London, March 15
Mukesh Ambani attracted quite a bit of attention when the (business) prince of India met the crown prince of the United Kingdom at Windsor Castle last month.
Prince Charles was hosting a black tie dinner to mark the fifth anniversary of the British Asian Trust, a charity he had set up in 2007 to help people, especially women and girls, trapped in poverty in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Charles, who first met Ambani last year, is delighted that the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, has agreed to become chairman of the Indian Advisory Council of the British Asian Trust.
“I am hugely grateful to Mukesh Ambani, who has offered his support in India,” Charles told his 250 guests, mostly British Asian. Ambani, who was accompanied by his wife, Nita, responded just as warmly, “I am greatly honoured by this appointment and to be actively involved in realising the vision of the Prince of Wales. It is a privilege to be working with an organisation that understands the importance of genuine impact and sustainability.
I am confident that the work we will undertake together will make a lasting and a big difference.” Ambani, who is a busy man, could write out a cheque and be done with it but that is not what Charles wants. He wants Ambani to take an active role in the affairs of the Trust and offer sound advice on the charities that should be supported in India and put his personal authority behind its carefully selected ventures.
Unlike Ratan Tata, Ambani does not have much of a profile in the UK. Tata, too, was unknown until his takeover of Corus Steel for £6.2bn in 2007 and Jaguar Land Rover for £1.15bn in 2008. Unusually for British trade unions, they backed Tata’s takeovers and, by and by, he has become a much-respected figure because he has shown his intention was never to asset strip and cannibalise the most profitable parts of his acquisitions.
As for Prince Charles, he gets “mixed reviews” in Britain. He has enemies who say that when the time comes - and the Queen is nearly 87 and showing the first signs of poor health - the succession should jump a generation and the crown placed on the head of his elder son, Prince William, 30, whose wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, is expecting their first baby (even if a daughter the child will be first in line to the throne).
Others hold a grudge against Charles because they hold him responsible for the breakup of his marriage to Princess Diana and especially the way her “HRH” titles were taken away after the couple’s divorce. The question of whether his second wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, will become queen when Charles succeeds to the throne, as most assuredly he will, has been left open.
Charles, who is now 64, is having to wait a long time before he can become King because the British form of the monarchy does not allow for abdication
for reasons of age. Not that Ambani has probably thought about all this, but at Windsor Castle last month, he and his wife were socialising pretty much on equal terms with the future king of England.
Americans love British royalty and so, too, do Indians in the UK. But while Americans have never had royalty of their own, Indians have a deeper understanding and affinity for the ways of maharajahs and rajahs (which might suggest that Mrs Gandhi did not necessarily do Indians a favour when she got rid of the princely order in 1971).
As far as Charles is concerned, he is much liked by Indians in Britain. Charles has confided he inherited his love of India from his great uncle, Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. In fact, Charles got into trouble with the establishment in England by declaring that one day he hoped to be, not “defender of faith”, as required by tradition, but “defender of faiths”. It’s an important distinction. After many trips to India, he knows the country well.
Hitan Mehta, executive director of the British Asian Trust, acknowledged: “I think the diaspora generally does have a certain respect for the UK Royal Family. This is perhaps reinforced by the Prince of Wales’s own feelings about the countries the Trust helps - as His Royal Highness said, he has a ‘particular affection and interest for that part of the world’.
” Mehta added, “Mr and Mrs Ambani both enjoyed the evening and the opportunity to meet the Prince of Wales and interact with other supporters of the Trust. Mr Ambani will, of course, be an active member of the Trust as he is leading the Advisory Council for India.
” Incidentally, the Trust’s deputy chairman in India is to be Neeraj Kanwar, the vice chairman and managing director of Apollo Tyres, who said, “I do hope to become a worthy ambassador of the Trust’s work in India.” Also on the council is Subramanian Ramadorai, chairman of the Bombay Stock Exchange and vice-chairman of Tata Consultancy Services.
At Windsor Castle, Charles had a sympathetic audience that included some well known faces from Britain’s Asian community. There was the comedian, Sanjeev Bhaskar, better known as actress Meera Syal’s husband; chef Atul Kochhar, who runs the Banares restaurant in London’s Mayfair; and TV soap actors Nitin Ganatra from EastEnders and Hari Dhillon from Holby City; and the film director, Gurinder Chadha.
