The phenomenon of industrialists backing political leaders and parties is not new in India. During the freedom struggle, several industrialists backed nationalists generously. After Independence, many captains of the industry became active in politics, some through the Lok Sabha, and others via the Upper House.
Many Rajya Sabha members were nominated members while others were ‘elected’. Except those who joined particular parties, industrialists remained discreet in their support during elections.
Donations to parties were not made public. With the advent of the coalition era, captains of the industry learnt that dark horses too needed to be backed to the extent their strength warranted.
Mukesh Ambani and Uday Kotak's public endorsement of the Congress candidate from South Mumbai, that is, Milind Deora, is however, a rare development. Of the two, who made public their backing for Deora by agreeing to be featured in the 2.17 minutes video which @milinddeora tweeted, the more extraordinary patronage was Ambani's.
From small shopkeepers to large industrialists - for everyone, South Mumbai means business.— Milind Deora (@milinddeora) April 17, 2019
We need to bring businesses back to Mumbai and make job creation for our youth a top priority.#MumbaiKaConnection pic.twitter.com/d4xJnvhyKr
Reviving Deora-Ambani Ties
Besides being the richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani has a larger-than-life persona, and speculations abound about the extent of his political influence. Although part of this power to shape policy and key decisions came to Mukesh as part of his legacy, he has built on it and not squandered it like his younger brother Anil. Anil, for more than a decade and half, has been seen as keeping all his eggs in one basket, initially the Samajwadi Party, and now the BJP.
In contrast, Mukesh Ambani is smarter, and by his public endorsement of Deora, he has accomplished three tasks.
First, he has reaffirmed his continuing relationship with the Deora family. The association between them began with his father, Dhirubhai, whose friendship with Murli Deora was several decades old, and nurtured though the 1980s and 1990s. The late senior Deora then, was president of the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee.
By that time, Deora had put a career as a successful businessman behind him. With Dhirubhai, in those years, on the way to establishing his clout in business and other arenas, the two complimented each other. Deora often said: “I’m in politics because I want to, not because I need to.”
In contrast, Dhirubhai dabbled with those in politics not because he wanted to, but because he needed to. It was a mutually beneficial relationship; his role in aiding Indira Gandhi's return to power in 1980 has for long been talked about, as were Ambani Senior’s close links with other Congress leaders, for instance, former President Pranab Mukherjee.
Mukesh took over the leadership of the united family business after his father’s incapacitation due to illness, and continued keeping the regime on the right side. In the Vajpayee era, his ties with the Congress appeared to have been put in cold storage, although individual ties remained.
Congress, a Force to Reckon With?
On the eve of counting in May 2004, when the NDA was stunningly voted out of power, Anil Ambani, then still part of the family, paid a ‘courtesy’ visit to Sonia Gandhi. Although this was assessed more as recognition of the Ambani brothers' attempt to touch base with the Congress president with whom they had no regular contact, it was also a recognition that the Grand Old Party was back in business.
This visit paved the way for cordial ties between Mukesh and the Congress leadership during the UPA regime. What happened thereafter, is for business historians and writers to examine.
The second point made by Mukesh with his endorsement of Milind’s candidature is that the Reliance empire now considers the Congress party as a force significant enough in these polls, that one of its candidates can be publicly backed. It is also indication that in the assessment of the Reliance empire, there is no certainty of the BJP returning to power.
Because of this conclusion, Mukesh is hedging his bets. If this was not the case, neither Mukesh nor Uday Kotak would have lent their name, face and open admiration to the Deora campaign.
There is a political and business risk that Mukesh and Kotak have taken. Although they have not lent support to the Congress and only to Milind personally, and that too because he is a candidate from 'their' constituency, this regime is not known be kind to anything except complete loyalty.
‘Risk’ Taken by Ambani Shows Ruling Party May Not Return With Thumping Victory
The risk which has been taken suggests that at least these two captains of the industry have assessed that even if this regime returns to office, it would be with a weakened leader at the helm.
The leader would then have no option but to take such ‘indiscretions’ – backing Milind Deora – in his stride, and choose to ‘forgive and forget’. Significantly, this has been missing since 2014, and it was only when the 2019 challenge became much bigger than what it looked initially, did this regime begin to reach out to allies and other possible partners.
The third point that Mukesh has made is in fact a message to the Congress leadership – that the relationship with the Deoras remains firm, and in the event of the Congress ever forming government or being in a different form of influence, the party leadership must remember that Milind Deora will be the bridge between the party and the Reliance group.
Deora's endorsement is also significant because Uday Kotak backed the government hugely during demonetisation. His declaration at this juncture, that “Milind truly represents Mumbai ka connection”, at the end of the video, and immediately after the graphics stating “Milind = Business; Business = Jobs; Milind = Jobs”, carries implicit acceptance of the necessity of jobs, and the failure of the government to deliver them.
It is also no coincidence that Milind’s endorsement has come when Rahul Gandhi has ceaselessly been attacking the younger Ambani brother, Anil. Regardless of the fact that Mukesh bailed out his younger sibling, the feud between the two remains far from settled. At the moment, the ‘Anil factor’ is not visible in the backing to Deora, but corporate equations often get deciphered after being solved.
Along with the image of Mukesh Ambani taking steps well in advance to be on the right side of the party and leaders in power, this endorsement is a doosra, close on the heels of Imran Khan's reverse swing delivery to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. Among his authored books are ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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