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Nusli Wadia

Nusli Wadia

His wife has, famously, described him as a ‘crisis junkie’, but that’s not how Nusli Wadia likes to think of himself.

 

He frowns a little when I remind him of the description and says, ‘ That’s very frivolous. And it’s not true.’

 

   What about the charge that he loves a good fight so much that when there are no opportunities for combat in his own life, he scours the country looking for other people’s conflicts?

 

   ‘I have never looked for a fight,’ says Wadia flatly. ‘ It is true that I have often had to fight but every one of these fights has been forced on me. It has not been of my own choosing.’

 

   The most famous of these battles is, of course, the one that dominated headlines for all of the 1980s and much of the 1990s: Nusli Wadia vs Dhirubhai Ambani. It was a battle that spilled out of the boardrooms and ultimately became the centrepiece of Indian politics during the Rajiv Gandhi era. Many people still believe that the Rajiv Gandhi-V.P. Singh war was a by-product of the Wadia-Ambani feud. And certainly,Wadia has never been far from the political action; not in those days and not now, when he remains the only man in India with equal access to both the Vajpayee and Advani households.

 

   But the battle few people remember is the one that shaped Nusli Wadia’s destiny. If he had lost it, he would not be sitting here today, in his spacious office in the compound of the Bombay Dyeing Mill in central Mumbai. He might not even be living in India at all.

 

   It was the battle for his inheritance. And his opponent was his own father.

 

The first fight

 

The Wadias are one of India’s most distinguished business families. But like the other great Parsi houses (among them, the Tatas and the Godrejs), they have always prided themselves on doing business honestly, on never paying bribes, and on never dealing in black money.

 

   Neville Wadia, Nusli’s father, was one of the great textile magnates of the old school. He was famous for the quality of his products – in those days, Bombay Dyeing was India’s largest textile company – and as famous for his interest in philanthropy. But, by the 1960s, he had worked out that India was becoming a very different kind of place and that men like him, who insisted on doing business by the book, were an endangered species.

 

   He negotiated to sell Bombay Dyeing to the Goenkas of Calcutta – R.P. Goenka handled most of the negotiations – and intended to go and settle in Switzerland. Aware that his only son, Nusli, might not take kindly to the idea, he conducted the negotiations in secret and the first Nusli heard of the sale was when a friend woke him up one morning and asked, ‘I say, what’s this I read in the papers about your father having sold Bombay Dyeing?’

 

   Nusli was famously hotheaded. His parents had sent him to public school in England (Rugby) where, from all accounts, he was a bit of a failure. He came back to India, interrupting his studies, and was put to work on the shop floor. To everyone’s surprise, he proved to be an astute and imaginative businessman and his major contribution to Bombay Dyeing was the introduction of the retail shops (in those days, most mills sold to wholesalers) and the development of the brand name.

 

   But even as Nusli was learning to love the business, his father was tiring of the travails of running a mill in India. Selling out to a canny Marwari seemed like the best option for a Parsi gentleman of the old school. Neville intended to take the money and to live the life of a retired European aristocrat in a Swiss resort.

 

   He had reckoned on Nusli’s opposition but had underestimated his son’s determination – and his ability to win allies. Though father and son were friendly, few people disputed that Nusli regarded J.R.D. Tata as an alternate father figure. The young Nusli spent much of his time with India’s greatest living industrialist, learning his methods and understanding his philosophy.

 

   So, the second call that Nusli got on the fateful morning that the newspapers reported the Bombay Dyeing sale was from J.R.D. Tata. ‘ You’re not going to let him sell Bombay Dyeing, are you?’ his mentor asked.

 

   No, said Nusli, not if he could help it. But he wasn’t sure how he could stop his father.

 

   He hadn’t counted on JRD’s help. Together, they worked out a strategy whereby Nusli won the support of every executive and every worker on the Bombay Dyeing rolls. Lawyers opined that Neville did not have the right to sell the Wadia family’s shares unilaterally. Armed with all this ammunition, Nusli took a flight to London to confront his father who was sitting in the English capital contemplating a happy and peaceful retirement.

