The Ambani borthers: India’s feuding billionaires

A family feud over a business empire in India got so serious, the Indian government was forced to intervene. At last a thaw in relations has come about - but will it last?

There will have been many tetchy family reunions over the holidays but few with as much at stake as that between the warring Ambani brothers. India has been lapping up footage of the reunited billionaires praying and dancing together at a special Puja (Hindu ceremony), organised by their mother, to commemorate the 80th birthday of their late father, the founder of Reliance Group, an Indian conglomerate. Never mind, says the Financial Times, that most of the images "show the brothers standing apart". Thanks to "Mum's magic touch", Mukesh (pictured on the left) and Anil (right) are together again.

It marks a turnaround for the Ambanis, whose bitter feud over the family business began in 2002 when Dhirubhai Ambani died intestate. In 2005, they split the business: older brother Mukesh took over the petrochemical business (India's largest), while Anil gained the group's telecoms, finance and energy units. There followed a truce, but the "boys were soon back at it again". By 2008, the government was so worried about the impact of their squabbling on India's energy supply it intervened. In 2010 the Ambanis who continued living in the same Mumbai skyscraper throughout their feud (they used separate elevators) announced a surprise detente. Last month's reconciliation was evidence "the hatchet has been buried a bit deeper".

The brothers, with a combined wealth of $28.5bn, are "a study of contrasts", says India Today. While Mukesh, a workaholic with a weakness for Mumbai street food, exudes all the glamour of a middle-class suburbanite, slick financial Anil loves innovation, runs marathons and married a Bollywood starlet. The fact their wives are reportedly at daggers hasn't improved matters. Still, it's a "tragedy" they fell out: their contrasting characters "complemented each other perfectly" in business. What better foil for Mukesh's control-freakery than the "flashy, flamboyant, urbane" Anil?

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Perhaps the latter's business dealings were too flamboyant, says Bloomberg. Shares in Anil's flagship telco, Reliance Communications, have slumped 78% since 2006, partly due to a telecom scandal in which several executives were jailed. By contrast, Mukesh has been riding high. Last year his firm, Reliance Industries (RIL), was India's "biggest wealth creator", having distributed $32bn in dividends since 2006 almost as much as Anil lost in the 2008 financial crisis.

Rumours the elder Ambani "would step in to save the younger" (for the sake of their mother) have long circulated, fuelled by Mukesh's foray into Anil's telecoms stronghold, says the FT. The brothers are sharing infrastructure. Is this the prelude to a full reunification? Both parties deny it, but "there's a growing feeling in Mumbai that the brothers will end their Shakespearean drama". Not before time.

Can they bury the hatchet?

It is impossible to understand the continuing fascination that Anil and Mukesh Ambani hold for the Indian public without reference to their father, says India Today. Reliance companies are crucial to the Indian economy Mukesh alone controls the world's biggest oil refining complex but the brand has a "mystical aura" beyond that. Dhirubhai Ambani started from scratch, trading textiles from a two-room shack with an earthen floor in Gujarat. The industrial powerhouse he went on to build became "the burnished showpiece of Indian enterprise". The old joke on Dalal Street used to be that "the evolution of the Indian economy is symbolised by the transition from self-reliance to Reliance".

In comparison with his epic rise, the Ambani boys' fraternal squabbles seem "petty" even if the sums involved are huge, says The Economist. Despite their recent troubles, the brothers "are big fish swimming in a much bigger pond" than their father. Still, many in India believe their feud is symptomatic of a wider malaise, says Robin Pagnamenta in The Times. A decade of break-neck growth has done nothing to curb the country's reputation for "vicious family disputes over business" worrying in an economy still dominated by the family business model. The inheritance saga may be entertaining, but given India's present economic woes, demands for an overhaul of the old model are becoming increasingly loud.

Can we expect a happy ending for the Ambanis? Investors canvassed by Bloomberg believe that working together could well be the best thing for the brothers. Yet having fought tooth and nail to emerge from his brother's shadow to bask, briefly, in the sun as India's most-feted magnate, Anil will surely find the transition difficult. "Old wounds can't be completely healed, but they can be stitched up," concludes U R Bhat of Dalton Capital Advisors India, but "there's a scar nevertheless".