There can be no doubt at all that the outrage across the board at the double whammy received by the Tata group is wholly justified.
For those who came in late, the Tata group embarked on a global acquisition spree a few years ago and has already bought such iconic brands as Tetley tea—not to mention steel maker Corus—and has a shopping list that now includes British car brands Jaguar and Land Rover.
It quietly acquired 11.5% of luxury hotel chain Orient-Express before seeking to have a closer working relationship with it.
Troubled icons: A Jaguar car. Big companies such as Ford Motor, the owner of Jaguar and Land Rover, are selling off niche brands in order to generate some desperately needed cash.
Punters are betting that the Tatas will have clinched Jaguar and Land Rover by early next year. Everything is going the way it should in business when along comes a car dealer called Ken Gorin who represents Jaguar car dealers in the US and declares: “I don’t believe the US public is ready for ownership out of India of a luxury car make.”
It’s a sour note, but one that I’m dismissing as sheer ignorance. Then, within the week, came a sniffy letter from the Orient-Express CEO Paul White to Indian Hotels Co. vice-chairman R.K. Krishna Kumar declaring: “We do not believe there is a strategic fit between your predominantly domestic Indian hotel chain and our global portfolio of luxury hotels.”
Now, the CEO of a respected hotel chain is not quite in the same league as a car dealer. Indian Hotels goes into a tizzy and demands an apology. Union minister for commerce and industry Kamal Nath says White is “ignorant” and reiterates the apology demand.
Industry lobby Assocham laments the “arrogance” and most Indian newspapers accuse the Orient-Express of racism.
For many people there is a sense of déjà vu as they remember Lakshmi Mittal fighting off similar prejudices in his battle for the acquisition of the Luxembourg-based Arcelor (he won, of course).
The US economy is going through one of its worst crises ever. The dollar has steadily fallen to just under Rs40, real estate prices are down everywhere and iconic companies such as Ford Motor Co., the owner of Jaguar and Land Rover, are busy selling off niche brands in order to generate some desperately needed cash. Ironically, two of the three final suitors for the brands are Indian multinationals.
The message is clear: They need us as much, if not more, than we need them. They need our money. They need our foreign students to populate their universities. They need our low-cost labour to man their back-end offices and they need our huge markets to keep their Wal-Marts in the black.
But business—as Kamal Nath says—is a two-way street and India is struggling to rise above the perception that it is just the sum of its huge market or a source for cheap labour. Both Gorin and White have couched their seemingly racist objections in terms of brand perception. And as a newly self-confident nation that loves to talk about its booming Sensex, its growing literacy rates, its IT boom, its “incredible India” tourist hot spots, we’d do well to pause from our outrage for a moment’s introspection.
When farmers continue to commit suicide because of their inability to pay off debts, when female foeticide continues to blight our sex ratio, when Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) thugs succeed in forcing M.F. Husain into exile and when marauding shopkeepers led by politicians smash the windows of big retail outlets, what image exactly are we sending out to the world at large?
And forget about the world for a moment, what contours are we shaping for ourselves and our own identity when agitators can hold senior executives from South Korean steel maker Posco captive for hours or when Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, cadres launch a killing spree in Nandigram, when Indian vendors for retailer Gap Inc. employ child labour in abysmal working conditions and when India continues to hover close to the top of corruption lists? Is this the new India we want?
Nothing for me can beat the irony of the fact that a few months after winning Arcelor, Mittal’s son, Aditya—who like his father continues to hold an Indian passport—went to great lengths to explain that ArcelorMittal was not an Indian multinational. “We are not an Indian company,” he said in London at a function to mark India’s 60th Independence. “We never saw India as an opportunity.”
If we are to join the league of globalized nations, we need more than just a rash of jingoism. Nobody believes we’re a land of snake charmers (except, perhaps Gorin and White), but if we want to be global leaders in the real sense, we need more than just catchy Incredible India slogans. We’d do well to direct our outrage in the right direction.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org