 

   He will never forget, says Nusli now, that when he sank into his First Class seat on the plane to London, there was a rose waiting for him on the armrest. Attached to the rose was a note from JRD, wishing him luck and promising him support. (JRD was chairman of Air India, which, I suppose, helped when it came to placing roses on seats.)

 

   Nusli went from Heathrow to meet his father. The two men had an angry and stormy confrontation. Neville told Nusli that it was impossible to do business honestly in India. ‘Don’t be so immature,’ he told his son, ‘let’s just take the money.We can live like lords in Switzerland.’

 

   This had the effect of making Nusli even angrier. ‘ You can live in Switzerland,’ he told the old man. ‘I don’t want to be a second-class citizen in some European country. I am going to live in India. And I am going to run Bombay Dyeing.’

 

   Faced with a revolt of this magnitude, Neville gave in. The Goenkas were told that the deal was off. Nusli found new investors in the years ahead (among them the Scindias of Gwalior) and Bombay Dyeing continued to do better and better. By the mid-70s, Nusli was firmly in control and the old man was spending most of his time in his beloved Switzerland.

 

   Nusli Wadia (with a little help from J.R.D. Tata) had won his first major battle.

 

The Dhirubhai tangle

 

But, of course, the old man was right. It was becoming more and more difficult to do business honestly in India. By the late 1970s, Bombay Dyeing was still the biggest and best textile company in India. But it was no longer the one that everyone talked about. That distinction went to Reliance whose founder-Chairman Dhirubhai Ambani made no secret of his ability to transform political and bureaucratic contacts into profits.

 

   Though he is reluctant to repeat this now, Nusli Wadia used to claim, in the 1980s, that for Dhirubhai, it wasn’t enough that Reliance succeeded. It was as important to make sure that everybody else failed. Wadia believed that the Ambanis did everything possible to throttle Bombay Dyeing, from nearly sabotaging his DMT project to ensuring that all government permissions went against the Wadias.

 

   We talk now of the all-powerful Ambani machine, but in the early 1980s, when Wadia would complain about Reliance, most people thought he was being paranoid. He would say things like, ‘ You take my word; if Ambani is not stopped now, this man will become India’s biggest industrialist. He has bought the whole system and manipulates everything.’

 

   At that stage, Dhirubhai owned a successful textile company and not much else; so the notion that he would, one day, rub shoulders with the Tatas and the Birlas seemed laughable. The general view in the 1980s was that because Dhirubhai was a lot smarter than him, it suited Nusli to portray the Ambanis as allpowerful manipulators. That way, Nusli’s own failure to compete effectively with Reliance could be explained away in terms of Dhirubhai’s control of the government and the bureaucracy.

 

   It may be a coincidence but nearly every other company that mattered in the textile sector in the 1980s – Baroda Rayon, Orkay, Nirlon, etc. – has either closed down or faces major problems. Would that have been the fate of Bombay Dyeing if Nusli had not enlisted the assistance of Ramnath Goenka and the Indian Express?

 

   The way Nusli tells it now, the anti-Reliance campaign was Goenka’s own idea. He was outraged that the Ambanis seemed to have more influence over the Express than he did himself and resolved to teach Dhirubhai a lesson.Moreover, says Wadia, in the early days at least, the campaign had the blessings of both, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Finance Minister V.P. Singh.

 

   It was Wadia’s idea – cleared, he says, with Rajiv Gandhi – to hire an American detective agency to investigate Reliance’s purchase of a plant from Dupont, which the Express claimed, was subsequently smuggled into India. In those days, V.P. Singh’s trusted director of enforcement was a man called Bhure Lal and he oversaw the investigation – keeping Rajiv briefed.

 

   The problems began when, during one such briefing, in late 1986, Bhure Lal told Rajiv that he was investigating the illegal activities of many rich Indians, including the Bachchan brothers. Rajiv had never cleared any investigation of the Bachchans – this was V.P. Singh’s own agenda to rid himself of a rival in Allahabad. Then, Wadia later learnt, the Indian embassy in Switzerland reported that somebody had hired a detective agency to check on any bank accounts held by Rajiv or the Bachchans. As far as he knows, says Wadia, nobody had hired such an agency; this was pure misinformation.

