A Mumbai-based banker describes ICICI Bank Chairman Kundapur Vaman Kamath, who has been named the first president of the New Development Bank set up by BRICS countries, as ‘Switzerland’ for his credentials as a “neutral person” who is acceptable to politicians and corporations of all hues. Based in Shanghai and popularly known as the BRICS Bank, this new lender will offer funds to emerging countries for infrastructure projects. It is seen as a counterweight to the World Bank, with the fast-growing BRICS—Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa—now accounting for as much as a fifth of the entire global economy and 42 per cent of the planet’s population.
In an interview to some journalists just days before he was named for the bank’s coveted top job, Kamath was tight- lipped about being in the race, saying he preferred not to discuss such “political issues”. Kamath, says the Mumbai banker, has cultivated the habit of being “discreet and confidential too” to go with his ‘neutral’ stance. “He is friends with everyone,” says Nachiket Mor, a well- known banker whom Kamath had hired at ICICI Bank in 1987, “He is a professional banker and is close to all his clients.”
Kamath’s famed ‘neutrality’ was in great demand in late 2004 when Kokilaben, widow of his late friend Dhirubhai Ambani, requested him to broker peace between her warring sons. Unlike many others, Kamath had not taken sides—either Mukesh’s or Anil’s— after the spat became public. He had also refused to play the role of a go- between during the dispute. Yet, both of them accepted his verdict as the basis of a settlement. It was Kamath, along with Dhirubhai’s long-time friend and merchant banker Nimesh Kampani, who helped draft a new ownership structure of the empire that Dhirubhai built from scratch. “It wasn’t unexpected … it was perhaps only natural that Kamath helped the brothers settle their dispute because it was Kamath who had helped Ambani Senior in his struggling years,” says a merchant banker who has closely followed Kamath’s career. According to a report in The Economic Times, in the early 1970s, when Dhirubhai Ambani’s loan requests to expand his textile business were turned down by most others, the banker who came to his aid was Kamath, then a young dealing officer at Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India, the financial institution that founded ICICI Bank and merged with it in 2002. Over the years, while Kamath rose to become the CEO and managing director of ICICI Bank, India’s largest private- sector lender, Dhirubhai Ambani led an ‘equity cult’ and turned Reliance Industries Ltd into the country’s biggest private sector entity. “While Dhirubhai rewrote the rules of the game in the world of Indian business, Kamath did so, though not so aggressively, in Indian banking,” says a former Finance Ministry official based in Delhi. Kamath, who retired as the chief of ICICI Bank in 2009, remains its chairman. He is also chairman of Infosys Ltd, India’s second biggest infotech services firm by revenues.