at wedding receptions thrown for favoured relatives. The cast of Broadway musicals flew in for special one-night performances. The grander the gathering, the greater the throng of Bollywood stars, celebrity cricketers, bigwig politicians and fellow tycoons, at a venue whose very exclusivity marked out membership of India’s new aristocracy. Smaller and more intimate soirees were hosted higher up, where the truly elect were whisked upwards by express lift to the sky terrace on the roof. On Diwali, the annual festival of lights, there was no grander spot than Antilia’s top terrace from which to watch fireworks explode out over the skyline.
When not used for entertaining, the building provided a more basic function: a sanctuary and place to retreat. It doubled as an office, with facilities for video conferences with executives in distant Reliance divisions. There were places to relax, from the temple on the upper floors to the basement sports courts in which Ambani’s eldest son Akash invited friends to play football, handing out free pairs of Nike trainers to anyone who did. Rather than go out, the family often hosted small events for friends, hiring in musicians or stand-up comics. There was a home cinema too, in which the tycoon could indulge his taste for late-night Bollywood movies. A gated community in the sky, the building provided a sense of privacy for a man whose fame made it complicated to appear in public, and whose shyness meant he rarely wanted to do so. It was a tension the building itself could never quite resolve: an oasis designed to keep India at bay, but one that succeeded only in attracting more attention to its reclusive owner.
Controversies dogged the place too. There was a court case about the land upon which it was built, acquired from an Islamic trust that had originally planned to use the plot to establish an orphanage. Not long after construction wrapped up in 2010, a local journalist managed to get hold of Antilia’s monthly energy bill. It came to roughly seven million rupees ($109,000), causing a minor outcry in a country where hundreds of millions lived without power of any sort. There was more intrigue the next year: although Antilia was already being used for entertaining, it emerged that the Ambanis themselves had not actually moved in. Rumours swirled about problems concerning vastu shastra, a Hindu theory of harmonious architecture, similar in some ways to feng shui. In a rare 2012 interview with Vanity Fair, Nita Ambani confirmed that the family had by then finally taken up residence, although she declined to give reasons for their delay. Such was the family’s desire for privacy that the article’s author talked of months of ‘nuclear-treaty-level negotiations’ before their meeting, most of which were designed to stop any questions relating to Antilia at all.
Dhirubhai Ambani passed on without leaving a will, assuming that his sons Mukesh and Anil would go on to control Reliance together
The building’s lavish interiors—and the life of untouchable privilege that went with them—caused fascination and resentment in equal measure. Visitors whispered details of specially shipped-in artworks along the driveway, or lavish parties in which acrobats from Cirque du Soleil spun from triple-height ceilings. One friend attended an event in which guests were taken up in lifts with live butterflies fluttering around inside, caged in cylindrical glass walls. Antilia hinted at an existence that was part burlesque fantasy, part oligarch mansion, part Bond villain lair: a city within a city, and a barrier against the chaos below. Even the mysterious name seemed to hint at a deeper, epochal change. The Ambanis never did explain their choice, but before they adopted it the word ‘Antilia’ was used to describe a mythical island on the far side of the Atlantic. Similar to Atlantis, it embodied the idea of territory yet to be discovered, serving as a target for sea- faring explorers in the fifteenth century. In the words of historian Abbas Hamdani, Antilia was a ‘motivation for exploration’—a new beginning; a fresh chapter in history.
Mukesh Ambani’s home embodied India’s brash new style, but also an underlying clash of cultures. The old commercial elite were English-speaking and cosmopolitan, with accents polished at foreign schools and family fortunes dating back to imperial times. For them, liberalisation had been at once thrilling and unnerving: a font of opportunities but also a source of raw new competitors muscling their way in from unfamiliar parts of India, of whom the Ambanis were merely the most forceful. Thousands thronged the streets when Dhirubhai Ambani died in 2002, a sign of the affection with which he was held by shareholders and ordinary citizens. While many criticised his buccaneering methods, they also admired the way he bulldozed his way into a closed business elite. His son, however, was viewed with less warmth and just as much suspicion. One exemplary member of the old establishment, Ratan Tata, patriarch of the Tata conglomerate and perhaps the only man to rival Mukesh Ambani’s stature in business, hinted as much in a 2011 interview. ‘It makes me wonder why someone would do that, he said when asked about Antilia. ‘That’s what revolutions are made of.’
