Stars Earned Their Stripes

Board­room squab­bles that go pub­lic frit­ter away hard-won re­spect for In­dia’s busi­ness icons

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - San­jaya Baru

Theon­go­ing cri­sis of gov­er­nance in two of In­dia’s most re­spected and ad­mired pri­vate sec­tor busi­ness en­ti­ties, Tatas and In­fosys, ought to be a wake-up call for the lead­er­ship of In­dian busi­ness if it wishes to re­trieve its dam­aged pub­lic rep­u­ta­tion.

It is not clear who will and can take the ini­tia­tive — but some­one must bring to­gether In­dian busi­ness lead­ers and ini­ti­ate an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about the so­cial and, in­deed, po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of the self-in­flicted rep­u­ta­tional dam­age to do­mes­tic en­ter­prise.

It’s been done be­fore, in a dif­fer­ent con­text. In1946, J R D Tata and G D Birla,amon­gothers,took­theini­tia­tiveto gather top busi­ness lead­ers who then drafted a long-term plan of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for the govern­ment of the day, dubbed the Bom­bay Plan, and lo­cated them­selves at the cen­tre of the dis­course on na­tion-build­ing.

A very dif­fer­ent kind of ini­tia­tive was taken in 1993 when Rahul Ba­jaj brought to­gether a group of busi­ness lead­ers, dubbed the Bom­bay Club, who tried to slow down the process of eco­nomic lib­er­al­i­sa­tion ini­ti­ated by Prime Min­is­ter Narasimha Rao, in the name of na­tional in­ter­est.

If the Bom­bay Plan ini­tia­tive helped project In­dian busi­ness lead­ers as na­tion builders, the Bom­bay Club ini­tia­tive ended up por­tray­ing them as self-serv­ing pro­tec­tion­ists. In the in­ter­ven­ing Nehru­vian era, pri­vate sec­tor busi­ness was frowned upon. Ja- wa­har­lal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and evenRa­jivGand­hiq­ui­te­likedthe­com­pany of busi­ness lead­ers but would rarely stand up for them in pub­lic.

That era of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal hypocrisy ended when Rao be­came the first politi­cian to have the courage to pub­licly hon­our a busi­ness leader when, in Jan­uary 1992, he conferred the na­tion’s high­est hon­our, the Bharat Ratna, on J R D Tata. He fol­lowed that up invit­ing Hari Shankar Sing­ha­nia to be­come In­dia’s am­bas­sador to the US. The late Mr Sing­ha­nia was un­able to take that of­fer.

In the 1990s, In­dia cel­e­brated the cre­ativ­ity of pri­vate en­ter­prise, with the me­dia giv­ing away awards to busi­ness lead­ers and books be­ing writ­ten about the great suc­cess sto­ries of In­dian en­ter­prise. Pub­lic at­ti­tude to­wards pri­vate busi­ness changed dra­mat­i­cally with busi­ness lead­ers be­ing viewed as agents of change and cre­ators of na­tional as­sets and wealth.

Tata­mo­bile to Tata Mo­bile

The decade saw Ratan Tata re­vi­tal­is­ing an old be­he­moth and N R Narayana Murthy break­ing new ground. In a wide range of busi­nesses rang­ing from au­to­mo­biles to phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy to bank­ing, dy­namic new en­ter­prise was emerg­ing at all lev­els of the busi­ness pyra­mid. Writ­ers like Gur­cha­ran Das and Tarun Khanna cel­e­brated this phe­nom­e­non in books that be­came best-sell­ers.

Then came the decade of crony cap­i­tal­ism. From tele­com to air­lines, en­ergy to sport, en­tre­pre­neur­ial mis­ad­ven­tures have brought noth­ing but ill-re­pute to In­dian busi­ness. If in the Nehru­vian era the com­mu­nists called the rul­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­pen­sa­tion of the day as the ‘Birla-Tata ki sarkar’ — the govern­ment of Bir­las and Tatas — to­day the likes of the Aam Aadmi Party dub the cur­rent dis­pen­sa­tion as ‘Am­bani-Adani ki sarkar’.

The busi­ness fail­ures of a larg­erthan-life per­son like Vi­jay Mallya, the mount­ing losses of sev­eral firms caused by an un­der­stand­able mis­judge­ment of risk, and the ex­plicit po­lit­i­cal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of some busi­ness groups in a frac­tious democ­racy have all con­trib­uted to icons be­ing viewed as cons. Clearly, the time has come for In­dian busi­ness to take some ini­tia­tive to re­trieve its pub­lic im­age, in the larger na­tional in­ter­est. The na­tion too pays a price when its top busi­ness en­ti­ties and its iconic busi­ness lead­ers suf­fer a rep­u­ta­tional loss.

The fact is that both Ratan Tata and Narayana Murthy are highly re­spected busi­ness lead­ers who have con­trib­uted tremen­dously to the growth of their own com­pa­nies, to share­holder value and wealth, and in­deed to na­tion-build­ing.

They have planted the In­dian tri­colour in new ter­ri­to­ries. Both have en­vi­able in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion and busi­ness foot­print that has con­trib­uted pos­i­tively to the em­pow­er­ment of Brand In­dia. Even the com­mu­nists have a term to de­scribe such busi­ness per­sons: the na­tional bour­geoisie.

What­ever the rea­son for the rep­u­ta­tional loss of a busi­ness leader, in the era of so­cial me­dia, every­one gets equally damned. The per­sonal and the pub­lic, the rel­e­vant and the ir­rel­e­vant get all mixed up in pub­lic com­ment serv­ing no larger so­cial pur­pose.

So, for ex­am­ple, it is ir­rel­e­vant whether Narayana Murthy is ego­tis­ti­cal or not, whether he is jeal­ous of his suc­ces­sor’s suc­cess, and so on — the kind of stuff one reads on so­cial me­dia. What is rel­e­vant is that In­fosys is a na­tional as­set, that Narayana Murthy is an iconic busi­ness leader, that In­dia needs such as­sets and icons at its present stage of de­vel­op­ment.

Na­tion-Build­ing Ahead

As a de­vel­op­ing coun­try still seek­ing to make its mark in var­i­ous fields of hu­man en­deav­our — science, sport, cul­ture and busi­ness — In­dia must jeal­ously pro­tect the rep­u­ta­tion of its icons. Both the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship and the me­dia have an obli­ga­tion to en­sure that the process of na­tion-build­ing is not hurt by the man­ner we treat our na­tional icons.

But such icons also have an obli­ga­tion. Their larger-than-life per­son­al­ity and their na­tional stand­ing im­pose a cer­tain so­cial obli­ga­tion on them and how they con­duct them­selves in pub­lic.

The writer is Hon­orary Se­nior Fel­low, Cen­tre for Pol­icy Re­search

J R D Tata greets PM Jawa­har­lal Nehru at the Santa Cruz air­port, Bom­bay, in1953

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