The Eternal Journey

The Eternal Journey

Ambani - The Corporate Chanakya of the modern times ???

Stepping aside from my culture of writing long blogs, I intend to keep this one short and leave some food for thought for you readers to mull this subject.

Dhirajlal Hirachand Ambani, a name that is not unheard in the annals of Indian Business history. Another legendary historic figure well revered all across the world for his work, the Arthashastra, (yes. You got it right) is Chanakya. I happened to read the book ‘The Polyester Prince’ by Hamish MacDonald, which speaks of the dark side of Ambani. So, I felt that I can draw some parallels between the two of them and the result is this piece that you are reading now.

Chanakya’s life resembles a typical Bollywood story of the early eighties, wherein the protagonist sees his parents being murdered by the ‘So Nice’ villain and he seeks to avenge the death of his parents. So, he ignores every other human being on the planet, except the heroine who comes mid-way only to become his liability towards the climax (This is however missing in Chanakya’s story, to my disappointment). On the other hand, Dhirubhai’s life is just different in context. He just has an ambitious goal and he is a super-ambitious person who goes to any extent to achieve his goal. And all of you know, his life is already a Bollywood movie in the early 21st century. On a lighter note, this seems to be the first element of commonality between the two of them.

Both of them were no doubt, Visionary Leaders. Chanakya, despite being a No one in his childhood, had fostered a vision of building a nation, a truly united nation as against the then existing bunch of kingly provinces. Dhirubhai Ambani, on the other hand, had a great vision of building a Corporate House from nothing in hand.

Doing the otherwise through Alternative Thinking is another facet that unites both of them. Dhirubhai Ambani is credited with starting the equity cult in India. Chanakya was the one who suggested that government should collect taxes from people the way a honey bee sucks the right amount of honey from the flowers so that both can survive.

It is no exaggeration if i say that both of them are God-brothers at manipulating people. Chanakya on one hand wrote a policy himself and propagated it very effectively to his followers. He believed in destroying anything that came in the way of his goal of building a united nation. Similarly, Dhirubhai Ambani, had an unwritten rule that every policy has a loophole. So, he understood every policy in a way no one else understood it and he just followed it. This way, he manipulated/worked around a zillion government policies and came up with ethically unethical ways to generate revenues, although for the welfare of his shareholders.

Chanakya was an exceptionally able king maker. He ensured that he had all the power in his hands by making his disciple Chandragupta, the King of Magadha. He could have become the king himself, however, he chose to be a king maker to being a king. Dhirubhai Ambani also seems to have followed a similar path of being a king maker. He was known to be the brain  behind a lot of political decisions that happened in the country during his regime. Being an ardent supporter and funder to the then only Leading political party in India, he became the hot spot of all the government policy decisions.

The way both of them overcame the tussle with the existing strong establishments and uprooted them in their path to victory also appears to be another parallel. Chanakya had the mighty kingdom of the Nandas between him and his goal of a strong unified nation. Ambani had the mighty empire of the Wadias in the textile industry when he decided to make the biggest empire in the industry. Chanakya never fought the Nandas himself. He was more of a Director of the tale than a Protagonist. He made Chandragupta drive out the Nandas from his way and enabled building the Gupta Empire, his brainchild, thus achieving his goal. Dhirubhai Ambani also was an expert at moving his pawns at the right time. The way he manipulated the announcements of government policies to suit to his situation, is exceptional. With all the key people across key divisions in the government in his control, he ensured that it was an easy ride for him in his business, and a very tough time to his competitors.This is evident from the way he shot back at the Wadias on several occasions.

Dhirubhai Ambani, like Chanakya, was a very secretive person. He believed in not sharing his trade secrets with anyone. The same culture is today adopted by his sons Mukesh & Anil also. Apart from a couple of very close aides, no one else knows anything about the way the Reliance businesses operate. Well, there may be systems and processes that the employees follow, but everything that happens has an ulterior force behind it, which goes unseen by everyone. Chanakya advocated the mantra, ‘Never share your secrets with anyone. It will eventually destroy you.’ This appears to be a guiding principle of Ambani.

Chanakya had been a synonym of the Machiavellian style and is considered totally ruthless and unemotional. However, all he wanted was a unified nation and nothing for himself. He was always conscious of the fact that he is too tempestuous to be the leader of the nation. Dhirubhai is also known to be very ruthless in the way he dealt with people. He probably felt more fun in managing the politicians and the government than being a part of it himself. So, until his last breath, he always held strong on his vision and somehow succeeded in setting up an unimaginably large corporate house in such a short breadth of time.

If you have ample time to debate, here's a topic. "What is Important? the Means or the End". Even i have no answer to this question but both Chanakya and Ambani advocated the idea of achieving the End, no matter what the means was. Chanakya wanted a 'just' kingdom. So, he believed in usurping a king by force if he can't be corrected, however was very keen on meeting his End. similarly, Dhirubhai's (un)just and (un)ethical means of operating his business just to make it a very big corporate, is a clear indication of his priority towards the End than the Means. This, to me, is a clear facet of extremist behavior. If we support it, we should also appreciate terrorism for the poor terrorists undergo all the hardships and are so generous to sacrifice not just their lives, but also hundreds of others'.

Before i seem to fit in more commonalities, for those of you who believe in ‘Afterlife’ and ‘Reincarnation’, I hope, you, by now, understood what was running in my mind. For the rest of you who don’t believe in ‘bullshit’ all I can say is ‘History Repeats’.

Thanks for reading. Give in your comments on this piece and get back to work before History repeats again.

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About Uday Sankar Yerramilli

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  1. Good comparison. The most difficult question to answer is the means or end. I think everyone feels the same but once you reach the end and look back definitely the means or the way matters! Many people who achieved anything(whatever the size of the achievement)accepts this fact.

  2. Deciding between the means or the end is a tough juggle. Ambani built a corporate empire; no doubt, but will it last generations, long after he has gone? Did his methods set an example for others, or will it remain a blemish which wont go away, even though the people at the helm of affairs change? Only time will tell :)

  3. Good article, Uday. The style and flow is pleasant to read. Coming to the article, nice points on the comparison. One point which i felt was different is the 5th point. Unlike Chanakya, who used Chandragupta to defeat the Nanda's, Ambani didnt have that methodology. Still, he was a master in reading people's mind and he used the media to his great advantage along with keeping the people at the right places happy!

    As for the 'Means vs End', i would go with 'End justify the Means', though iam still a person following 'Means' process. Eventually, its the end which matters anywhere. Be it nation or corporate, some hard decisions needs to be made, and one cant do that if one is concerned about the means. Complete focus on the 'End' is what gets the job done. Period.


  4. Dhirubhai Ambani had Indira Gandhi & Rajiv Gandhi to drive away the Wadias from his path.. So, i just felt that the analogy is apt.
    Ambani could have never done anything himself. Had it not been for the two Gandhis, he would have been nowhere today.

    And reg the End vs Means debate, even I am of the opinion that the means can always be justified in Hindsight as long as the end is achieved. However, the integrity of the means is always subject to question based on the lens through which we see it.