Let’s hear it for India’s top gun industrialist. Mukesh Ambani’s personal net worth has crossed $100 billion. He joins Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet and a handful of other worthies who have worked their way up to the top of the wealth ladder. The list, recently put out by the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index (calculated on a daily basis), has the Reliance Group boss clocking in at eleventh place in the pecking order, which contains mostly American magnates of proven pedigree above him. Ambani’s compatriot Gautam Adani, while not quite snapping at his heels, comes in at a creditable number 13 with a value of around $78 billion.
It is significant that no Chinese name figures in this hallowed list till number 15, well below the $100 billion mark. One would have thought the likes of Jack Ma and a couple of others would have been automatic shoo-ins. There could be valid reasons for this conspicuous absence. Firstly, China’s financial position is beginning to look alarmingly dodgy, threatening instability across the globe. Remember, when Wuhan hatched the virus, the rest of the world contracted Covid, and we are still struggling to shake it off. Secondly, the Chinese powers-that-be have instructed their well-heeled citizenry to part with their hard-won cash and distribute the largesse among the poor – Capitalism meets Communism at the crossroads. This might have created a major dent among China’s billionaire club members, rendering them hors de combat, in so far as making it to the top of the world billionaire list is concerned. So, for the moment, we raise a toast in honour of the elder Ambani sibling.
The thing of it is, I am not quite sure how I am supposed to respond when the newspapers decide to headline Mr. Ambani’s prodigious pole-vaulting to the top of the financial tree. All these years, this wunderkind from Gujarat was chugging along at a measly $80 or 90 billion, somehow making ends meet in these difficult times. Now that he has crossed the Rubicon, perhaps never to return to his humble sub-hundred billion days, the Indian media naturally goes gaga. Will this accretion of a piddly $20 billion or so to his asset base change his lifestyle in any marked manner? Will he add a few more floors to his state-of-the-art mansion, Antilia (puzzlingly named after a phantom island, Antillia, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal and Spain) in Mumbai? Mr. Ambani’s Antilia is spelt with one ‘l’ less than the mythical island, doubtless with numerological issues in mind. Speaking of which, meaning no disrespect to Mr. Ambani or his architect, I think this ‘most expensive residential complex in the world’ is a startling eyesore and a blot on the Mumbai landscape. Strong and sensitive men passing by will flinch and avert their eyes. Extreme ostentation triumphs over understated elegance. From a distance the tower looks like a series of misshapen, misaligned matchboxes piled, higgledy-piggledy, on top of each other. Antilia is futuristically equipped with all the mod-cons that one can possibly imagine, not forgetting the three helipads, but wild horses will not drag me into the sacred interiors of this modern art monstrosity. I should be paranoid about a strong wind bringing those matchboxes tumbling down. Not that I am in any imminent danger of receiving an invitation to dinner from Mukesh and Nita.
That said, the Ambanis can pick up a few more football or IPL franchises, which will greatly add to their prestige without, in the least bit, creating a ripple in their balance sheet. Manchester United is having a hard time of it these days in the English Premier League, notwithstanding Christiano Ronaldo’s late recruitment. I would strongly recommend to Mukesh Ambani that he send his best brains to Manchester to get a due diligence done on MU. And if funds permit (that’s a laugh), he can also cross the Atlantic and take a dekko at a couple of NBA outfits. That will complete the picture. And if he feels up to it, he can emulate Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos and explore outer space, if he is not susceptible to vertigo.
Meanwhile, I had prepared a questionnaire containing some probing queries and mailed it to all the $100 billion moghuls. Predictably, none of them bothered to answer. I doubt if my mail even got to the spam bin of their inbox. However, I did receive a response and I cannot swear to its authenticity (my friends say it’s a fake), from the secretariat of the Chairman of the Reliance Group of Industries. I had requested for an online video interview with the great man, but I was met with a polite rebuff. So, I shot off the questions, which were answered without the employment of the first person singular. Which leads me to believe that it was not Mukesh Ambani himself who was drafting the replies, but one of his many bright, young executives. One can only hope that it had his imprimatur. Importantly, it was agreed that we would conduct a ‘live’ online chat. No video, so I was still in the dark as to who I was chatting with, but spontaneous give-and-take ensured reactions on the hoof, adding to the surprise element.
