Homage to Dhirubhai

IN Media Practice | 07/07/2003
Homage to Dhirubhai

The President of India delivered the first Dhirubai Ambani memorial lecture and the media coverage was both riveting and revealing.


Sevanti Ninan


When Amitabh Bachchan is master of ceremonies, you can guess that it is a very special occasion. And so it was: President APJ Abdul Kalam delivered the first Dhirubhai Ambani Memorial lecture, and sat for two hours on a throne-like red chair which used to belong to the Reliance patriarch. In case you did not know that, every now and then the programme would flash back to shots of Dhirubhai smiling from the depths of that chair. The Presidential seating then, carried its own message.


Bachchan kicked off by quoting Jawaharlal Nehru, Mukesh Ambani followed, drawing a parallel between the distance both the President and his father had travelled, from very humble origins to the peak of accomplishment.  A galaxy of eminences paid tribute to the industrialist before the President’s turn came.


It took a while to figure out what the basis for the order of speakers was-—it was strictly alphabetical. Chagan Bhujbal was first, Mulayam Singh Yadav last. Conspicuous by his absence was N Chandrababu Naidu, one of the three CMs whom the Ambanis demonstrate closeness to. The other two were present, Sushilrao Shinde of Maharashtra and Digvijay Singh  Madhya Pradesh and were suitably effusive in their tributes.


 Narendra Modi received prolonged applause for saying that he had succeeding fulfilling a cherished dream of Ambani senior: bringing the waters of the Narmada to his village in Gujarat.


But the eyebrow-raising stuff came from the cabinet ministers present. Murli Manohar Joshi expressed his gratitude to the Ambani family for having invited him there to pay tribute to this great inDIVidual. Arun Shourie told us that persons like Dhirubhai had done the country a great service. He used the occasion to confront the whispered gossip about the turnaround in his attitude to the Ambanis. Yes, he said, he had done an 180 degree turn. Back in the eighties he said, S Gurumurthy used to write in the Indian Express about the sins of commission of Dhirubhai Ambani, and many of those had to do with his producing in excess of the licensed capacity.


Most of us today, said Minister Shourie, would say those restrictions should not have been there in the first place. He went on to say that the Dhirubhais the world over should be thanked not once but twice because they helped to make the case for dismantling those restrictions. An ingenious exoneration indeed of a man who was famous for his ability to subvert the system. Nowadays, the term used in relation to the senior Ambani’s legacy is the politer term "manage the system."


Shourie went to narrate his experience when the disinvestment of Indian Petrochemicals Ltd was going on and the Reliance bid was substantially higher than others, but there was unbelivable pressure to disqualify Reliance. Dhirubhai never once called him, he said, but he knew everything that was going on. "He had sources in places that mere journalists like me don’t even know there are places." It was what you might call an affectionate swipe.


Shourie said he enjoyed meeting the older man for the information and anecdotes that he had. I like to meet people like that to garner their guru mantras, he said. And narrated an anecdote about a meeting between Dhirubhai and Rupert Murdoch. The former asked the media baron whom he had met in Delhi, and upon being told, replied, "You’ve met all the right people, you must also meet some wrong people." Shourie says he asked him who these were.  Ambani apparently named them and said the wrong people are those who want to stop what you want to get done. You must also meet them. Said Shourie, "I face the cost of not following (that guru mantra) every day as I try to implement the Government`s decisions on disinvestment." Nice swipe, that. 


Then, alphabetically, we moved on to two Singhs (Digvijay and Manmohan) and one Yadav, and finally to the president. He too had a fairly riveting story to narrate. And Anil Ambani coming after him told us how just before he had his stroke "Papa" spoke to the then presidential candidate whom he had never met, on the telephone at Anil’s request and the conversation lasted for fifteen minutes. At the end of it A P J Abdul Kalam told him that his father was a great man. What had the senior Ambani told him? Anil found out when he returned to Papa in Bombay, who said he had told the presidential candidate what needed to be done to solve India’s problems. It was the morning’s recurring theme: the tall service done by Dhirubhai Ambani to our benighted land.  


So who telecast this effusion-soaked event? The large advertisement in the morning’s Times of India had said that the function would be telecast live on all major television channels. But it was CNBC which did the telecast, with Sahara Samay catching up a little later, and continuing after CNBC had stopped. None of the other news channels showed it live, though they might have telecast a recorded version later.  Sahara Samay kept adding its own shradhanjali to the proceedings, not surprising since Anil Ambani is a great buddy of channel owner Subroto Roy’s pals Amar Singh and Amitabh Bachchan.


The CNBC woman, Menaka Doshi did a reasonable job of putting the past and current status of the Reliance empire in perspective, but kept breaking away from the telecast to give recaps when all the viewer wanted to do was be allowed to listen to all the amazing stuff being said. Left to itself, the live telecast was both riveting and revealing.

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