Tata Sons chairman and Tata group chief Ratan Tata retires on 28 December when he turns 75—he shares his birthday with the late Dhirubhai Ambani—and while the committee appointed to find his successor found a surprise one (Cyrus Mistry) in November 2011, there is no clarity on the identity of the individual who will fill an even more important position the man occupies—the elder statesman of Indian business.
Tata was, in many ways, a reluctant elder statesman and some of his personality traits—his shyness, for instance, or his touchiness—didn’t exactly make him a natural candidate for the position. Yet, he checked all the right boxes. His companies were in diverse businesses, doing well and, by and large, ethical in their dealings (and also perceived to be so). He was handsome (patrician even, some would say) articulate, and obviously intelligent (which, truth be told, is a rarity in the circles in which he moves). He seemed to have that internal compass some do that tells them right from wrong. And he wasn’t frightened to speak his mind.
There are no obvious candidates for the job once he goes. Azim Premji is probably the best candidate, but he is even more shy than Tata, and he spends most of his time in Bangalore which, as everyone knows, isn’t Mumbai or New Delhi. Sunil Mittal’s success is still far too recent to make him a candidate and both telecom and retail are, unfortunately, controversial businesses (although, interestingly, there are Tata companies in both businesses). Deepak Parekh is too closely associated with one business (finance and banking) to make him acceptable to everyone.
Which brings us to Anand Mahindra. He is still young (57; Parekh is 68, Premji 67). His companies are in diverse businesses and seem to have hit a purple patch. He is handsome, intelligent, articulate and, if it counts, has around 666,000 followers on Twitter. And he hasn’t been afraid to voice his views, even if they are not popular ones. It’s still premature to declare Mahindra’s ascension, but Indian industry could do worse than pick him as its next elder statesman.