Till his two emails advising against (and later distancing himself from) the proposed illegal call routing to Reliance Infocomm chief Mukesh Ambani surfaced, coincidentally around the same time he was in Delhi with new his boss from US private equity group Blackstone to meet finance minister P Chidambaram, few really knew who Akhil Gupta was. Indeed, when a prominent newspaper did a full-page story on the men in the rival Ambani camps some weeks ago, Gupta never even got a mention.
Yet, right from the time he joined the group in 1992, Mukesh Ambani’s old Stanford buddy (Gupta got his MBA there in 1981) has been Mukesh’s ambassador-at-large in the United States, building up contacts with the Clintons so that the Ambanis (M) got to have breakfast with the first couple there, and did the homework for other business contacts.
It was Gupta who brought Enron Oil & Gas and Reliance together for the Mukta-Panna-Tapti oilfields, and it was he who spearheaded Reliance’s acquisition of Flag Telecom as well. Indeed, if the bio (for which Gupta, a 1973 batch alumni, probably contributed) on the IIT Delhi’s website is to be believed, it was Gupta that “developed an innovative exploration strategy, which later resulted in Reliance discovering a 14 TCF gas field in 2002 — the largest discovery in the world in that year” (the size of this discovery was drastically lowered later).
Gupta, in fact, has been so close to the Ambani family, he was the only Reliance executive to ever stay at the family 14-storey mansion in Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade in a separate flat, right from the time he joined the group.
Indeed, despite the country’s media describing him as the Infocomm whistleblower (to group whistleblower title, of course, remains with warring brother Anil), Gupta’s speeches are still carried on the Reliance group’s websites even today under the section ‘speeches’ — the other three who share this honour are Dhirubhai H Ambani, Mukesh D Ambani and Anil D Ambani.
It was Gupta who briefed the press on how successful the company’s revenue model would be prior to the launch on the late Dhirubhai’s birth anniversary and indeed, when he quit a few weeks ago as CEO, Corporate Development of Reliance Infocomm, Gupta even called upon Kokilaben Ambani who is now trying to get her two sons to sort out their differences. Indeed, the day his emails were flashed in the press, Gupta escorted his new Blackstone boss to a lunch with former boss Mukesh.
While Gupta remains unavailable for comment (his mobile remains with an assistant who fields the calls at his new office at the Taj Towers in Mumbai), those who know him say the former Hindustan Lever executive who later made his mark in the US with leveraged buyouts, or LBOs as they were known, was always a fish out of water in Reliance’s go-getting culture.
And it wasn’t just his American twang and sharp dressing with his Brookes Brothers’ suits and Hermes ties that made him stand out in an office where, after Dhirubhai’s white safari suits, white shirts without ties and black trousers are the official dress. Few other close aides, for instance, would have made plain their disagreements with the Ambanis so openly, and through an email.
What goes against the whistle-blower image, however, is that Gupta chose to stick on at Infocomm despite knowing what was being planned. After warning Mukesh that changing the ID of calls from the US to India (and showing them as originating from India so as to avoid paying the Access Deficit Charge) was illegal way back in March 2004, Gupta hung on for more than a year.
Indeed, all that his mail said, after the bit about the illegality and the likelihood that they would get caught by BSNL and the telecom regulator, was that “I suggest we handover (sic) the sponsorship of the NRI scheme (the one where the illegality was to be done) to MM/BDK” — that’s Manoj Modi and B D Khurana.
That the two mails (the second one says Modi’s office is spreading rumours that Gupta was responsible for the illegal call routing while in fact it was Modi himself whose idea it was) got released to the media around the time the Central Bureau of Investigation completed its preliminary investigations in the matter is also curious. The possibility that the release of the mail has larger motives cannot be ruled out.