Dhirubhai Ambani, the man who made his own road

Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar GuptaJan 25, 2016 | 22:39

Dhirubhai Ambani, the man who made his own road

On the day late Dhirubhai Ambani is finally awarded a national honour (Padma Vibhushan), I am happy to post the text of remarks I made when asked to speak on behalf of the media at the memorial service in Bombay's Shanmukhanand Hall just after his passing away on July 6, 2002.

You can also find the text and video on RIL.Com.



Mukesh, Anil, Nita, Tina, all members of the family and friends,

I was asked to speak on behalf of the media. I'll speak as a journalist, because I only got to know Dhirubhai Ambani as a journalist, some four years back. I was asked to come and have lunch with him. Lunch was such an enjoyable experience and such a unique experience, that we did it several times afterwards. One thing I noticed after that lunch and I came home and told my wife. I said there is something funny when you walk into that room. There is an aura of intense energy and somehow, urgency. And what then happens is you do everything faster. You talk faster. You also talk louder for some reason. You eat faster. You think faster. And you are out faster than you think. There was never a second wasted.

I make my life dealing with all kinds of people and mixing with all kinds of people, good and bad. But I have never in anybody's presence felt such a sense of energy and urgency and such an aura of things just moving. Even the lunch on the table was always so eclectic. You had to constantly run your eyes on the table to see what's where. There were dosas, idlis, some food from home, some sprouts, there were several kinds of cut fruits, and there were noodles. By the time you figured out what was where, the lunch was almost over. But by the time it was over you realise you talked about so many things. And so many ideas had floated in that room that it gave you a sense of what kind of a personality he was.


I got to know him in a phase when he was not managing the business on a day-to-day basis. He had two very able sons to do that. But he talked about many things, including India-Pakistan relations, the larger political economy of the country. And I always came back thinking that this man could be the Ross Perot of India, except that he could perhaps win the election. Because he had very radical ideas and was never shy of mentioning them.

The big thing about Dhirubhai was, and which is something many of us in Delhi realised much later, that he was willing to think big beyond his times. He was the product of the licence quota raj and one of the most unfortunate aspects of the licence quota was that it fixed limits for you in business. It said you would do only this much and no more. And if you dared to do more than that you were punished. And somehow that mediocrity became our national credo. In every field we fixed limits for ourselves. Even our athletes and sportsmen never went beyond mediocrity because they thought that if they achieved some mediocrity you were okay.


I think Dhirubhai very early decided that he was going to defy this. I've said sometimes that there is a great divide between Delhi and Bombay. In Bombay people think you can make money and they make money through enterprise and with that you can buy some power. In Delhi we think we have the power because we live in Delhi. We have politics, we have the joint secretaries, we have the levers of power. So through that power we can make money by taking bribes, by taking gifts or just by harassing and blackmailing people who make money through enterprise.

Most Indian businessmen, I say this with apologies to those who are here, most Indian businessmen in the past had accepted that principle. This was a kind of compact. We shall do this in Bombay and you shall do this in Delhi. Dhirubhai decided to defy that and he defied it very, very efficiently. When I looked at the Tata Safari ad, which said, "Make your own road", it reminded me of Dhirubhai and the business he built. When there were no roads available he built his own road and so successfully at that.

If I speak on behalf of the media, what have we lost? In the media we have lost a very, very interesting personality. And a very newsy personality. We always cover business and we'll continue to cover business. But I think it is very unlikely that the world of journalism in India, the media, will find a personality as interesting and as newsworthy and as inspiring as Dhirubhai Ambani.

I remember and many of you remember that my paper and Dhirubhai fought a famous battle many years ago. And if I look back on those files, I can see that this was a battle between two very very formidable rivals, who I am sure deep down, also admired each other a great deal. And I have gone back to try and pick up the history of those times and that really was the case.

I was sitting with my friend and guru Arun Shourie, who was then the editor of the paper the other day. Reflecting on those times, he said with satisfaction that journalism is based on issues and issues of the day. So while there was a background and there was a history of a great battle between a media giant and a corporate giant it did not constrain Arun's own actions and his own judgement when it came to certain decision vis-à-vis his ministry and Dhirubhai Ambani's company. I have no hesitation in naming the IPCL issue, where there were tremendous pressures on Arun to bend the law, to twist the law. He was reminded of many old stories and instances but he stuck to the principle, which is that in the media and out of the media we make our minds on the basis of the issues of the day.

Dhirubhai was somebody who had blazed such a trail of success and such a trail of good business practices, particularly after the licence quota raj he was the first one. There were many Indian businessmen who prospered during the licence quota raj, but who withered away immediately as reform took place. Dhirubhai was a unique personality who built his empire during the licence quota raj and prospered much when the licence quota raj was abolished.

Dhirubhai was such an interesting personality and he was so full of humour. I cannot conclude this without telling you about a small joke that I once made at his expense. This was around the time when the first signs of India-Pakistan tensions had come up and it looked like we were getting close to a war. Somebody mentioned on the table that Reliance was always told why are you setting up these huge refineries so close to the borders.

They could be bombed in the event of a war. And I had to put one past Dhirubhai. I said that you (Dhirubhai) don't have to worry about anything. Nothing would ever happen to your refineries. And he asked why. I replied, by the time Musharraf orders his air force to bomb your refineries he will discover that his Air Chief holds a hundred shares in Reliance Industries. Because I am sure he would've taken care of all this. He had a great laugh with all of us and we parted on that note. It's a great pity there wasn't one more meeting after that.

So let me conclude this by saying this on behalf of myself and the lot of the media, that our business is made interesting by personalities, good, bad, but particularly those that are enterprising and those who can think new things all the time. To that extent, Dhirubhai is somebody that we would miss forever. I do not think, again with apologies to everybody else who is from the world of business here, I do not think that for a long time we'll find a replacement.

[This post first appeared on the author Facebook wall.]

Last updated: January 26, 2016 | 15:48
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