 

   But the smoking gun took the form of two sloppily forged letters allegedly written by the head of the American detective agency (Fairfax) investigating Reliance and addressed to Bhure Lal. In the letters, the agency referred to its investigations into the bank accounts of the Bachchan brothers and Sonia Gandhi’s family in Italy. In retrospect, the letters looked like obvious forgeries – even at the time, many journalists, including myself, wrote that they were forgeries – but they had a dramatic effect when they were handed to Rajiv.

 

   Here, at last, was confirmation of what the Ambanis had long been suggesting: V.P. Singh and Ramnath Goenka were not targeting Dhirubhai Ambani alone. The real target was Rajiv Gandhi.

 

Meets Rajiv finally, but …

 

Everybody knows what followed. Rajiv became suspicious of Goenka. The press baron responded by attacking Rajiv.V.P. Singh was pilloried within the Congress and then left to start his own political party. The Express, with V.P. Singh’s assistance, forced Amitabh Bachchan out of politics on trumped-up charges.

 

   Nusli made several attempts to meet Rajiv but was never granted an audience. The Ambanis were suddenly back in favour. The entire might of the Indian State came down on Nusli Wadia. He was raided and then arrested in humiliating circumstances. Two burly policemen handcuffed him and led him out of the house. ‘When will my Daddy come home?' Nusli’s thirteen-year-old son asked one of the cops. ‘He’s going to jail for at least five years,’ the policeman responded, causing the boy to burst into tears. Then, the Government of India served a deportation order on Wadia, who held a British passport in those days. The Express nearly went bankrupt. Bombay Dyeing went into a tailspin.

 

   Nobody – well, almost nobody – did well out of that confrontation. V.P. Singh’s opposition and the Express campaign led to the Bofors charges – which ultimately proved to be bogus – gaining a false credibility with the educated elite. And ultimately, Rajiv lost an election he deserved to win.

 

   Nusli did not get to meet Rajiv Gandhi again till May 1991. They met for half an hour and Rajiv said, ‘Nusli, I only wanted to help you. Why did you damage me so much?’ Nusli retorted, ‘What about all the things your government did to me?’

 

   They met again a week later. Nusli went to 10 Janpath at 10 p.m.He left at 5 a.m. The two men spent most of the night sorting out the misconceptions and the misunderstandings. History could not be rewritten. But perhaps the mistakes of the past could be avoided.

 

   They parted, Nusli recalls, having understood each other better. They promised to meet once the election campaign was over.

 

   A fortnight later, Rajiv was dead.

 

The cookie lures

 

The 1990s were a crucial decade for Nusli Wadia. It is a cruel thing to say but by then, he was no longer a major preoccupation for the Ambanis: they were now so big that they had simply outgrown him. But while the Reliance juggernaut rolled on, Wadia had to prove that he knew how to run a business. He had to pick up the pieces at Bombay Dyeing and he had to demonstrate that he could grow the family empire.

 

   Rebuilding the textile business proved tricky but an investment in Bombay Burmah yielded a gold mine in terms of hidden assets. And then, there was the cookie affair.

 

   Nusli had always dreamt of entering the biscuit business and had negotiated with the ailing Huntley and Palmer biscuits to take over Britannia in India. But Huntley and Palmer itself was taken over by American cookie giant Nabisco and though Nusli met the Nabisco brass through his friend (and partner in a cashew company), Rajan Pillai, and seemed to have struck up a deal whereby he would still get to buy Britannia, the Americans later changed their minds. They kept Britannia and installed as chairman, not Nusli Wadia, but Rajan Pillai. (By then, the two men had fallen out over the cashew company and were no longer speaking to each other.)

 

   Eventually, Nabisco too was taken over and through a series of complex, possibly backdated, agreements, Rajan Pillai emerged as the new owner of Britannia. Pillai took the French group Danone as his partners but the two soon fell out with Danone accusing Pillai of cheating.

