The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Birla will lesson for Ambanis
- Elders should settle succession issues, says BK

Calcutta, Jan. 7: Basant Kumar Birla has a habit of writing wills.

'I change my wills frequently. My grandson Kumar Mangalam has three children. Every time a child was born, I had to change my will so that no one can complain,' laughs the 84-year-old patriarch of the Birla family.

A glance at the wooden walls of room no. 1509 on the 15th floor of Birla Buildings, the country's first business family's oldest corporate address on R.N. Mukherjee Road, reveals the man's bonding with his family.

Photographs of four generations ' from father G.D. Birla to those of his great granddaughters ' find pride of place in the room.

As the head of this family branch elaborates on his plans to distribute his empire ' with Kumar Mangalam as the executor of his will ' between the grandson and two daughters Jayashree and Manjushree, he spares a thought for the Ambani ownership spat that has overshadowed the Birla bequeath battle.

'I think the elders should settle these issues for the next generation,' he says, leaning back in a luxuriant black leather chair while recounting his relationship with Dhirubhai, the man who 'made India proud'.

His eyes light up as he mentions the other names on his list of business success stories ' the Tatas, 'the seven or eight' new generation ITpreneurs and, obviously, his grandson Kumar Mangalam.

But the doting grandfather takes a backseat as the topic turns towards the war of wills and the angry patriarch pledges to recover what M.P. Birla and his wife Priyamvada had left for charity.

The country's first business family is fighting a legal battle with Rajendra Singh Lodha following the city-based chartered accountant's claim that Priyamvada Birla made him the sole beneficiary of the couple's assets through her will of 1999.

'We know him (Lodha) since 1959 and he was close to my son Aditya. But it was only Kumar Mangalam who anticipated something like this and made it clear to his people just three days after his father's death in 1994 that Lodha was not acceptable,' mentions Birla, taking a sip of water.

He is, however, silent on why the other group companies kept their faith in Lodha, who served as statutory auditor to many of them before being driven out in the aftermath of the inheritance controversy.

'We all knew that Lodha was very close to Priyamvada Birla. No one could have met her without his permission. Lodha and his son (Harsh Vardhan) used to stay at the gate'But we never expected this,' says the octogenarian.

Probe the patriarch about 'discord and acrimony' in the Birla home -- allegations levelled by Lodha's lawyers in court -- and the handsome face turns grim: 'It is all false. We are in complete harmony.'

According to 'BK babu (as he is reverentially mentioned in the business fraternity)', the focus of the 1999 will was charity 'except for three words'. 'The two-page will mentions only once that the ownership was with Lodha. Just these words...'

He is not sure how long the legal battle -- both criminal and civil cases -- will stretch, but he is convinced with what his legal team -- S. Gurumurthy and Ram Jethmalani -- has said on the outcome.

'We are fighting for charity. If there is a need, all of us -- even my wife -- will go to court. My lawyers have said that we have a strong case and we have complete faith in the judiciary.'

He adds: 'I am already 84, and I know that civil case takes time and that's why I insisted on filing the criminal case. If he (Lodha) is convicted, he will be in trouble.'

Battlelines drawn, wish list finalised and a long wait ahead, B.K. Birla stands up, with a giant Roerich as the dramatic backdrop.

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