Stars Earned Their Stripes
Boardroom squabbles that go public fritter away hard-won respect for India’s business icons
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.
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