‘You walk around the streets of this city, and the amount of rage at Antilia has to be heard to be believed,’ Meera Sanyal, a former international banker turned local anti-corruption campaigner, told me a few years later. Sanyal had spent three decades working in finance, rising to become head of Royal Bank of Scotland’s India operations. During the 2009 general election she ran as an independent candidate, angered by the incompetent government response to Mumbai’s terror attacks the year before, when gunmen attacked prominent targets, including the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. But as time wore on she found a new target: not so much the incompetence of the state but the venality of its business class, amid a welter of multi-billion-dollar scandals, ranging from corruption during the 2010 Commonwealth Games to the handing out of valuable coal and telecoms licences on the cheap. Almost all involved allegations of collusion between politicians, bureaucrats and business titans—the basic definition of crony capitalism.
When we met in 2014, Sanyal was again trying to become a member of parliament in south Mumbai, standing, again unsuccessfully, for the new anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (‘Common Man’) Party, in the same national election that would sweep Narendra. Modi to power. One warm spring evening not long before the poll, I found her on a busy roadside next to a well- known Hindu temple, not far from Antilia. Cars honked as they streamed past, while the smell of marigold blossom hung in the air. A ragged holy man dressed in black sat cross-legged on the pavement, selling lotus flowers to worshippers. Sanyal wore an orange and yellow sari, along with the white peaked side cap often adopted by Aam Aadmi party workers, in a conscious echo of the ‘Gandhi cap’ worn by nationalist activists during the fight for Independence.
A few dozen supporters tagged along as we walked through the neighbourhood, banging drums and brandishing the brooms that symbolised their plans to sweep away dirty politics. Not long after we set out, a cheer went up. Over the next junction stood a Reliance jeweller’s shop, part of Ambani’s ever-expanding retail operations. Sanyal’s band waved their brooms cheerfully at the staff, who stared back bemused behind displays thick with gold watches and rings. Around the next corner we walked past Gamdevi police station and the group stopped to pose for pictures next to a busted-up Aston Martin, hidden beneath a dirty grey sheet.
Later that week I watched Sanyal try to win over a late-night gathering of dozens of young professionals, crammed into a cavernous living room in the south of the city. There was an energy among the crowd, with people sitting five deep on the floor. The audience were well to do and liberal, although mostly disengaged from mainstream politics. In India, unlike in the West, wealthy neighbourhoods tend to have lower voter turnouts while poor areas stream to the polls, in the hope that loyalty to some local politician or other might improve their lot. The upper middle classes view their politicians as they view their tycoons: as operators of dubious machines fuelled by graft and patronage. Even so India’s anti-corruption movements— which began around 2011, and a few years later resulted in the launch of Sanyal’s party—have raised hopes of change. In 2014 the troubled state of Indian capitalism was a central electoral theme, and Mukesh Ambani found himself decried frequently by politicians on the stump as an exemplar of how private financial might was corroding democracy.
A New Gilded Age
SPEAKING IN 1916, MOHANDAS GANDHI WARNED that India faced a pernicious new kind of commercialism. ‘Western nations are groaning today under the heel of the monster god materialism.’ he told students at a college in the heartland state of Uttar Pradesh. ‘Many of our country-men say that we will gain American wealth, but avoid its methods. I venture to suggest that such an attempt, if it were made, is foredoomed to failure.’ Gandhi’s views were rooted in his own era, chiming with the theories of anti-colonialism and non-violent protest that earned him the title ‘Mahatma’, or ‘great soul’ in Sanskrit. Almost a century later, his warnings seemed prescient.
From the Colosseum in Rome and the church steeples of medieval Europe to the gleaming modern skyscrapers of New York or London, the spirit of an age is often captured in its grandest buildings. Rising high above Mumbai, it was hard not to view Antilia as a symbol of the country India was becoming. Although conspicuously modern, by turns it also harked back to earlier eras when India had been more familiar with lavish fortunes. ‘Bombay has always had a history of ostentatious homes of the very rich,’ I was once told by Mustansir Dalvi, a professor at the city’s JJ School of Architecture. The building reminded him of the mansions of this merchant class, and the maharajas’ palaces before them. ‘In the nineteenth century, several of the wealthiest, like Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and the Tata family, built large town houses, heavily ornamented and very well appointed. They were also the great philanthropists of the city and are now remem-bered as city fathers. Mr Ambani’s efforts are simply the latest example.’
