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The Polyester Prince The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani by Hamish McDonald

The Polyester Prince The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani by Hamish McDonald

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03/18/2014

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The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani
ByHamish McDonald
 
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INTRODUCTION: AN INVITATION TO BOMBAY
The envelope was hand-delivered to our house in Golf Links, Tan enclave in New Delhiwhose name captured the clubbable lifestyle of its leisured and propertied Indianresidents, soon after we had arrived in the middle of a north Indian winter to begin a longassignment. It contained a large card, with a picture embossed in red and gold of theelephant-headed deity Ganesh, improbably carried on the back of a much smaller mouse.Dhirubhai and Kokilaben Ambani invited us to the wedding of their son Anil to Tina Munimin Bombay.In January 1991, just prior to the explosion in car ownership that in later winters kept themidday warmth trapped in a throat-tearing haze overnight, it was bitterly cold most ofthe time in Delhi. Our furniture had still not arrived-a day of negotiations about the dutypayable lay ahead at the Delhi customs office where the container was broken open andinspected-and we camped on office chairs and fold-up beds, wrapped in blankets.The Indian story was also in a state of suspension, waiting for something to happen. TheGulf War, which we watched at a big hotel on this new thing called satellite television,was under- cutting many of the assumptions on which the Congress Party's family dynasty,the Nehrus and Gandhis, had built up the Indian state. The Americans were unleashing anew generation of weap- ons on a Third World regime to which New Delhi had been close;its Soviet friends were standing by, even agreeing with the Americans. The Iraqi invasionof Kuwalt had pushed up oil prices and forced the Indian Government to evacuate somethree million of its citizens working in the Gulf. The extra half-billion dollars all this costIndia was pushing the country close to default on its foreign debt. Officials from theMinistry of Finance were already negotiating a bail-out from the IMF in Washington; theIMF was setting stiff 'conditionalities'-in effect a complete shift from Nehru's model ofhigh external protection for the economy and government allocation of savings. Even theCNN clips of Tomahawk cruise missiles zipping neatly down the streets of Baghdad were inthemselves part of another breach in India's walls. The clites who ran the national TVmonopoly or the big newspapers no longer had India's half-illiterate population tothemselves.Little of this was admitted in New Delhi. The coalition government of V P Singh, which
 
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had swept out the glamorous Rajiv Gandhi on a battery of corruption scandals, had itselfcollapsed in November after less than a year in office. India was ruled by an even smallercoalition of opportunists under a wily politico called Chandrashekhar, kept in office atRajiv's pleasure for who knew how long. Everyone clung to the autarkic, Third Worldverities. Politicians and journalists pounced on the slightest admission by their fellowsthat perhaps India's vision of the world had been flawed and it had better adjust to thenew order. At the Ministry of External Affairs, in the red sandstone majesty of Sir HerbertBaker's Secretariat buildings, a bright young official on a new economic desk assured methat India's finances were strong enough to take the strains. At a party of intellectuals'young academics and filmmakers in rough cotton kurta-payjama suits scoffed at theprospects for satellite TV. How would the advertising payments get out to thebroadcaster through the maze of foreign exchange controls? Which foreign companieswould want to plug products they could neither export to India nor make locally?The wedding invitation was a good excuse to break away from this stalemate in NewDelhi, and make contact with the Indian commercial class in Bombay. There it looked asif a raw entrepreneurial spirit was straining to break through the discouraging politicalcrust. Word of the Ambani family and their company Reliance Industries had spread toHong Kong as prime examples of this brash new India which might finally have its day,courtesy of the changes the Gulf War symbolised.Everything about the Ambanis, in fact, was a good magazine story The young couple'scourtship had been a stormy one, ready-made for the Bombay show-biz magazines. Thebride, Tina Munim, was a girl with a past. She had been a film starlet, featuring in severalof the Hindi-language films churned out by the hundreds every year in 'Bollywood'-mostincluding improb- able violence, song-and-dance routines, and long sequences with thefemale leads in wet, clingy clothes. Before meeting Anil, Tina had had a heavy, well-publicised affair with a much older actor. The groom, Anil, was the tearaway one of thetwo Ambani boys. His parents had frowned on the match. Bombay's magnates usually triedto arrange matches that cemented alliances with other powerful business or politicalfamilies. This one was not arranged, nor did it bring any more than a certain popularity.Hired assailants had been sent with acid and knives to scar Tina's face, so went the gossip(apocryphal: Tina's face turned out to be flawless). Anil had threatened suicide if hecould not marry Tina, went another rumour. Finally, the parents had agreed.The father, Dhirubhai, was no less colourful and even more controversial. He had first

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