Dhirubhai And The Media

IN Media Practice | 01/09/2002
Dhirubhai And The Media

Dhirubhai And The Media

Sevanti Ninan

Cast your mind back: which Indian in recent memory has so overwhelmed the media with his death? What was the last time that both the hospitalization, and the subsequent death of an individual received live TV coverage, not just his funeral? It is almost as if you have to go all the way back to Indira Gandhi to find a parallel. And its not just TV coverage, it is also the reaction of the stock market, the breadth of the who¿s who turn out, the outpouring of a sea of humanity, and the unrestrained newspaper eulogies. It is as if the portly, Gujarati businessman was in an orbit that no Indian has occupied in recent times. Which he was.

Ever since he was rushed to hospital with the stroke which proved fatal, journalists big and small have been groping for words to describe Dhirubhai Ambani and his achievements. Once they get started, many find it difficult to restrain either the adjectives or the anecdotes. There is tacit acknowledgement that this was no ordinary star in the Indian firmament. A school teacher¿s son, who never studied beyond school, ended up creating an industrial empire which accounts for three per cent of the gross domestic product of a country with a billion people. Given the pace he set for himself and the battles he fought, the man was nothing if not a walking cover story, for much of his life.

And yet over the last two decades there was a current of unease evoked in dealing with Dhirubhai, that did not occur with any other individual in this land, however highly placed . Former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, in an interview to Rediff on the Net titled "I liked him very, very much," says at one point, "We shared a close rapport as he was an industrialist and I - for most of my career - was in the finance or economic ministries. However, that does not mean that our friendship was ¿unequal¿ in any way. It would be absolute bunkum to describe me, or anybody else, as ¿a Reliance man.¿ Though, of course, the media is free to describe anyone as anyone¿s man."

Such a defensive statement from a former finance minister touches upon a problem which politicians, bureaucrats and journalists alike had in their relationship with the patriarch of India¿s most powerful business house. Closeness to him could be rewarding in more ways than one, but it put a question mark over you. Were you a Reliance man or woman? It was as if neutrality or independence were not possible where a relationship with Dhirubhai Ambani was concerned. Here was a man who had made such a religion out of "managing the environment" that everybody who came into contact with him was thereafter seen as being "managed."

Certainly, where the media is concerned he achieved a mastery that is unprecedented in the history of independent India. To criticize the man or his empire was to join battle, no less. No mere journalist could presume to criticize the performance or practices of the house of Reliance and go unscathed, or if you like, un-wooed. If you didn¿t play ball, you were very brave indeed. And if you did you were rewarded. They made neutrality difficult for the profession. For two decades, journalists in this country, like bureaucrats and politicians, have been marked. They were either pro Reliance, or anti, or they did not count. That is, those who wrote under their name. Less identified were the nameless senior people whom the Ambanis nurtured relations with, within newspaper and magazine hierarchies.

One foreign correspondent, Hamish McDonald, actually had the temerity to do painstaking research and write a book called The Polyester Prince. It was a clear-eyed account of the man, his achievements, his methods. It was subtitled, The Rise of Dhirubai Ambani. It never saw the light of day in this country. The publishers to be of the Indian edition backed off from publishing it, the publishers of the Australian edition did not succeed in getting the book into bookshops here because the Ambanis threatened to sue if the book contained anything they considered defamatory. Those who wanted to read it had it smuggled in.

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