Antilia’s excess also carried echoes of an earlier era in America, and another celebrated business dynasty: the Vanderbilts. Like Dhirubhai Ambani, Cornelius Vanderbilt grew up modestly. The son of poor Dutch immigrants, he was born in a wooden house on Staten Island in 1794, working on his father’s boat as a boy and learning to take goods over the bay to New York. In his teens he pestered his mother to lend him $100 to buy a vessel of his own, earning the nickname ‘Commodore’ for his fearlessness on the water. He went on to build a small fleet, only to find his expansion plans blocked by local rivals whose businesses were protected by exclusive government licences and charters, which were controlled in turn by pliant politicians. ‘When Vanderbilt became a steamboat operator in 1817, the mercantile economy was controlled by an elite circle,’ according to historian Steve Fraser.
As in socialist-era India, this patrician commercial class dominated America’s pre-industrial economy. They were especially powerful in river transport, handing out valuable monopolies for ferry routes to their own members. The Commodore took them on, cramming his fleet with more boats than the rules allowed and pushing them to their limits, risking workers and passengers alike. Some competitors were taken out with ruthless price wars, others via aggressive legal suits. Vanderbilt styled himself as a populist, penning rabble-rousing articles against his rivals and christening his Hudson ferry service ‘The People’s Line’. He expanded first into shipping and then into rail. As the first true railroad tycoon his style embodied America’s new, bare-knuckle capitalism. In 1871 Vanderbilt built the original Grand Central station, New York’s most prominent public building. When he died six years later he was America’s wealthiest citizen, passing on an unheard-of fortune of more than $100 million.
For all of his wealth, Vanderbilt lived frugally, hoarding money and keeping modest houses. After his death his children found themselves cut adrift from the city’s elite, unable to shake their father’s ruffian image. Just as Ambani did more than a century later, they crafted an answer to these delicate social problems in concrete and steel, beginning a series of fabulous residences just south of the city’s new Central Park. William Henry, Cornelius’s eldest son, spent a good portion of his inheritance on a ‘triple palace’—a trio of adjoining sandstone mansions on Fifth Avenue. The Commodore’s grandson William Kissam Vanderbilt, along with his wife Alva, commissioned an even grander project: a Renaissance-style castle known as the Petit Chateau, complete with fairy-tale turrets and gables. ‘Alva wasn’t interested in another home.’ as one account put it. ‘She wanted a weapon: a house she could use as a battering ram to crash through the gates of society.’ In the spring of 1883 the couple celebrated its completion by throwing a lavish costume party, welcoming more than a thousand guests into the grandest private ballroom New York had ever seen.
One of Ambani’s competitors told me Jio’s launch would be akin to the bloody battles of the Mahabharata
Vanderbilt’s legacy divided America just as the Ambanis’ divided India. His admirers saw in the Commodore a new kind of American promise: a low-born scrapper whose guile and cunning had pushed him to the very top. To his detractors Vanderbilt was an unprincipled figure, with a weakness for fistfights and infidelity. As his empire grew, newspapers compared him to the historic robber barons of Europe, so called because they extorted payments from travellers crossing their lands. One family descendant wrote a memoir recalling the patriarch’s worst habits: a man who spat ‘tobacco juice on his hostess’s rugs and pinched the bottoms of which[ever] of the pretty maids caught his fancy’. Vanderbilt was even less popular among the liberal elite, those east coast Brahmins who worried about the growing power of their nation’s new industrial giants. Mark Twain, perhaps the most famous public figure of the age, once wrote him an open letter, mocking what he described as Vanderbilt’s ceaselessly acquisitive instincts, even as he stood unchallenged ‘upon the pinnacle of moneyed magnificence in America’.
The idea that India’s problems of crony capitalism echoed those of America’s was one I heard later from economist Raghuram Rajan, by then the head of the country’s central bank. Rajan was a man known for questioning orthodoxies. Back in 2005, during his time as chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, he gave a speech predicting important elements of the coming financial crisis, earning him a reputation as a minor prophet of the calamities of global capitalism. Born in southern India, he spent most of his adult life as an academic in the US, teaching economics at the University of Chicago. But in 2012 he moved home to take a position as a government economic adviser, and a year later he was appointed as governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). It was a position traditionally held by cautious technocrats. At first Rajan looked the part, with his circumspect manner and professorial habit of arguing both sides of a point. Soon enough it became clear he had bigger ideas, however, not just about India’s problems of inflation but also about the troubling ties that had grown up between its tycoons and politicians.
