In British writer Jeffrey Archer's best-seller, Kane and Abel, it turns out somewhere that William Kane, the worthy inheritor challenged by a self-made Polish immigrant in a storied American rivalry, is actually a secret benefactor for Abel Rosnovski in a gripping tale full of twists and turns. Mukesh Ambani's rescue act to help his brother Anil evade jail after a courtroom battle in a saga of loans and business bets gone wrong is reminiscent of that episode in the novel. Perhaps in a less dramatic way but more interesting. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Rs 453 crore is not a big sum for the elder son of Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani. As the leading inheritor of the textiles-to-telecom conglomeration with an estimated personal worth of $54 billion, the chairman of Reliance Industries loses more money on paper on a bad hair day for the Sensex. But, in eliciting a public note of gratitude from his impetuous younger sibling, he has set India's imagination on fire on what could happen when a closely knit family whose bonds were built in a Bombay chawl tenement grows tentacles to become India's most valued private company by market value. All we need perhaps is a visually pleasing helicopter shot to make the brothers meet in a moment of reconciliation in front of a happy mother to say, "Take that, Bollywood!"
Reliance Communications shares zoomed after the brotherly deal, showing that blessings can visibly enhance net worth where family goodwill meets public companies.
Questions still need to be patiently answered: Why does Anil, who is still a Forbes list dollar billionaire with an estimated personal worth of Rs 13,800 crore, need this amount so badly in a private deal to pay off Ericsson for money owned in a Reliance Communications contract that went awry? What are the official contours of the bailout deal, just for the record? What went on behind the scenes?
Why did not Mukesh, who went on to found India's hottest telecom network in Reliance Jio after relinquishing the original telecom business he built to his brother in a bitter family division of inherited assets, simply acquire some of those RCom assets in a fire sale? What happens to the slew of other assets that Anil Ambani is supposed to own through holdings in companies involved in everything from mutual funds to electricity generation? Where does all this leave the younger Ambani's nationally controversial Reliance Defence venture?
Chartered accountants or financial analysts may spoil the party for fiction writers by making it all less dramatic but it appears that Mukesh Ambani does not confuse personal affections with corporate governance. He has done his corporate dealings based on business logic but seems to have shown maturity and financial magnanimity in a big brother way as he helped his younger sibling in a personal role. As traders say in their native Gujarat: "Business is business."
This much is clear. The effervescent, go-for-broke style of Anil Ambani contrasts the patient project management approach of Mukesh, who acts more like a custodian carefully balancing the interests of customers, shareholders, bankers, policy makers and employees in a complex web of enterprises. In that sense, he is clearly the worthy inheritor of the legacy of the late Dhirubhai, who had a knack for building an array of businesses and managing varied economic and political interests linked to his phenomenal rise in the 1980s.
Anil, as the archetypal young man in a hurry, may take solace from the fact that his Reliance Entertainment co-produced an Oscar winner in Steven Spielberg's biopic, Lincoln. Mukesh's franchises now extend to cricket and football, but art is something else.
When historians look back, Dhirubhai may go down, despite the criticism he faced in political circles for his proximity to powerful leaders and bureaucrats, as a pioneer in wealth creation in India based on a culture of shareholder value. Mukesh has taken the Reliance conglomeration to the Digital Age, but the passion for shareholder value remains.
Speculation is rife that RCom may get help from Mukesh. Anil Ambani has still a big mess to clear in building the new ventures that he started after the painful division of family assets and in juggling what remains of the ones he inherited. It is not clear if he would seek advice from the elder sibling on all that. But he could well do with some.
(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets as @madversity)
(Disclaimer: Reliance Industries Ltd is the sole beneficiary of Independent Media Trust which controls Network18 Media & Investments Ltd which publishes Firstpost)