By Sam Dolnick/ AP
New Delhi: To understand India’s economic rise, look to its cars.
The iconic Indian automobile of a generation ago was the Ambassador, a noisy, boxy clunker that was ubiquitous despite its ungainly 1950s style.
Compare that to the newest Indian-owned line of cars, the famously sleek and sophisticated Jaguar, which Tata Motors, India’s biggest auto company, purchased Wednesday, along with Land Rover, in a landmark $2.3 billion (Rs9,175,85 crore) deal.
The vehicle upgrade could be a metaphor for the transformation the entire country has gone through in recent years, as the so-called “License Raj,” the stifling state-run socialist system widely blamed for shackling India’s economy came to an end, giving rise to a new middle-class whose appetite for consumption has reshaped India and spurred a national economic boom.
Now, Indian companies are taking that money and shopping overseas for acquisitions as part of a strategy meant to announce India’s arrival on the global stage, break into new markets and keep the profits rolling in.
“It’s a matter of survival,” said Ashutosh Goel, an analyst with the brokerage firm Edelweiss Capital. “To succeed and thrive you have to be a serious global player and not only focused on the domestic market. You can’t remain a purely Indian player.”
Nearly all the leading corporations here including Reliance Industries Ltd. and outsourcing company Wipro Ltd. are looking overseas, and news of Indian acquisitions of brands from Europe, the United States, Asia and Africa has become common.
Many see the newfound assertiveness as a reflection of the general feeling in India that the once-stagnant underachiever now belongs among the international elite.
“Indian companies have been in the mood for overseas purchases for a few years now and that coincides with the boom in the economy and the general feel-good factor here,” said Anjana Menon, an editor at Mint, a leading Indian business newspaper.
At the same time, the robust economy and looser regulations have attracted widespread foreign investment, increasing competition here and forcing Indian companies to expand overseas to seek sales, analysts said.
Beyond Tata Motors, the crowded car market includes the Maruti Suzuki Ltd. majority owned by Japanese automaker Suzuki Motors Corp. , South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Ltd., Japan’s Honda Motor Co. and U.S. automakers Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp.
International companies are interested in more than selling just cars, however. Coca-Cola Co., which was booted out of India in the 1970s to make way for the local brand Thums-Up, came back in 1993, after the economy opened to foreign investment, and now owns the former rival. In gleaming new malls across India, customers can choose between German washing machines, Korean air conditioners and Japanese televisions.
Tata Group, the country’s oldest and largest conglomerate, is the most striking example of an Indian company on an acquisition spree. With roughly 100 companies in everything from salt to software, it has led the charge that has made India an international player.
The group has emerged from its own economic doldrums with high-profile moves like the purchase of British steelmaker Corus Group for $13 billion, as well as tea, hotel and automobile companies.
Tata’s acquisitions have sparked an outpouring of national pride.
“The Empire Strikes Back!” was one of many headlines Thursday that trumpeted the purchase of Jaguar and Land Rover, brands founded in Britain, India’s former colonial power.
The economic rise can be traced back to 1991, when India began shifting toward a market economy. The boom was led by the outsourcing and technology sectors, which forged a connection between Indian companies and overseas markets.
The new opportunities gave rise to an educated and ambitious middle class, which has lustily embraced consumer culture.
“The middle class Indian from a decade ago was more of a saver and he’s a spender now,” said Menon. “There’s a generational shift and there’s more money in people’s wallets and they’re freer to spend.”
Companies like Tata have reaped giant profits that freed them to pursue acquisitions. In five years through March 2007, Tata’s annual group sales more than doubled to US$29 billion, not including Corus Group. The capitalization of its 27 listed companies rose six-fold, to $78 billion.
“Bankers are looking where they can put their money and (Tata is) a sure thing, they’re not even a bet,” said Tarun Das of the Confederation of Indian Industry.
Tata announced the Land Rover and Jaguar acquisition with very little fanfare, apparently anticipating anti-India backlash. In a sign of how the times have changed, Indian companies that once lobbied the government for protection against foreign competition now find themselves battling protectionist sentiments abroad.
Tata is paying Ford with a 15-month, $3 billion loan but expects to replace that financing with a mix of equity and debt during the next several months, said C. Ramakrishnan, Tata’s chief financial officer.
Some analysts are skeptical about how the luxury brands will fit into Tata’s portfolio and whether going into debt to pay for the deal makes sense amidst fears of a global recession.
But many of Tata’s big-ticket acquisitions were derided initially and went on to be praised by analysts. It’s other purchases include Britain’s Tetley Tea, Boston’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, Eight O’Clock Coffee, Glaceau flavored waters and South Korea’s Daewoo Commercial Vehicle Co.
Other corporations looking overseas include the Aditya Birla Group, which has bought companies in cement, metals, telecommunication and textiles. Last year, Reliance Industries bought Malaysia’s leading polyester producer, Hualon Corp, while Wipro bought New Jersey-based Infocrossing Inc.
“Every large and small Indian company is looking at overseas corporations,” said analyst Goel.