Rajan’s intellectual curiosity shone through in speeches that strayed far outside the normal remit of his job, including one delivered about a year after he joined the RBI, laying out ‘a hypothesis on the persistence of crony capitalism’. India’s public services were threadbare, he argued. Social welfare programmes meant to help the poor worked badly. State schools and hospitals were typically dismal, while the state failed to provide basic services like running water and reliable power. ‘This is where the crooked but savvy politician fits in,’ Rajan said. ‘While the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants: In return the politician developed systems of patronage, helping constituents to find government jobs or receive welfare payments, or simply handing out cash. And to get the money to do this, as well as to fund election campaigns, the politicians needed the kind of cash that only very wealthy business-people possessed.
Rajan’s inspiration on cronyism came from The Age of Reform, a book by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter explaining how the US over-came its own robber baron era. In the early stages of America’s Gilded Age, as in India’s, an alliance grew up between tycoons and politicians, with the former funding patronage controlled by the latter. ‘Obviously, to do some of this, some of these guys need resources,’ he told me. ‘And where do you get resources from? You get resources from business.’ Breaking this system of collusion was hard. In America it took a generation or more, beginning with new populist movements at the end of the nineteenth century, which gave birth in turn to the political and social reform of the Progressive Era. But it culminated only in the New Deal of the 193os, when improvements in state welfare broke the system of clientelism that kept America’s urban political machines in power. ‘It’s sort of an unholy nexus,’ Rajan said of India’s situation. ‘Poor public services? Politician fills the gap; politician gets the resources from the businessman; politician gets re-elected by the electorate for whom he’s filling the gap; and electorate turns a blind eye to the deals done with the businessman.
Tens of thousands of middle-class protestors began to take to the streets as evidence of these relationships became ever more brazen during 2011. Although egged on by campaigning television news anchors, these anti-corruption movements were mostly sparked by a new wave of activists: Anna Hazare, the ageing ascetic who led the movement at first, then Arvind Kejriwal, an irascible tax inspector turned graft crusader who founded the Aam Aadmi Party a few years later.
EVEN THE BRIEFEST APPEARANCE BY MUKESH Ambani had an air of fleeting excitement. I met him first in a plush Mumbai hotel at a private lunch for a few dozen business leaders in 2013. He arrived late, dressed in his usual dark trousers and a rustic white cotton short-sleeved shirt, and seemed thoroughly ill at ease throughout. Then in his mid-fifties, he was shorter and chubbier than I expected, with dark black hair swept back with oil. Armed guards stood by the door, a reflection of his status as the only businessmen in India to have what was known officially as ‘Z-list’ security protection, a status normally reserved only for the most senior of politicians and civil servants. There were other speakers that day but I noticed that most of those attending spent more time glancing furtively over at the chief guest than listening, as if suddenly star-struck in the presence of corporate royalty. Towards the end Ambani stood up and gave brief remarks, talking in bland, uneasy cliches about his faith in India’s future and his belief in the exciting possibilities of new technology. He seemed nervous and his head nodded back and forth awkwardly as he spoke. After the meal he waited around only briefly, before emptying the room as he and his guards headed for the exit.
To see Ambani in more relaxed mood I used to go along to each year’s Reliance Industries annual general meeting, one of the great displays of Indian corporate theatre. Although not as boisterous as his father’s football ground jamborees, Ambani’s gathering in July 2015 still packed thousands of shareholders into the Birla Matoshree auditorium, a grand colonial-era hall a few blocks from Mumbai’s main cricket stadium and about fifteen minutes from Antilia. Paintings of political leaders lined the walls: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, a seventeenth-century warrior king who fought against the British; Nehru, icon of the Congress party; and Gandhi, national father figure, anti-capitalist and a man who, implausibly enough, had been born into the same business-minded Bania caste as Ambani himself. A sense of history hung about the meeting, the company’s forty-first since its foundation. The twelve-member board sat on stage at a long table next to two giant images of Ambani’s father, the larger of which was framed and draped with pink and white flowers.
