Responding to Kejriwal charge, Gujarat petrochemicals minister admits he is related to Ambanis

Admission is another example of how potential conflicts of interest between ministers and their family businesses are going largely unscrutinised by media and government.
It is not often that the famously reticent Reliance Industries feels the need to explain itself. Yet, last month it issued a video statement, also posted on YouTube, titled No Undue Benefits from Gujarat Govt. In the video a company spokesperson responds to alleged allegations that it had received special benefits because of its relationship with one Gujarat cabinet minister.

The minister in question is Saurabh Patel, who currently holds the portfolios of Industry, Energy and Petrochemicals, Mines and Minerals, Cottage Industry, Salt Industry, Printing, Stationery, Planning, Tourism, Civil Aviation and Labour and Employment. The Aam Admi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal made the accusation. Kejriwal, according to media reports, in a speech in Ahmedabad said: “You [Modi] made Saurabh Patel a minister. By giving him portfolios like gas, petroleum, energy and minerals, in a way you allocated Gujarat's natural resources to Ambanis.”

Patel, listed as ‘Saurabh Patel (Dalal)’ on the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha website, complained to the Election Commission that Kejriwal’s statement was offensive and a violation of the model code of conduct. The Election Commission in turn asked him to clarify if he is related to the Ambanis. He confirmed that he is related to them by marriage.

Patel’s wife, who appears to go by the name Ila Saurabh Dalal, is the daughter of Ramniklal H Ambani, Dhirubhai’s older brother. According his profile on the Reliance Industries Ltd website, Ramniklal Ambani is one of the senior-most directors of RIL. He has also been a director of the public-sector Gujarat Industrial Investment Corporation for 32 years and is chairman of its audit committee. The GIIC’s primary role is financing large- and medium-scale industry. Ramniklal Ambani was also Chairman of the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation Ltd from 1978-80. The GIDC develops industrial estates and is responsible for land acquisition for industry. The GIDC and GIIC are wholly owned corporations of the Gujarat government.

In highlighting the link between Modi’s cabinet minister and the Ambani family, Kejriwal has not dug up a closely guarded secret. The family link has been mentioned multiple times in the media. As is his wont, Kejriwal focused attention on a fact that this link should be scrutinised, as it is a significant instance of potential conflict of interest.

RIL is a mammoth corporation with a significant part of its holdings in Gujarat, but the vast extended Ambani family also has  many smaller and less known business interests in the state, as the directorship profile of just Ramniklal Ambani shows. It is curious then that the presence of a powerful business family in influential positions in public corporations and government ministries should not be subject to close scrutiny.

Yet, the lack of scrutiny seems to be of a piece with the way potential conflict of interest between ministerial portfolios and family businesses are dealt with by government, parliament and the media. A couple of easy examples are Union Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath, whose family has interests in real estate , and former Union Communications Minister Dayanidhi Maran, whose brother Kalanithi Maran runs a major media and communication business.

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