Last week, RIL Chairman, Mukesh Ambani, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. I don't know what they discussed, which is hardly surprising. But I can guess, since the media has been full of speculation about the CAG's draft report of investigations into RIL's exploration, development and production of petroleum resources in the Krishna Godavari (KG) basin.
Now I haven't read the report. Again, this is hardly surprising, since it is still being studied by the oil ministry. Nor, says Mukesh Ambani, has he read the report. Now this would be truly surprising, given the wide-spread belief that the Reliance empire's access to relevant government documents is unparalleled.
Unless, of course, something has changed in the RIL-government dynamic. When Murli Deora was transferred out of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas this January, the move was seen by many as a signal that the government was trying to create a distance between itself and the country's richest man: Murli Deora, who now oversees the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, has a long-standing association with the Ambani family.
Since Murli Deora's departure from the oil ministry, its technical arm, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) has been openly critical of RIL. In April this year, the company reported two gas finds on the same day it declared financial results that were somewhat disappointing. Within hours, the DGH refuted RIL's claims, saying that the finds could not be considered commercially viable - "About 15-20 days back we rejected their request as the data provided by the contractor was not appropriate."
The CAG report has been a long time coming: 2 years ago, the media carried news of a draft CAG report suggesting RIL had 'gold-plated' its expenditure in the KG basin - over-stating its investments so as to be able to postpone sharing revenue with the government. The report was handed over to the oil ministry, followed by 2 years of media silence. This time around, though, it seems to be open season on RIL; the reportage has the company saying, somewhat petulantly, " While the actual contents of the report are not available to us, from the media reports doing the rounds, it is extremely disheartening to note that there is complete and basic misunderstanding of legal and contractual issues..."
I wonder whether Mukesh reflected that petulance in his meeting with Dr. Singh, or sought to enlighten him about the basics of the legal and contractual issues involved in the KG basin. Such speculation is pointless, since we will never know. Instead, indulge me while I reflect what I would have liked Manmohan Singh say to India's richest man:
"Mr. Ambani, since last September, my government has been rocked by accusations of corruption and crony capitalism. I believe in capitalism, especially when moderated by social-sector expenditure, but I do not believe in cronyism. Perhaps I have been blind to the hidden workings of some of my colleagues, but in my native Punjab, we used to say - der aaye, durrust aaye; better late than never.
I have little time left to serve this country, but I intend to use this time well. My journey has brought me far, farther than I dreamed as an orphan walking barefoot to school in my dusty Punjab. My country, however, has a long way to go before it becomes a beacon of justice, equal opportunity and transparency.
I know that corruption and malpractices begin at the top; correspondingly, in attempting to clean up the country, I have to begin with the most-powerful men and women in the nation - whether in politics, business or the administration. I don't know whether I will succeed, but I don't want my epitaph to read ' an honest man heading a corrupt government'.
In my efforts, I will be ruthless. I will attempt to be fair, but the carriage of justice depends on the quantity and quality of evidence; these are subject to chance and the inclinations of our investigating agencies. I have directed our agencies to be fearless in their work, to discriminate against no person or company in gathering evidence of wrong-doing; nor to be seen to favour anyone by suppressing it.
Many of your colleagues, and mine, are already in detention. Over the next few months, many more will be. I carry no brief against any one. My only hope is to leave a family and nation believing that I tried the impossible - to clean up my country.
I have told my colleagues in government of my intentions. When you leave Race Course Road, go and share them with your fellow industrialists."