Applause broke out at 0:51 a.m. as Ambani appeared at the front of the room, sporting the lucky red and white checked tie he favoured for big occasions. He moved into the crowd, shaking hands and smiling, surrounded by cameras but seemingly enjoying himself. ‘Hello, hello, you are all welcome: I heard him say from my seat a few rows from the front, as he slapped bystanders on the back and waved to familiar faces across the room. He grinned widely from the podium as proceedings got under way. Shareholders asked fawning questions and clapped as their chairman’s achievements were read out. The hubbub gave proceed- ings a rowdy air, more like an American revivalist meeting than a sombre business gathering. Ambani’s speech was workmanlike, mixing platitudes and lists: Reliance accounted for twelve per cent of national exports that year; it had invested more, and paid more income tax, than any other Indian company too. He talked in particular about Reliance Jio, a bold and exorbitantly expensive new telecoms business he soon planned to launch, to replace the one lost a decade earlier to his younger brother in their divorce agreement. ‘Along with a new India, a new Reliance is taking shape, he said.
Nita had grown into a public figure, running the family’s charitable arm and zealously sculpting her husband’s image
Up on stage, though, the old Reliance was still easy enough to spot. Nita Ambani had that year taken a seat on the board. Dressed in a glamorous traditional pink outfit she brought a dash of colour to a dais otherwise dominated by grey-haired men, many of whom were old family loyalists. Various relatives sat in the front row, including the tycoon’s elderly mother and three children. Mukesh Ambani described Reliance as a modern, digital enterprise rather than the lumbering industrial giant of old. One of Reliance’s most powerful employees was a somewhat mysterious executive named Manoj Modi. A short man with a thin moustache, he was a classmate of Ambani’s from the time when both men studied chemical engineering. Officially Modi ran Reliance’s retail operations, although his name appeared nowhere in that year’s annual report. Unofficially he was Ambani’s confidant and co-architect of the company’s ambitious new telecoms plans, which the duo had been planning for a decade or more. Once a year, as the shareholder meeting droned on, Modi would appear quietly at the side of the hall to brief journalists, before leaving just as quickly.
By this time Ambani had led Reliance for more than ten years, and had taken steps to soften his public image. He made donations to good causes, attended Davos and sat on the board of an American bank. His Reliance Foundation set up a hospital in southern Mumbai and founded the Dhirubhai Ambani International School, to which the city’s well-to-do clamoured to send their children. He bought a television station and began fashioning himself as a media magnate. Ambani had largely patched up the earlier feud with his younger brother too, with the two men striking deals between their respective businesses. His wife Nita had also grown into a public figure, becoming a member of the International Olympic Committee, running the family’s charitable arm, and zealously sculpting her husband’s image. She managed the Mumbai Indians too, the cricket franchise Reliance had snapped up at the launch of the glitzy Indian Premier League tournament in 2008. Invites to the company’s corporate box at the Wankhede stadium became especially prized, in a town that counted commerce and cricket at its two pre-eminent obsessions. Yet even there, among tens of thousands of delirious fans, the Ambanis often sat apart, watching the match from a large, blue sofa positioned on the pitchside next to the player’s dugouts, and reserved only for them.
Such things were a sideshow next to the tycoon’s defining obsession with his new Jio telecoms operations, however. Mostly he pushed the project from Reliance’s headquarters in southern Mumbai, working from the same old-fashioned office his father used, and which the son was said to keep largely for sentimental reasons. But on at least one morning a week his armour-plated BMW 7-series would slip quietly out of Antilia’s rear gate, turn left down Altamount Road, and head towards the horse-racing track that doubled as the city’s downtown heliport. From there a corporate chopper would whisk him off to Reliance Corporate Park, the company’s suburban campus in Navi Mumbai, a satellite city with a population of more than one million just off the eastern side of Mumbai’s peninsula.
I took the same ride early in 2016, arriving at the racecourse one sunny morning, having been granted a rare foray into the heart of Ambaniland. The helicopter had golden seat belts, and the letters VT-NMA stencilled on its side, which an aide told me stood for ‘Nita and Mukesh Ambani’. I had been given a boarding pass before clambering aboard, with my name scribbled in blue ink. In the cabin I found another discarded on the floor, bearing the name Manoj Modi, who had taken the same chopper earlier that day. We took off in a whirl of dust, climbing straight up before accelerating off to the east, leaving the corrugated outline of Antilia behind in the hazy middle distance. For all of his influence Ambani had never managed to persuade India’s navy, which controlled the city’s airspace, to let him use the helipad on his own roof.
