How is the Ambani sequel different from its 2005 avatar? The biggest difference this time is the virtual paralysis that has gripped the Mukesh Ambani camp. While the Anil Ambani camp is busy ratcheting up the volume to very high levels, Reliance Industries is keeping mum. Meanwhile, Mum is visiting all the pilgrim spots with the younger brother. This was a routine last time too.
Earlier this week, one heard from journo friends that ADAG has engaged image consultancy firm Perfect Relations in the sibling joust. Mukesh Ambani’s RIL already has Nira Radia’s Neucom Consulting as its agency. However, the most dramatic development, even unprecedented, is the release of advertisements on the front page of all small and big national dailies, including vernaculars asking very serious questions. The first one had the Petroleum Ministry in its cross hairs. The second targeted Reliance Industries capital expenditure development plan for the KG Basin gas fields. I am sure there are many more to follow in what is obviously a calibrated plan.
But why is the Reliance Industries side maintaining such stoic silence? Why is it that their only response is – ‘the matter is sub judice and we don’t want to say anything that will influence the apex court’. Immediately after the younger brother got his share of the family inheritance, RIL’s machinery had ADAG’s apparatus on the run. By transposing the learnings from the 2005 debacle, when Anil Ambani used media as his battering ram, suddenly media was completely controlled in the Capital and Mumbai by Mukesh’s men. This lasted for about two years till an interview of Mukesh Ambani appeared in a foreign paper, which resulted in a complete upheaval of the Mumbai/Delhi PR-Corporate Communications-Government Relations management.
Sadly, ORF Chairman RK Mishra also passed away at the same time. Neucom was born while Mishraji was ailing. With former TRAI Chairman and my old friend Pradip Baijal in the frontline, Neucom took over the reins from the established Reliance Delhi apparatus. This was a defining moment – the passing away of Mishraji and the transfer of power to an external agency for the very first time in RIL’s history.
Now in the heat of another crucial battle, the attacks from the Anil camp have been ceaseless and his own public persona is so strong that his smart, but seemingly stretched machinery in Delhi has also rebounded and scored goals at will.
When Anil Ambani fulminated against Petroleum Minister Murli Deora, grandstanding from the Reliance Natural Resources AGM pulpit, the battle was given a new hue. I don’t remember ever an industrialist taking pot shots at a sitting Union minister. This was a new tactic, but the release of advertisements asking questions was uncannily similar to Anil Ambani’s senior counsel, Ram Jethmalani, doing the same some 20-odd years ago. Jethmalani used to ask 10 questions of the incumbent Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi – cornered as he was on the Bofors issue – daily. One can argue endlessly that the two brothers should sort out their differences within the four walls of their home. Media feeds on news, and right now the two brothers are news, so what the hell?
But 2009 is vastly different from 2005 because while they still battle over an inheritance, the reality is that the Petroleum Ministry’s alleged misdemeanors have added a different edge to battle 2.0. Mukesh Ambani has carefully chosen to keep silent, allowing Murli Deora and DGH Vinod Sibal to fight his battles for him. The moment a sitting Union minister gets involved in the fracas, the attention shifts to the government in totality. But the Prime Minister has set up a monitoring panel, which will examine the progress of the case in the Supreme Court on a regular basis. This time, the inheritance includes a national resource – gas – where a private operator, namely RIL, signed a production sharing contract and then in turn entered into gas supply agreements with NTPC and RNRL. Then RIL chose to allegedly renege on the gas supply agreements with both, which led to litigation.
Once the Bombay High Court gave its verdict in favour of RNRL (the other case between NTPC-RIL is still being heard in the Bombay High Court), the battle escalated with both the Government (read Petroleum Ministry) and RIL filing special leave petitions in the Supreme Court. Finally, the Petroleum Ministry decided to implead itself in the matter, saying that it has the right to fix gas pricing and that the gas row is a private dispute, this after stating otherwise in Parliament on numerous occasions.
So, Ambani 2.0 is different. The fundamental difference is that gas is a national resource on which the Bombay High Court has given its verdict in public interest. By asking the public to respond to the advertising featuring contentious questions, ADAG has upped the ante and involved the people of India. They are responding, I am told, rather aggressively.
Will this end with the advertisements asking questions and involving the hoi polloi at large to stoke a debate on the role of a section of the Government? I fear not. My sense is that RADAG will only get shriller as the days go by. There will be novel ways to throw the spotlight on the gas row. How? I cannot say, but believe me, we haven’t heard or read the last on what is already being billed as India’s number one soap, sorry, gas opera. Last time in 2005, there were carefully cultivated leaks in media to damage RIL and Mukesh Ambani’s credo. This time, RADAG has chosen to pay for the advertising and I know that front-paged positions don’t come cheap. So, there are many differences which are stark.
Vir Sanghvi, writing in the Hindustan Times on Sunday, has alluded to the Nusli Wadia versus Dhirubhai Ambani fight in the late 1980s. I was a lowly reporter in The Express, Mumbai those days and had heard enough anecdotal evidence that was floating around to plug and play into. The war over Bofors and the HDW submarines and the tirade against Reliance Industries are two separate chapters that ran concurrently in Indian Express, because they were commissioned by the same publisher – in this case, Ramnathji Goenka. There were many political moves afoot to topple Rajiv Gandhi at that point in time and a strong Congress cabal was also at work. Somewhere, the two vicious campaigns appeared to get intertwined, but the reality was far removed. But that is for another day, another time.
S Gurumurthy was the very instrument of destruction unleashed by RNG against Rajiv Gandhi. In the process, the spectre of Vishwanath Pratap Singh was raised to bring down the Rajiv Gandhi government. Now, Vir Sanghvi has written that Anil Ambani is similarly out to destroy his brother Mukesh Ambani. Anil Ambani is using a constellation of media to erode Mukesh Ambani’s credibility, because he believes NTPC and RNRL have been cheated. At the same time, Anil Ambani has been careful not to target the Government, but only the Petroleum Minister. Vir has interestingly drawn parallels between the Wadia-Ambani mega battle, which embroiled the nation’s polity and unseated a government. This time, too, a battle rages between corporations – Bombay Dyeing versus Reliance Industries – replaced by RIL versus RADAG. The unfortunate reality is that the late VP Singh, who was practically anointed by Express to run the country thereafter, soon fell out of favour too.
The Times of India on Tuesday morning chose to highlight the advertising blitz – Anil-Mukesh Ambani row – ad campaign raises a stink. The story details how Anil Ambani has taken the battle over gas to the janta durbar, hitting the streets as it were with his novel campaign, hitherto not seen in Indian media or advertising. By taking the moral high ground – is it in national or public interest – he is asking a very basic question, and not trying to influence the judiciary. I still believe that is not possible in India.
In the same TOI piece, my old friend Rajiv Desai has been quoted as saying that, “This campaign bears watching because it speaks on behalf of shareholders and seeks a public response. In the age of shareholder activism, texting and social media, it could turn out to be a game changer”. Yes, it may turn out to be a game changer. The real game changer in this battle royale is Anil Ambani, who has decided to engage media, politicians, bureaucrats, shareholders and finally the public by reaching out to them directly. This is what Mukesh Ambani should have done, dealt with stakeholders directly, instead of using dysfunctional PR machinery to drive his agenda. The sheer noise level created by ADAG is unprecedented, for it leaves you wondering where the next missile is coming from and iwho its target is. A veritable case study for public relations and corporate communications executives on how to fight a high profile battle.
Retrofit: Ambani Vs Ambani – a lot of hot air around gas
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.
The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)