Last week was the 178th birth anniversary of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, an amazing visionary and an entrepreneur-par-excellence. It is almost incidental that he founded the Tata group, for his pioneering work in trading, textiles, and of course steel, laid the industrial foundations of India. He was a man far ahead of his time. Over the last 25 years of his life, his focus was on three great ideas—setting up an iron and steel company, generating hydroelectric power, and creating a world-class educational institution that would tutor Indians in the sciences. While the first were clearly for-profit dreams, the last was the job of a nation-builder. Nor was it a mere thought. The Tatas went on to fashion many such institutions, among them the Indian Institute of Science, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Sadly, besides the expected celebrations within the Tata group which he set up, there was little recognition elsewhere of the man’s genius and his contribution to what we are today, the fifth largest economy in the world.
Indian governments through the years have always treated industry stalwarts with indifference bordering on suspicion. The old, socialist era argument was that business is the antithesis of public good and businessmen work only to line their pockets. Hence they constantly need to be tamed and set stipulations like a mandatory contribution in the name of corporate social responsibility to ensure they do something for the public good.
The argument is of course laughable if not downright perverse. The assumption of public service that politicians profess is an obvious charade. Most politicians are rewarded for their so-called sacrifices with the highest offices in the land. Whether it is Narendra Modi or Pranab Mukherjee, career politicians both, politics has given them ample rewards and recognition.
The hypocrisy is institutionalized in our system. In the 62 years since the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award was instituted, it has been awarded only once to a businessman, JRD Tata, in 1992. Predictably the list is dominated by politicians of every hue. By contrast, in the US, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award, has over the years, been conferred on men like Warren Buffet, Thomas Watson Jr, Henry Ford II, David Packard, Sam Walton, David Rockefeller, Estee Lauder and Walter B. Wriston. America’s fondness for its business leaders is understandable. After all, most of those who signed the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, started or ran their own businesses.
Newly independent countries, too busy with managing day-to-day fires, need inspirational business leaders who can look far into the future and unleash the entrepreneurial spirits of the generation. India was lucky in that even before its freedom from British rule, there were enough sparks of business creativity. In 1919, Walchand Hirachand laid the foundations of The Scindia Steam Navigation Company, a pioneer in Indian-owned shipping which began an India-Europe service at a time when all major sea routes to and from India were controlled by the British.
There were also the Parsis, Marwaris and Nattukottai Chettiars, India’s dominant business communities during the colonial period, who played a similar pioneering role and continue to do so today. They set into motion the forces that would eventually produce a Dhirubhai Ambani and India’s largest private sector company Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) or even a Jagdish Chandra Mahindra, who founded Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd.
Through the restrictive era for private business in the late 1960s and 1970s, these pioneers kept the flame burning, ensuring that when liberalization opened the flood gates for private enterprise, the structure for growth was intact. If the Birla group under Aditya Birla showed the way to multi-nationalization, Dhirubhai Ambani was the man who showed Indian companies how to use the stock markets for development. It was to be a crucial lesson not just for RIL, whose market cap has just crossed Rs4 trillion, but also for later stars like Infosys Ltd.
It is time we recognize our business pioneers for their contribution to our social and economic development.
Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.
Click here to read more from The Corporate Outsider.