Bhaskar expressed his fondness for Charles as an individual. “He’s genuine, he’s warm,” he said. “He’s a man of conviction and he’s a man of humour. I found him incredibly compassionate and immensely understanding.” Another soap actress, Laila Rouass, who worked as a VJ on Channel V in India in the 1990s, said having Charles at the head of the Trust was crucially important. “He puts it on the global market. It’s Prince Charles - everyone knows who he is.”
Charles explained his feelings for India and why he had set up the British Asian Trust. “I’m one of those people who was brought up surrounded by so many objects and pictures and stories about the sub-continent and about South Asia,” he said.
“So perhaps you can imagine why I’ve developed such an interest going back such a long way. I happen to have a particular affection and interest in that part of the world and indeed, as far as I’m concerned, it has been remarkable how many people have come from that part of the world and established themselves here and have contributed so much to the life in this country and made it a huge success in so many ways and are a very important part of our country - all the British Asians.”
He went on, “I know also from the visits I’ve made to South Asia over the last 40 years, I’ve come across so many fascinating examples of really worthwhile activity being carried out by all sorts of different organisations.”
In the last couple of days, Charles and Camilla have met Syrian refugees in Jordan which they found to be a “heart breaking experience”.
“Having encountered at first-hand some of the very real challenges faced by so many who obviously wish to give their children and grandchildren the same opportunities that we often take for granted - things like a decent environment, basic education and opportunity for meaningful work,” he said.
“So having thought about these issues for quite a long time I turned to the entrepreneurial spirit of the British Asian diaspora,” he added. “I wanted to see if there was a way of linking them with the wonderfully innovative local social entrepreneurs and grassroots charities I have encountered across South Asia. The result was the British Asian Trust which has successfully linked the two groups to help transform the lives of thousands of people in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom,” he said.
“Interestingly, the Trust has been able to help more than a million of the world’s poorest people in five years. I have always believed that it is not just the British Asian community who could be supporting this work but it’s important to work in collaboration with in-country supporters to help us leverage funding that in turn would further assist those in the greatest need,” Charles emphasised.
Perhaps he had the Delhi rape at the back of his mind. “In the next five years, we should hope to do more and, if we can, on a larger scale - with a particular focus on women and girls, together with support for improving and caring for the natural environment in the whole region. In doing this, we will help to empower future generations, who can in turn facilitate long-term improvement in South Asia’s health and prosperity.”
He did not forget to give his thanks. “I wanted to reiterate my enormous gratitude to those people in my Trust who have made all this possible, Manoj Badale and Hitan Mehta, for instance, and their team, which is very small but it has been enormously effective.” Badale, the Trust’s chairman who has been chairman of Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League (IPL), revealed that since the Trust was set up, “we have leveraged £5m to touch 1 million lives across Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the UK.
The Trust has strived to support the ‘many faces of poverty’ - causes as wide-ranging as providing education for girls, empowering women to start businesses and equipping young people with critical skills so that they can find employment. We have supported the work of 30 grassroots charities and have not been afraid to bring much needed attention and funds to significant issues such as mental health in South Asia.”
One Indian project, Man Deshi, has taught business skills to rural women - something Ambani’s father, Dhirubhai, who rose from modest origins, would have appreciated. Another, MAST, has been involved with the education of girls in rural Rajasthan. A third, the Aangan Trust, has a Shakti programme which is helping young girls to overcome abuse and discrimination.
One of the most innovative schemes, “Mumbai Unlocked”, has linked children from the Mumbai slums with pupils in primary schools in England. The economic outlook in Britain is bleak amid dwindling employment prospects for children growing up today. But the thinking has been that “there is much to be done by sharing the experience of Mumbai’s slum children with their peers in UK schools”. It is a sort of transition from “Salaam Bombay” to “Salaam Britain”.
The exchange has been praised by Stuart Atherton, deputy head teacher at Hatfeild Primary School, Morden, Surrey. “When the British Asian Trust came to talk to us about ‘Mumbai Unlocked’, we knew instantly that it was something we wanted our school to be involved with. It engages the children with important values and global issues in a way that no other education project does.”
One primary school pupil commented: “I learn that you shouldn’t give up, if you want to get something.” Badale has pledged: “Over the next five years, we aim to touch over 2 million lives in South Asia, for which we need to raise over £10m.” This is where Mukesh Ambani comes in. If he forms a meaningful partnership with the future king of England, the situation might yet be transformed for the poorest of the poor in India. If only Ambani was a British national, Charles would almost certainly tap him on the shoulder with a sword and say: “Arise, Sir Mukesh...”