India’s richest man still thinks he is “middle-class” at heart

Poor little rich boy.
Poor little rich boy.
Image: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool
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Mukesh Ambani’s stature in India is unrivalled.

He is the country’s richest man—and the world’s 36th—and has a vast business empire that spreads across petroleum, telecommunication, and retail. His perceived closeness to the political ecosystem also makes him one of the most powerful Indians.

The 59-year-old owns the world’s first billion-dollar home in Mumbai. The colossal 27-storey skyscraper overlooks the Arabian Sea and is fitted with silver-covered railings, crystal chandeliers, and three helipads.

Yet, despite all that, Ambani doesn’t see himself in such a light.  This is what he had to say at an interview on Oct. 17:

At heart, I was born middle class. It stayed in our Gujarati middle class parents, and those really have never gone out of us. I think that is a good thing. For all of us, the small pleasures of life don’t go away. I am very, very proud of the values that I have inherited.

Ambani was speaking to journalist Shekhar Gupta at an event in Mumbai. “This might sound strange,” Ambani said, “For me, it was not long ago, and it seems like yesterday, when I came back from Stanford and we were ordinary.”

Ambani had dropped out of Stanford University to help his father Dhirubhai, already one of India’s most ambitious and powerful business tycoons back then, set up a petroleum refinery. Today, Ambani’s Reliance Industries is India’s largest private sector company.

His company recently forayed into the country’s highly competitive telecommunication industry with Reliance Jio. With the world’s cheapest data charges on offer, Jio’s subscriber base has already swelled to 16 million over the last month.

Existing telecom players are, hence, jittery, which has led to an ugly public war. ”As long as Reliance and I get ragged, that’s fine,” Ambani said. “We are big boys, we can handle it. But I hope they don’t rag consumers.”

Earlier this year, Ambani had called Reliance Jio the world’s largest startup with an investment of over Rs1.5 lakh crore. On Monday, though, he corrected the figure, saying, ”It’s not Rs1.5 lakh crore, it’s Rs2.5 lakh crore.”

He had some words of praise for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. ”I think India is fortunate to have Narendrabhai as prime minister… I am a big believer that we get leaders that we deserve because we actually vote for them.”

Ambani also weighed in on the growing debate about the recent ban on Pakistani actors in Bollywood by Indian film exhibitors. “I don’t understand all of this, but for me, it is always country first. I am not an intellectual and I don’t understand this, but undoubtedly, at all times, for all Indians, India comes first.”