 

   Re-enter Nusli, this time as Danone’s new Indian partner. After a bruising legal and media battle, Pillai was ousted and Wadia finally got his heart’s desire: control of Britannia. It is a company that has grown rapidly and today, with a market capitalization of around Rs 2,000 crore and a profitability of Rs 175 crore, it does better than Bombay Dyeing. (Though, of course, Bombay Dyeing has many undervalued assets, including the land it sits on.)

 

   The Britannia acquisition demonstrated that not only did Nusli know how to fight a good fight – he also knew how to make a profit at the end of it.

 

The saffron link

 

Nusli Wadia’s detractors never tire of pointing out that he is M.A. Jinnah’s grandson (his mother is Jinnah’s daughter). Nusli is not embarrassed by his lineage; in fact, he’s very proud of Jinnah,who he regards as having been entirely secular. The Partition, he says, was an unfortunate event but the Congress must share the blame.

 

   But it is odd, isn’t it, that Jinnah’s grandson should be so close to the BJP?

 

   Since the 1960s, when the Jan Sangh was a party of petty shopkeepers,Wadia has been a dedicated fellow traveller.He still idolizes Nanaji Deshmukh and both A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani have been his friends for years. When the BJP finally took office, he was a key member of the government’s inner circle.

 

   Nusli doesn’t see any contradiction in his lineage (Muslim- Parsi) and his friendship with the party of Hindutva. He says that he was drawn to the Jan Sangh because he believed that India needed an opposition party that believed in free markets. He is not, he concedes, a great believer of Hindutva.

 

   Even so, I ask, wasn’t he embarrassed by the demolition of the Babri Masjid?

 

   ‘Of course, I was,’ he responds. ‘I don’t believe in any kind of religious extremism. That’s not what politics is about.’

 

   I press him on his closeness to the last government. Is it true that he was one of the two or three men who knew that Advani was going to be made deputy prime minister?

 

   He does not deny it.

 

   Is he embarrassed then, I ask, by the revelations that the war between the Ambani brothers have thrown up. Isn’t it odd that a party which counts Nusli as part of its inner circle should have been so successfully penetrated by the Reliance machine that telecom policy was rewritten at Nariman Point?

 

   Nusli is normally a voluble – opinionated even – sort of fellow. But now, he falls strangely silent.

 

   I push further. Well, what do these revelations say about his beloved BJP’s desire to clean up Indian industry?

 

   He finally responds. ‘I would rather not comment,’ he says.

 

Politics yes, politician no

 

I’ve interviewed Nusli Wadia before and written about him several times. But here’s the thing: not one of these stories has been about business. He has the rare distinction of being the businessman who has been the most involved in Indian politics over the last two decades. (With the possible exception of Dhirubhai Ambani, I suppose … )

 

   But with the BJP out of power and in disarray, Nusli finally has a business focus to his life. Bombay Dyeing is doing well: the textile business is still rocky but the real estate division is performing brilliantly. Britannia is a bonafide success. And now, his son’s plans to launch a low-cost airline by the autumn of 2005 have been successful.

 

   I ask him about the rumours that he was never keen on the airline. ‘Nonsense,’ he explodes. ‘I am totally behind the project. We are putting our family money into the airline, around Rs 50 crore or so. It is not coming out of Bombay Dyeing.’

 

   But does he see himself as a businessman?

 

   ‘ Yes,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘I suppose I am a businessman.’ He pauses. ‘ But I am also not really a businessman. It doesn’t interest me that much.Making money does not fascinate me.’

 

   The obvious question:Why hasn’t he joined politics?

 

   ‘ Because I don’t want to stand for election and all that,’ he says shortly. ‘Last year there was a rumour that I was being nominated to the Rajya Sabha and it annoyed me so much that I didn’t go to Delhi till the nominations were announced.’

 

   And the final, slightly rude, question. For two decades now, it has been almost impossible to think of Nusli without thinking of the Ambanis. Now, that their paths seem finally to have diverged, does he still harbour them any ill will?

 

   Nusli answers carefully. ‘I never wanted the Ambanis to be part of my life. It was never my choice. And if we have nothing to do with each other now, I’m quite happy with that.’ And it shows.

 

(Picture courtesy Hindustan Times)

 

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