Gassing the opposition

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Anil Ambani’s scathing attack against Murli Deora threatens to change the rules of engagement between corporates and politicians

Shantanu Guha RayShantanu Guha Ray
Editor–Business

ANIL AMBANI went into a huddle with his mother, Kokilaben, for four hours at Sea Wind on Sunday. Then, he met with confidants at his office to finalise his 90-minute, emotion-laced speech at the twin annual general meetings of Reliance Power and Reliance Natural Resources Limited in Mumbai on Tuesday. Easily the most aggressive Indian corporate speech ever, it was a complete verbal assault on union Petroleum Minster Murli Deora.

Battlelines Ambani Jr wants the slugfest to end quickly
Battlelines Ambani Jr wants the slugfest to end quickly
Photo: AP

That Anil – chairman of the eponymous Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) and among the world’s 50 richest men – was upset by what he feels was a clear bias against him and his group was made painfully obvious. Worse, Deora is someone both brothers fondly call ‘uncle’: for a Dhirubhai Ambani acolyte like him to openly back a position close to Mukesh’s, and seek the dissolution of an agreement vetted and sealed by Kokilaben herself, has the family rattled. Informed sources say that Kokilaben and her daughters have rallied behind Anil.

Deora, who watched the AGM on news channels at his Mumbai home with his son Milind, muted his response, but drew flak as the day grew. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee convened a meeting in New Delhi after the Prime Minister’s Office sought details of the allegations made by Anil. Insiders claim that soon after the meeting, Petroleum Secretary RS Pandey wanted his comments given to a wire agency to be expunged and Law Minister Veerappa Moily was unhappy that his ministry had been by-passed in handling the issue. The cabinet has now green-inked Moily’s demand that the law ministry handle such legal matters.

Both brothers call Deora ‘uncle’. For him to openly back a position close to Mukesh’s has the family rattled

But even if one overlooks the charged atmosphere among shareholders, the level of family feeling, the allegations of bias, the production-sharing contract favouring RIL and the inappropriateness of the government-set price of $4.20, the issue that cannot be ignored is that the government has pushed itself into the middle of an ugly corporate slugfest.

A file pic of Kokilaben
A file pic of Kokilaben
Photo: AFP

The government’s neutrality should have been ensured. That this did not happen bolsters the charges of partisanship. And Anil’s allegation that the petroleum ministry seems unconcerned about the price at which the stateowned NTPC will get the gas from the KG basin in Andhra Pradesh is hard to answer.

Politics apart, if the neutrality issue is not addressed, what is essentially a private spat between two warring siblings could establish a precedent for others who want to get out of signed commercial contracts. Biases and preferences have always existed for corporates in various ministries but if favouritism comes out of the G-files, it would set a very dangerous development and a bad precedent, indeed.

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