Monday, June 27, 2005
A Victor On The Road (pic courtesy: www.rediff.com)
At the end of it all, a young colleague had this to say, "I wish they had not seperated, its so sad." The emotion might sound a bit surprising for the longest and perhaps most bitter battle of its kind, anywhere. Whatever the feeling, at the end of it all, the nation, as represented by curious citizens, investors, politicians, suppliers present and potential, business partners and of course the media were heaving sighs of relief.
Who won ? Not an answer that will spring forth in a hurry. But for Anil Ambani, always a master in the art of perception management, its a battle he lost in the boardroom but won on the street and at home. Looking back, you could even term it the clash of democracies, the industrial-institutional versus the citzen-street vendor.
Journalists and camera persons flocking around the sturdy gates of Reliance headquarters Maker IV in Nariman Point, whose reputation must now equal that of Watergate, also a office block, albeit in Washington, have become a familiar sight to office goers in the area, including those at the British High Commission on the Maker IV's ground floor.
Someone I know who works there said they waited quite eagerly for the familiar gatherings, since they provided excitement in an otherwise humdrum existence. Indeed, the wait has been worth it, to the inmates of Maker IV, passers-by as also to the viewers of television channels across the country, mostly live, the distinction between afternoon soap and corporate drama often blurring.
Reliance XI vs Anil
On more than one occasion, Anil Ambani would stride out and address the assembled media as a boxer or wrestler might before entering the ring, delivering memorable lines like, "This is a different kind of cricket game. Its me versus the Reliance XI." It would emerge, eventually, that he was not exactly bowled out for duck, but whether he would owe it to his mid-day remonstrations on the streetside, is not yet clear.
While the media would obviously depart once the pronouncements were done with, the hawkers and street vendors would stay on and continue with their business, as they did all these years, enjoying the extra attention and of course business. Some, as a journalist friend discovered, had opinions on the matter that transcended the usual, idyllic, the rich-and-their-problems point of view.
Food For Thought
Anil Ambani is an outdoor man. His obsession with fitness began a few years ago, when, famously, a foreign investor told him that they would think twice about investing in a company whose management was not in good health. So, he jogs, runs the marathon on Bombay's messy roads, sometimes all the way from his residence in south Mumbai to the international airport in Andheri.
The vendors have watched him set out or pass by. Anil also has, as this writer once witnessed some years ago, a Nariman Point office goer's craving for street-side food, typically bhel. He is also known to catch a few words with the bhel makers and vendors, thus displaying a soft side somewhat contrary to the otherwise flashy, elitist image that he is associated with.
Indeed, the combination of bhel or light, vegetarian sandwiches rustled up on a little five feet by five feet stall with its black plastic tarpaulin cover and the pavement buzz can be invigorating, be it a hot afternoon or even early evening, typically when most people who've had proper or home-cooked lunches start feeling like snacking.
Night Out at Nariman Point
Friday evening, June 16, saw the friend back there along with a small phalanx of journalists, awaiting, once again, word of the final settlement between the brothers. Word had spread quickly that the time had come and this time there would be a resolution.
At 7 pm, Nariman Point resembles an ant hill with hordes of ants streaming out, in an almost orderly fashion. Hundreds of office goers descend from their air-conditioned offices in the many office blocks, including Maker IV and flow out onto the roads, some heading for the bus stands where waiting double decker buses take them to Churchgate and VT railway stations.
Others stand in lines for share-a-taxis which whisk them away to the same destinations. A few take the 100-metre walk down to Marine Drive and catch some sea breeze before turning back east towards Churchgate station. The rest climb into their cars, roll up their windows to escape the polluted air and head north in, mostly lengthy, commutes.
The vendors stay on, this is their place of work and residence. As the evening progresses, they begin winding down, collecting newspapers and magazines spread out earlier and stacking them up, packing them up in plastic, possibly manufactured by Reliance itself. The sandwich and snack vendors follow suit. The buzz has ebbed considerably and now, at 10 pm, its all quiet except for the odd car passing by. Some vendors are changing into their night clothes, often a pajama and a banian and rolling out their beddings, right on the pavement.
