he caveat was necessary. As moderator Siddharth Varadarajan opened the discussion at the launch of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta's Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis at the India Habitat Centre on 15 April, he told the audience that both he and Thakurta had made repeated efforts to convince Reliance Industries Ltd. to send a representative, but had received neither a yes nor a no. Seated at the centre of a panel comprising T.S.R. Subramanian, the former cabinet secretary whose complaint triggered Arvind Kejriwal's FIR against Mukesh Ambani, T.N.R. Rao, a former petroleum secretary who has been fiercely critical of the controversial manner in which the price for gas extracted from the Krishna-Godavari Basin was fixed, Prashant Bhushan, who has moved the Supreme Court to stop the price increase, and Sucheta Dalal, a financial journalist who has written extensively about the issue, Thakurta smiled and said that RIL had indeed officially declined the invitation earlier in the day.
As this story goes to press, RIL's lawyers have already issued the inevitable legal notice to the authors and the self-publishing house that brought out the book, as well as online retailers Flipkart and Amazon, for being party to a common conspiracy to defame their clients for personal gain. The atmosphere at the Habitat was electric, and the anger against crony capitalists palpable, but addressing the situation remains a long battle of attrition.
Needless to say, Reliance did not come out of the evening smelling of roses. The book, written by Thakurta in partnership with Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri, examines the gas pricing controversy in minute detail, concluding that the government altered the allocation method and the terms of the production sharing contract to benefit the conglomerate. One by one, the panellists — and former CAG Vinod Rai, who couldn't make it to the launch but sent a message — praised the book's meticulous research and lauded Thakurta's courage while dissecting the various loopholes that were exploited by RIL and saying things about the company that until recently, were rarely said publicly: not only were the Ambanis repeatedly accused of manipulating the system for personal gain as well as controlling both the media and the union cabinet, individual ministers were called out for their role in facilitating them. Once the discussion was opened to the audience, veteran journalist Prem Shankar Jha asked the panel what they thought was the reason Reliance acted so brazenly. The prevailing theory was that they initially overestimated the yield of the gas fields, and were now trying desperately to maximise their returns before the reserves run low.