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Last Updated: Monday, 3 May, 2004, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
India's Ambani factor

By Sanjeev Srivastava
BBC India correspondent in Uttar Pradesh

In his second report on the headline-makers during India's current general election, the BBC's Sanjeev Srivastava meets the powerful businessman Anil Ambani.

Anil Ambani
Anil Ambani - one of the most powerful people in India

Jagbir Singh is a mason who earns less than two dollars a day.

Hardly enough to feed his family of six in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

But a proposed power plant across the road has given hope to thousands like him.

"It can lead to permanent jobs for thousands of people, changing our lives for ever," he tells me.

India's new champion of the poor is also one of its richest businessmen.

Anil Ambani, who heads India's largest private conglomerate, Reliance Industries, is setting up this $2bn power plant in Uttar Pradesh.

For the poor it means jobs, something fawning politicians always promised but failed to deliver.

Anil Ambani's father, Dhirubhai, was the stuff of legend, starting out as a petrol pump attendant before creating Reliance, which now has interests in textiles, oil, gas, communications and new media.

Global ambitions

Reliance flourished in the 1970s and 80s when Indian industry largely depended on state patronage.

I think the Ambani name evokes a great degree of confidence
Anil Ambani

But the nearly $20bn Reliance group really moved into the big league in the past decade and a half - the same period the Indian economy opened to the rest of the world.

Educated in American business schools, Anil and his brother Mukesh now think global.

"Only when India finds its rightful place in the comity of nations, will the country produce a bagful, maybe a truck full of globally competitive Indian companies," says Anil.

Quoting his father's favourite line, he says: "If you can dream it, you can do it."

Powerful presence

The Ambanis are among the most powerful people in India, with strong political ties and the ability to get things done.

Anil Ambani (L) with Bollywood stars Aishwarya Rai (C) and Amitabh Bachchan
Anil Ambani (L) fits in comfortably with the world of Bollywood

Anil Ambani says this comes from the fact that Reliance is an important player in the Indian economy, contributing 5% of India's total exports and 3% to the country's GDP.

"I think the Ambani name evokes a great degree of confidence," Anil says.

"We are connected very intrinsically with the development of India. The politicians have their roles cut out and we in business have our roles cut out to do whatever we think is right to build a strong country."

Their critics say the Ambanis can manipulate and mould the country's rulers any way they like.

Anil Ambani merely says he needs all the support he can get.

"We do not distinguish or discriminate between individuals from various parts of the country or from various political parties.

"I think if our interests are aligned in terms of India and the future of the country, it's okay with us."

Political future

Some may see the Reliance juggernaut as too powerful.

The ultimate goal for India is to emerge as an economic superpower
Anil Ambani

But the Ambanis continue to be restless and dream big.

"There are always perceptions and then there are always realities," says Anil.

"I think that I'm pretty much focused on the convergence of everybody towards the ultimate goal.

"And the ultimate goal for India is to emerge as an economic superpower."

Mr Ambani does not rule out playing a more active public role, maybe even joining politics.

"If I can change and make even a small difference, I think it's worth my while and worth my time."

Mr Ambani is now seen as something of a youth icon - unusual in a country known for hero worshipping cricket and Bollywood stars.

But in a new and resurgent India, it seems role models have also changed.

India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

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