‘Mr. Ambani, warmest congratulations on achieving this tremendous landmark of crossing the magic figure of $100 billion. What are your immediate reactions?’
‘You know, we at Reliance believe in excellence in everything we do. Our Father (who art in heaven) always inculcated in us the spirit that we should not be chasing turnover and profit for their own sake. Rather, we should serve the people of India and the nation as best we can and the numbers will take care of themselves. That is our guiding philosophy.’
‘When you say “we,” don’t you mean “I” Mr. Ambani?’
‘When we say “we”, we mean “we.” You journalists might choose to call it the “Royal we,” but in the words of the popular 70s hit song by Sister Sledge, “We are family.” That is the Reliance family which encompasses the Ambani kith and kin as well as the shareholders and hundreds of thousands of people who are employed by us directly and indirectly. We are one, big happy family.’
‘That is hardly surprising, Mr. Ambani. Why would you all not be happy with the kind of dividends and profits that are declared by your company year on year? In fact, for sheer scale and glamour, your Annual General Meetings can vie with the Oscars evenings in Hollywood.’
‘If you say so, but that was more a statement than a question, albeit a rhetorical one. Again, you appear to be obsessed with profits, dividends and so on. Resist this tendency. Reliance is like a huge banyan tree the seeds of which Our Father first sowed. Today that tree has grown so large it provides shelter and comfort to an entire generation.’
‘In order to achieve the kind of success Reliance has enjoyed over the decades, surely there are many government functionaries over the years you must have been in the good books of? What was your secret when so many other business houses have struggled to come to terms with the capricious policies of the government?’
‘We are not sure what you mean by “in the good books of” but over several decades, Reliance has always respected governments of various political hues, as we have contributed to the state and central exchequers massively by payment of taxes and levies. Your employment of the word “capricious” is inappropriate. We have enjoyed nothing but the warmest and most cordial relations with all arms of government machinery.’
‘Then Mr. Ambani, are we to understand that getting into the exclusive $100 billion club is nothing earth-shattering for you? That it is just small beer, another normal milestone, a part of your everyday duties and concerns?’
‘My friend, we have said no such thing. Do not put words into our mouths. And please don’t bring beer into it, small or big. As I said before, every single person in the Reliance family strives for excellence. The process is the thing. The results take care of themselves. If that means, crossing an important landmark, we are happy.’
‘You are beginning to sound like M.S. Dhoni. Perhaps you should have signed him up for the Mumbai Indians at the first IPL auction.’
‘There we agree with you. That was our one big miss. The Chennai Super Kings pipped us to the post, but then, you can’t win everything. What is more, our Mumbai Indians have done us proud over the years, and we have no complaints or regrets.’
‘One last question, Sir. This humongous empire you and your “family” have built, do you think it is all just maya, an improbable perception, that you will suddenly wake up and realize it was all just a dream?’
‘You know, “the perception of reality is more than reality itself.” That is a quote from the film “Billionaire Boys Club.” If all this is a dream, then we have dared to dream and make it all a reality. We believe we have answered enough questions for one day. We must rush. Time is money for us. However, can you tell us how many zeroes there are in 100 billion?’
‘Ah, um, er….’
‘We thought so. We bid you good day.’
‘Thank you for sparing the time, Mr. Ambani, if it is indeed you. Will call you again when you reach the number one spot in the multi-billionaire club.’
Postscript: I am now more than certain these answers were not provided by the famous scion of a famous family. I mean, Sister Sledge? Billionaire Boys Club? Give me a break!