Mukesh and Anil Ambani’s bitter feud, accusations of extravagance and potential jail time: the 5 biggest controversies to hit India’s richest family

Mukesh Ambani (L) and his brother Anil Ambani (R) haven’t always seen eye to eye since their father died. He left no will, pitting them against each other for control of the family business. Photo: AFP
Despite a recent oil slump that cost him billions, Mukesh Ambani remains one of the richest people on earth. But as his wealth and stature grows, more and more are tuning in to watch his meteoric rise, and scrutinising how he and his family got there.

From allegations of dodgy tender deals in the early days of Reliance Industries, to embarrassing family feuds, the Ambani family have caught the world’s attention before, and not just because of their money.

Here are five controversies the family have had to face … and overcome.

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The early Dhirubhai allegations

Reliance Industries founder – and Mukesh’s father – Dhirubhai Ambani before his death in 2002. Photo: AP
Dhirubhai Ambani is the father of Mukesh, and founder of Reliance Industries. He was credited for starting a global company from the poorest and most humble of beginnings. Widely admired for his motivational sayings and for how much he inspired those around him, Dhirubhai died in 2002 aged 69.

But behind the widespread devotion lurks allegations of Dhirubhai using his influence to rig government tenders in favour of Reliance. There have also been reports of the Ambani family paying for positive press around them, while an extensive investigative in The Wire alleges Reliance worked to squash a book that held distasteful claims of corruption. Nevertheless, the family has consistently rubbished the claims.

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The power grab

Mukesh Ambani (right) and his brother Anil Ambani observe a two-minute silence in memory of their late father Dhirubhai Ambani at the company's annual general meeting (AGM) in Mumbai in October 2002. Photo: AFP
Those that know the Ambani family story know that the epic feud between Mukesh and his brother Anil sits high on the list of issues that nearly tore the family apart. When patriarch Dhirubhai died, he had no will, leaving his sons to fight for control of his company. A bitter and public feud ensued, with Ambani matriarch Kokilaben eventually stepping in to call a truce. The company was separated, with the brothers each getting a portion to control. The ugly fighting did not stop there: Anil continued to call foul on Mukesh, even accusing him of upending his own business opportunities.

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A disgraced brother

Anil Ambani leaves the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) headquarters office in New Delhi, India in February 2011. Photo: EPA

In 2008, Anil was the world’s sixth richest man. Now he faces a barrage of lawsuits, has openly declared he has no money, and jail time for monies owed appeared a real possibility. Although his brother Mukesh ended up helping him out financially – a move many saw as an olive branch – it was also seen by some as a move to prevent the Ambani family name being dragged through the mud, especially considering the international investors Mukesh was aiming to attract.

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Successful brand or unfair oligopoly?

Is Mukesh Ambani’s Jio telecoms company stifling competition in the Indian market? Photo: Reuters

The rise of Reliance Industries and the Ambani family has been hailed by many as a true local Indian success story. Nevertheless, some commentators believe that the dominance of its telecoms arm, Reliance Jio, is not good for the market. The foundation of the criticism lies in the idea that Jio controls most the market in India, creating an oligopoly, which essentially prevents smaller businesses in the same industry from growing to gain a larger slice of the pie.

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Over the top spending in one of the world’s poorest countries

The Ambanis live in one of the most expensive homes in the world, known as Antilia, in Mumbai; they have private jets, boats and garages filled with insanely pricey cars; and wear only the best luxury and custom made goods money can buy. And while they have become a national obsession in India and across the globe, there is a growing faction that believes that despite the family claiming they are humble and live “normal” lives, the private chefs, security, diamonds and Hollywood lifestyle says differently.

The Global Hunger Index again listed India as one of the poorest countries in the world this year, rating its hunger level as “serious”, with malnutrition and a lack of adequate health care among the key concerns. The extent of the poverty in the country, put side by side with the Ambani’s wealth, has unsurprisingly led some to criticise the family for flaunting their wealth on occasion.

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Nita Ambani may own a Hermès handbag worth US$350,000 and Mukesh a US$73 million private jet, but it’s not all been smooth sailing – many of the downs have been as big as the ups