A Democratic Move
Inside Maker IV, the lights are blazing on the 3rd and 4th floors. Late hours are not unusual at Reliance. The CEO of a large computer hardware company once told me, in a tone marked with grudging admiration, that Reliance's senior executives saved their best haggling for late at night. "Can you imagine waiting from 7 pm and then going into negotiate at 12 am, you don't stand a chance." But tonight is clearly different, as everyone parked on the road below, including the vendors, can sense.
Sibling rivalry apart, Anil Ambani can be termed as a unwilling (or is it willing ?)victim of corporate democracy. In plain language, he was ranged against the entire board of eleven directors and the chairman. He accused them of unconstitutionally stripping him of his powers and being deaf to his complaints. He seemed to have a point but in a corporate democracy, despite being managing director, vice-chairman and a shareholder, he was simply outnumbered.
It's a bit like Laloo Prasad Yadav's Bihar or maybe Mayawati's Uttar Pradesh. You might wonder aloud how could someone, technically on the run from the law, install his spouse on the highest elected seat in local government and then go on to rule the state, by proxy.
The fact is that he did it, Rabri Devi called the shots for a long while and no one could do anything about it. And they could not till they unseated her in the manner she was elected, by voting her out. You might think she is undeserving and incompetent but the majority of the people of Bihar clearly don't. That's citizen's democracy for you. The matter ends there.
Power to Anil
Some parallels can be drawn with a board of directors. They are duly elected or nominated by shareholders of a company. They might overnight become scheming, no-gooders but they continue to hold elected office. Unless they are constitutionally unseated, their collective decision has to be respected, be it the buying of a Embraer jet for the chairman's office or refusing to respond to a protesting director.
Back on the street, most of the street vendors are going about their final nightly chores, including washing up utensils. A few strike up conversations. Most of them, one reveals, hail from UP. He is a spokesman of sorts and like most immigrant stories in the vast metropolis, represents the eternal chain of arrivals, the successful sandwich shop owner pulling in at least three others.
Most of them live alone, some have graduated from the streets to rows of rented cots in chawls near VT station. Driving past on the new flyover which skims over Crawford Market and onto Bhendi Bazaar and finally descends at JJ Hospital, you can glance into some of these darkened rooms, the rows of cots awaiting their sweaty inhabitants, clothes hanging on hooks on the wall, often their only possessions.
"We are for Anil Ambani," he told the friend unequivocally. The reason was not too far to see. Anil Ambani had promised to set up a 10,000 MW power plant in Uttar Pradesh. For the economically backward and investment starved state, if the promise materialises, this is big news. Despite living off Bombay city and its prosperity, the chance prosperity of the abandoned home state clearly struck a chord.
Victory On The Street
The well-informed, if not literate street vendors were not oblivious to the Anil Ambani-UP political connection either. The Samajvadi-Amar Singh-Mulayam Singh connection was factored into their own understanding of the complex political matrix. That Anil was a Rajya Sabha MP from the state was not lost on them. Brother Mukesh may not have approved of Anil's political dalliances but out on the street, outside Maker IV, there was complete solidarity.
Anil Ambani was unsuccessful in taking on the corporate democracy but was winning the battle of perceptions in the street democracy. Here was a man they could touch and feel, watch him eating the food they cooked, so to speak. What's more, he even had a political connect with their home state. In a citizen's democracy, this was a true winner.
Not that they didn't like Mukesh. But they rarely saw him, if they did it was through the tinted windows of a car that sped in or out. They didn't know much about his family. Anil's wife Tina was a well known film star who many still remember. And of course, Mukesh is not the kind to be sauntering around the pavements for his evening fix of bhel. He may be a nice guy but that's just not him.
The Mother's Touch
Next morning, as the street was coming to life once again and being Saturday, fewer office goers were returning to work, mother Kokilaben put out her first media statement. In it she said Anil would get three companies his kitty. Reliance Energy, whose ambitions if not performance won him popular support, Reliance Capital, a company that he wants to make into a bank, regulators permitting and Reliance Infocomm, the telecom company whose financing he attacked viciously but now inherited.
Defenders of corporate democracy would differ on the methodology since even the board seemed to have been bypassed and even votaries of street democracy might disagree but in India, finally, as in most films and soaps, including the ones Anil was competing with in his afternoon appearances, the mother's will prevailed.