Subir Raha changed ONGC from an ordinary to an extraordinary company. But politics and jealousy had their way, says Shantanu Guha Ray
1939 – 2010
I AM ALWAYS sparring with multiple opponents,” Subir Raha would often joke. The ONGC chairman, who died of lung cancer at a private hospital in Delhi, dreamt big, but often found the scales in his office too small for his comfort. He was 61. Till Raha joined it in 2001, the state-owned giant had loads of cash, but had achieved little beyond the Bombay High discovery. It had just one oilfield — in Vietnam — and a 42,000-plus staff that rarely listened to anyone except the oil minister and the mandarins under him.
But Raha, the crafty and ruthless brawler, forced instant changes. First he shifted to a room that had glass under his seat, for he needed to both reflect and introspect, and a mini fountain that constantly reminded him of his childhood when he sat by the river banks listening to the sound of water splashing. And of course, his pack of cigarettes, always within reach, would grant him a breather every 45 minutes or so. The cigars, tuna sandwiches and the Single Malt were for the evenings.
Raha almost singlehandedly took ONGC’s market cap to Rs 2 lakh crore: a 10-fold increase between 2001 and 2006. He was often heard saying that ONGC was India’s answer to Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company. And despite the contrasting production volumes of the two, Raha’s critics were charitable enough to note that, after all, ONGC was a state-owned company where the boss had virtually no autonomy.
But the then Petroleum Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, found ONGC’s dream merchant and his big ideas difficult to fathom. He was at odds with Raha’s vertical integration plan (which involved acquisition of the Mangalore Refinery) and his aggressive global forays to acquire stakes in Russia’s Sakhalin I & II oilfields and others in Asia and Latin America. It was under Raha’s watch that ONGC Videsh — from being a zero production company with a minor reserve base —today owns 24 properties (31 blocks) in 14 countries.
Skirmishes between the two were routine — one reason being that Raha got the top job before 2004 when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power. So in the babu’s perception, he was a BJP man under a UPA dispensation. Small wonder then, that the Raha complaint file grew steadily fatter. And the minister who routinely overlooked Raha’s finer traits, found all the time to listen to his critics. Some were as banal as Raha hiring global experts like Schlumberger, Hyundai and Siemens and giving plum jobs to fellow Bengalis. Some stuck, others didn’t — but ultimately the babus had their way.
Petroleum Secretary SC Tripathi began to openly question Raha’s performance, and a committee headed by his predecessor, TNR Rao, held Raha and his management responsible for a fire at Bombay High in 2005. Raha never got an extension. The insult rankled him till his last day.
Raha had wanted to write the ONGC story but could not progress beyond the first two chapters. They reveal how he and his team helped ONGC become India’s most formidable energy explorer and producer of two-thirds of its oil. Today, it is India’s second most valuable company after Reliance Industries, with a stock market value of around $45 billion. Yet there was no extension for this brilliant officer who for the last three years lived in Delhi on a monthly pension of just Rs 35,000.
The wreaths too were missing at the cremation, as were politicians and bureaucrats. A few days before he died, Raha told a friend that nothing had made him happier than the news that the government had decided to name some PSUs as Maharatnas,and that ONGC was a frontrunner.