Business Today

In the name of the mother

With the courts suggesting maternal intervention as a means to getting the warring Ambani brothers to smoke the peace pipe, Kokilaben D. Ambani may well be the one who determines whether India remains energy-starved or not. Really?

Suman Layak | Print Edition: November 29, 2009

Mani Ratnam cast Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World and India’s top actress, to essay the role inspired by Kokilaben D. Ambani in Guru, which was loosely based on the life of her late husband Dhirubhai Ambani. Someday, he might be inspired to do a sequel.

The life story of Kokilaben has seen far more drama since the movie was released. The Division Bench of the Bombay High Court, in a judgement delivered in June, repeatedly referred to her role in sorting out a clash between her sons, Mukesh and Anil. The bench was hearing an appeal filed by Mukesh’s Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) pertaining to a dispute with Anil’s company, Reliance Natural Resources Ltd (RNRL), over the pricing and supply of natural gas from the Krishna Godavari Basin. The judges, J.N. Patel and K.K. Tated, suggested in their judgement dated June 15, 2009, that if the brothers are not able to negotiate their way out of the tangle, they should allow their mother to intervene (once more) in their dispute.

It is a rare occasion when a court tells the warring litigants to take their case to their mother. It is also a testimony to the unspoken and unseen power that resides in the hands of the matriarch of the Ambani family. Even though she holds no position in any of the companies managed by her two sons, Mukesh and Anil Ambani swear by her intervention in 2005 that divided the empire built by Dhirubhai into two.

On August 5, 2005, at the annual general meeting of RIL, Anil had been invited to speak after the demerger of businesses was announced by his elder brother. Anil said that his mother gave him birth, a second time, on June 18, 2005. That is the date on which the brothers signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which details the family settlement, in the presence of their mother.

Division Bench of the Bombay High Court suggested that if the brothers can’t agree, the mother should intervene.
Was instrumental in carving up her late husband’s business when she saw her sons drifting apart.
The MoU between the brothers leaves space for her intervention in case things go wrong in the future.
Nobody knows the brothers better than Kokilaben.

It’s a rare family that signs an MoU like this, but then the Ambanis are rare, indeed. It is also a far cry from what Kokilaben wrote about family values in her book Dhirubhai Ambani— The Man I Knew. “He (Dhirubhai) never outgrew those of us who loved him nor did he ever let any of us drift away. His spirit still guides us in all our endeavours and I hope that these values are carried forward by future generations of the family…,” wrote Kokilaben. Yet, when she recognised that her sons had truly drifted away from each other, Kokilaben did a smart act. She summoned some of the best brains in Mumbai—K.V. Kamath, the then Managing Director of ICICI, and JM Financial chief Nimesh Kampani— to carve up the businesses between Mukesh and Anil. The deal was sealed in the MoU that was signed by the two brothers. Parts of the MoU have been revealed now and presented before the Bombay High Court. So far it had not been in the public eye. The portion that was presented in court showed how Kokilaben’s presence loomed all over the settlement deal—including the crucial agreement for gas supply. At various places, the MoU says that Kokilaben will intervene again if things do not work out as planned.

Take a look at the following passage from the MoU: “Kokilaben recognises that a long-term, stable source of gas from RIL, which has the largest find of gas, was absolutely essential for the growth plans of the Anil Ambani Group and in order to enable Anil to carry REL (Reliance Energy Ltd) to even greater heights. Kokilaben has, therefore, specially stressed and impressed upon Mukesh and Mukesh shall personally ensure that at the time of finalisation of the binding gas supply agreement, the terms provide the required comfort and stability in these agreements, even if that means some departure from the NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) standard.” And here’s the punchline: “If there is any action taken in bad faith for not obtaining/scuttling the obtaining of such approvals, Kokilaben reserves her ability to intervene again.”

The significance of Kokilaben’s intervention becomes evident when you look at what’s at stake: The future of two of India’s largest business groups with a combined market capitalisation of almost Rs 5 lakh crore and a combined shareholder base exceeding 10 million, in India and abroad. One estimate has it that the wealth of the two brothers equals at least 5 per cent of India’s GDP.

Depending on who you believe and what the courts decide (the matter is before the Supreme Court), that wealth could either appreciate double quick or erode rapidly. If Mukesh wins, and is allowed to sell gas at $4.20 per million British thermal units (MBTU) for 17 years, he is expected to rake in a small fortune. If Anil wins—and gets the gas at $2.34 per MBTU—Mukesh would receive a huge setback of $5.4 billion. There’s no denying there’s plenty at stake—including the future of RIL, in which gas & oil exploration has the potential to emerge as the biggest business (bigger than refining & petrochemicals), and the future of Anil’s RNRL, the company that will buy the gas. If RNRL loses in court, it will be worth a fraction of the Rs 11,000-crore market value it currently commands. And let’s not forget: If Kokilaben is able to sort out the dispute between her sons, she would have also done plenty to improve India’s status as an energy-starved country, as muchneeded clarity would then emerge with regard to the country’s hydrocarbon reserves.

You have to wonder: Is Kokilaben up to the task? And is it fair to burden her with so much responsibility—something that some of the brightest and most powerful minds in the country are grappling with (or in some cases conveniently avoiding)? In her book on Dhirubhai, Kokilaben wrote: “I must say Dhirubhai put Mukesh and Anil through many many trials of fire as he painstakingly trained them for the days ahead.” Kokilaben wasn’t put through such tests, but if one has to go by the huge expectations ostensibly riding on the wife of the late pioneer and patriarch, you wish that she was forewarned a while ago about the task at hand.

On the front foot

Mukesh Ambani’s wife Nita has taken up a much more public role since the split and the image that stays with the public now is the one of her sitting in the dug-out of her team Mumbai Indians in the first edition of the Indian Premier League wearing the team jersey. Apart from cricket, she is also in charge of the Dhirubhai Ambani International School set up in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex. In her more public avatar, Nita has even reportedly commented on the dispute between the Ambani siblings and said that whether they will ever reconcile is up to destiny. However, Nita has been seen as someone keen on making her own destiny. For example, she insisted on picking J.P. Duminy, a South African cricketer, for the Mumbai Indians just after his first series and Duminy really performed well for her team. Nita has also been at the side of husband Mukesh Ambani for the right photo ops—the biggest of them was last year when the duo posed with huge conical flasks containing the first crude petroleum pumped out of the Krishna Godavari Basin.

In harmony with healthcare

Anil Ambani’s wife Tina has been active in promoting her initiatives for the elderly in India. One of them is the The Harmony for Silvers Foundation, which she set up in 2004. There is a magazine as well as an art show under the Harmony platform that Tina Ambani looks after. She even got a senior citizen section on its feet at the Delhi Half Marathon and the Mumbai Marathon. There is also the annual award ceremony on World Elder’s day on October 1, titled Harmony Silver Awards. It has started a centre for research related to ageing and a Harmony Interactive centre that caters to the elderly. There are plans to start a chain of such centres across the country. Apart from Harmony, Tina is now also overseeing Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital and Research Centre in Andheri. The hospital has adopted the concept of having full-time employed specialist doctors on board and has attracted domestic as well as foreign talent.

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