Competitors viewed Ambani’s re-entry into telecoms with thinly disguised dread. One told me Jio’s launch would be akin to the bloody battles of the Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit epic poem whose main characters tended to perish in combat. Thousands of engineers worked for years to perfect the service, which promised inexpensive smart-phones and super-fast data connections, in a country used to basic mobile devices and crawling internet speeds. Various executives explained its scale as I walked around the Reliance campus that day, a 500-acre site filled with modern glass buildings and huge dusty car parks. Reliance had laid hundreds of thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cables across India, one told me, as well as erecting ninety thousand new mobile phone towers. I was shown a desk in an open-plan area at which Ambani himself was said to sit, although it showed no sign of having actually been used. His elder son Akash had one nearby with a more lived-in feel: a Rubik’s cube sat discarded next to a framed photo of the Ambani family, while a pink poster of Andy Warhol was tacked to the desk’s backboard. The poster’s slogan read ‘The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting,’ which I took to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Jio itself, given its launch had been delayed for the best part of five years.
Ambani funded Jio with spare cash built up through his lucrative oil-refining operations, and liked to present the new telecoms venture as an almost public- spirited exercise in national digital development. This was just as well, given how few analysts thought he was likely to make back its estimated $31 billion in costs. ‘It is madness, complete madness, what this guy is trying to do,’ the head of another telecoms group told me back in 2015, as the momentous scale of Ambani’s plans began gradually to leak out. Ambani himself talked about his aims in plainer language, promising a service at a price that ordinary Indians could afford. Indeed, when it did finally launch later that year, he offered it for free, beginning a violent price war with rival operators, who accused him of unfairly cross-subsidising the new business with funds drawn from elsewhere within his empire. The free offer was a classic Reliance gambit, mixing naked populism with a willingness to endure hefty losses, so long as their competitors took a beating along the way. The deal proved understandably popular, winning Jio more than 100 million subscribers in just six months.
I met Ambani on only one other occasion, a few years earlier, sitting in his father’s old office in Maker Chambers, the old- fashioned down-town office building in which Reliance kept its headquarters. At the time his enthusiasm for Jio’s technological possibilities seemed almost boyish, as he demonstrated early test models of its handsets, showing off their ability to stream cricket matches and movies in high definition. The technical complexities of building the network seemed to excite his engineer’s imagination. Over the years his advisers badgered him to focus on his energy operations, using acquisitions abroad to turn Reliance into a global giant in the mould of Shell or Exxon. Ambani ignored them, spreading his business into ever more sectors and investing most of his money at home.
This was partly a bet on India’s changing economy. The country was on ‘a journey from $2,000 to $5,000 per capita’, Ambani once explained, entering a new stage of economic development as a lower middle-income nation, in which selling goods to a rising consumer class would become even more lucrative than building grand industrial projects. But more than anything the tycoon seemed to lust after the status of digital pioneer, and with it the uncomplicated plaudits won by the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. ‘I believe in the next twenty years as human civilisation we will collectively achieve more than what has been achieved in the last 300 years,’ he said at Jio’s launch in 2016, in a rather clunky attempt to echo the tech visionaries whose ranks he hoped to join.
Controversies were not limited to Ambani’s telecoms ventures. There were rows too about his energy drilling operations in the Bay of Bengal, where Reliance fought various battles over the regulated price at which it was allowed to sell gas. Government auditors also accused the company of claiming to spend more on capital expenditure than it actually had done, in order to win more favourable terms as part of the energy exploration contract it signed with the government. Reliance denied wrongdoing on this issue too, but that did not stop its owner facing further attacks during the 2014 election, as anti-corruption campaigners painted Ambani as the unacceptable face of Indian cronyism. Modi’s election proved no less complicated for the tycoon, as the new prime minister, fearful of accusations of favouritism, cut out much of the kind of insider access enjoyed by senior industrialists.
Ambani tacitly admitted his company’s heritage of influence- peddling in a New York Times interview back in 2008. ‘We de-merged all of that,’ he said half-jokingly, when asked about what the article called the ‘network of lobbyists and spies in New Delhi’ established at first by his father—the implication being that these activities had been left behind when the business was split in two during the 2005 divorce. The suggestion prompted Anil Ambani to sue both his brother and the newspaper, although unsuccessfully.
