The polyester prince: Insights from a banned biography

Hamish McDonald’s spectacular thriller, “The Polyester Prince”,  narrates the tale of Dhirubhai Ambani’s life and specifically looks at his quest for economic and political power which he managed to achieve by funding politicians. Politicians rely on businessmen to fund their electoral campaign, therefore, getting backed by the richest tycoon in the country can make all the difference that a politician needs to win the elections. After winning the election, the politician will, in turn, return some benefits to the businessman by giving him tax leeways, special benefits and trade licenses if we can go back to the days of the licence raj in India. “Today the fact is that Ambani is bigger than the government. If a political party takes a stand against him, he has his leaders in every political party who can pull down or embarrass the leaders”. In this quote from the book, lies the essence of the entire narrative.

The book blatantly names political leaders like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Pranab Mukherjee among various others and explains their corrupt affiliations with Dhirubhai Ambani. “The political power in India is determined by the price of polyester in the country” is another quote from the book that emphasizes the extent of  Dhirubhai’s power over the political system. The book asks an important question, what happens when political power and business power amalgamate creating the strongest circle of people in the country whose power cannot be challenged? In the book, Dhirubhai is portrayed as someone with immense business power who lacks  moral ethics. Ambani is portrayed as rash, ruthless and unfair when it comes to business. The book details his fight with Orkay Mills’ owner Kapal Mehra who was Ambani’s rival in the polyester business as a “Mahabharata”. The intensity of the fight was so immense that Ambani had Mehra’s son murdered and had Mehra jailed during Diwali to erase competition. It also highlights ugly political fights that Ambani had with Nusli Wadia and the support which Wadia received from Ramnath Goenka, the owner of Indian Express.

It was essential for Ambani to be on good terms with journalists so that they would publish positive news about Reliance Industries Ltd, hence Indian Express was paramount to Ambani. Apart from all the ugly fights and controversies in which Ambani was involved, the book states that Ambani had broken various laws by taking part in insider trading and selling fake debentures of the company. He had also illegally converted the debentures to shares in the company thereby erasing the debt of the company. He also had various fake companies listed in Isle of Mans from where he traded in his own shares thereby influencing the share price of his own company which was then illegal.

In the book, Ambani is portrayed as the most successful businessman who hosts Annual General Meetings at football and cricket stadiums in Mumbai where no one dreamed of addressing a huge audience before. He is also portrayed as a charismatic manipulator who reaches any extent to get what he wants. This book was however banned in India before its release and Dhirubhai filed a case against the book in the Delhi high court because of its defamatory nature.

If a man can smuggle an entire factory into a country and can get an innocent man jailed, it is not very hard for him to get a book banned. Rumours in the mill sayAmbani bought all the printed books from the publisher and threw all of them into the Arabian ocean personally. It may not be true but it still shows the egoistic power that a man has where he can destroy someone else’s work ruthlessly. It also criticizes the freedom of speech which people have in India where speaking against political and business tycoons can land people in trouble and destroy their life’s work. Today, years after we have become aware of our right to freedom of speech, the book is still banned. The move reflects not only on corruption in the country but also makes clear that some people in the country are still untouchable because their power cannot be reckoned with.

“Guru”, a Bollywood blockbuster released in 2007 was also inspired by Dhirubhai Ambani’s life. It has a scene where the lead is bribing a minister who is allegedly Rajiv Gandhi. The story suggests that Ambani told Rajiv Gandhi that he has some black money which Indira Gandhi had given to him, so he does not know what to do with it. He could either throw it away or could send it to Rajiv Gandhi. This indirect bribe was accepted by Rajiv Gandhi. This coincides with the event narration in “The Polyester Prince” which increases the credibility of both the stories.

In essence, Hamish McDonald’s “The Polyester Prince” is a mindblowing treat to read because of the insights it provides about the political atmosphere of the 1970’s during the times of the licence raj. The book is appealing not only to business enthusiasts but also to politics, history and literature buffs. This banned gem will surely grab your attention and keep you hooked.



Vidhi is an Economics and Finance major and is in her third year at Ashoka. She is interested in Macro-economics and believes that good economic policies can change the face of the nation and improve the quality of life of millions. She is also a trekking enthusiast and absolutely loves to travel. Mountains are the love of her life. Simplicity in people baffles her.

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