Mukesh Ambani wanted to be viewed as the head of a modern, global enterprise; a professionally managed national champion and asset to India’s economic development. Some respected observers backed this view too. ‘Reliance Industries, once legendary for garnering political favours, has now moved to a higher plane,’ economist Swaminathan Aiyar wrote a few years later.
For all the suspicion he attracted, there was still something undeniably thrilling about Ambani’s ambitions. Around the time I watched his AGM speech the tycoon was midway through ploughing the best part of $20 billion into new refining and petrochemicals plants. Reliance’s energy operations alone—which shipped crude oil into its giant facility in Gujarat and sent everything from diesel to kerosene back out—were among the most important engines for India’s new globalisation, typically accounting for a tenth of the value of national exports each year. Yet it was the scale of Jio that remained especially striking. The business itself did well at first, as customers snapped up its early offer of smartphones with free super-fast connections. But Jio’s ambition posed a more profound question, namely: what was the point of being a tycoon if not to take just the kinds of wild risks that would intimidate more conventionally minded businesses—and perhaps, in the process, bring seismic change to industries or countries? The careers of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Carnegies had invited similar questions more than a century earlier, as they built the canals and railroads and steamships through which America grew. In their own eras all were pilloried as corrupt and avaricious. Over time, all have gradually been rehabilitated as masters of new technology and pioneers of industrial change rather than robber barons—the embodiment of what economist Joseph Schumpeter would later call ‘the perennial gale of creative destruction)’. In time Ambani and his fellow Bollygarchs may come to be viewed in this way too, as the details of their methods fade but the scale of their achievements remains.
YET BEHIND THIS BOLDNESS THERE WAS ALSO AN unmistakable sense of fear. Ambani built his reputation above all on ‘execution’, meaning his ability to construct complex industrial projects quickly and cheaply. But with Jio he turned cautious, holding back the launch year after year. He tinkered to ensure the service was technically flawless, adding billions in expense at every stage. ‘He is obsessed with the idea that it should all work perfectly, on day one,’ one executive told me during my visit to the Reliance campus. As far as anyone could tell, these delays hid deeper concerns about his own legacy, and also his relationship with his father. It was often remarked that Mukesh Ambani’s most successful businesses— in oil-refining and petrochemicals—were inherited. Those he built himself, in areas like retail and energy, largely flopped. Leaving his own mark required that he launch a grand new project that was entirely his own, and one delivered at a scale fit to change the nation, just as his father had done before him. ‘People just don’t understand that for him this has to work. This is the big roll of the dice,’ one adviser who worked closely with Reliance told me, not long before Jio’s launch. ‘So you almost have to expect him to behave irrationally, to spend any kind of money. Because he can’t afford to lose.’
This was the special sense of vertigo that came from being the richest, most powerful and most feared tycoon in India. ‘Money means nothing to me,’ Ambani told an interviewer in 2017, at a moment when his personal fortune had recently soared above $31 billion. ‘My father used to tell me: “If you start anything just to make money, you are a fool. You will never make money and you will fail. All of us eat the same dal-roti.”’
Yet the risk of being surpassed remained real. Many of Ambani’s fellow billionaires saw their fortunes plunge as India’s once-booming economy slowed after the global financial crisis, and worries about graft paralysed New Delhi. Some found themselves under investigation for corruption; a handful either went to jail or left the country. Nothing of this kind threatened Ambani, although on a few occasions he did come close to losing his own place atop the Forbes rankings. The more obvious and chastening example was his brother Anil, whose debt-saddled empire struggled in the decade after their split, pushing the younger man down into the lower ranks of also-ran billionaires. Some thought the elder Ambani a relic from an earlier era, and predicted his decline, as happened to America’s Gilded Age tycoons before him. Yet Ambani seemed determined to fight this very possibility, from the Pharaonic scale of his investments to the over-the-top grandeur of his family home. No one embodied so clearly the power of India’s new super-rich. And looking down from Antilia’s roof terrace—his own ‘pinnacle of moneyed magnificence’—no one else could grasp quite how far there was to fall.
(This is an edited excerpt from The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age | James Crabtree | HarperCollins | 358 pages | Rs 799)