How Kerala got the Nissan deal
The support from the Kerala government, the personal involvement of CM Pinarayi Vijayan and cooperation of opposition members helped the state in getting the Nissan deal
Thiruvananthapuram: Eight meetings in six months; Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan serving homemade fish curry to a Japanese delegation at his residence; Congress MP Shashi Tharoor waxing eloquent about the Malayalee ethos in French. And pushing the files.
That’s what it took for Kerala to get Nissan Motor Co., Ltd, one of the world’s largest carmakers, to set up a global research hub on driverless cars and electric vehicles in its capital Thiruvananthapuram.
The efforts paid off with the company signing the deal on 29 June.
The Nissan deal is important not only for its size—its first such research center in India, offering 3,000 direct jobs and thousands of indirect ones as per the government—but also for what it represents.
Kerala’s Marxist government rolling a red carpet welcome to a multinational is as unusual as a day passing without a strike in the southern state. The stacks were loaded against Kerala: some investors think it’s a business-unfriendly place, owing to strikes (the state had more than 100 shutdowns last year).
The last multinational company to come to Kerala, US-based Oracle Corp, was seven years ago. Before that the state had ousted large firms like Microsoft Corp. and Coca-Cola Co over environmental concerns.
With Nissan’s investment (expected to provide 500 direct jobs by the year-end and thousands of indirect jobs, though the size of the investment is not yet made public) the state expects to make a turnaround. Other companies such as Microsoft and Tech Mahindra have hinted at opening shop, said Vijayan in an interview with Mint.How did they convince the Japanese carmaker?
It was a Christmas Eve dinner hosted in 2017 for Keralite Antony Thomas, Nissan’s chief information officer, by a few people in the city’s tech world, that started the ball rolling, said a top executive of an IT company, who was part of the discussions but asked not to be named.
Thomas’ history with Thiruvananthapuram and its people goes a long way back, he was a former official of pro-Left student’s union during his college days in the city. He said that the city might be considered if it makes a strong push, but they may want to speed up the offer as Nissan wants to locate a place soon, he said.
Tharoor, who is a lawmaker from Kerala, and Vijayan dashed off letters to Nissan on the requests of those who had met Thomas. On 25 February, Tharoor met Thomas, who was back in town to help with his son’s Class 10 board exam, and discussed opportunities and challenges.
But it wasn’t until a video conference with the location hunting team of Nissan, held at a B-hub facility in a city college, that the Kerala side got some confidence. The head of the Nissan team was from France and Tharoor, a former UN diplomat, talked about Kerala’s advanced socio-economic indicators — one of the best in India — for an hour. In French.
It was like an opening batsman hitting a century, said the person quoted above. Tharoor did not want to comment.
Soon afterwards, K.M. Abraham, chief of Kerala Innovation Council and a trusted confidante of the CM, and IT secretary M. Shiva Shankar were on a plane to Nissan headquarters, Yokohama in Japan on the request of the company. On 24 March, Nissan sent a nine-member leadership team to Thiruvananthapuram. Meanwhile, Vijayan had fast-tracked the paperwork in his usual way (every weekend, his additional private secretary Dinesh Bhaskaran slips in his dashboard a progress report of all major projects, including Nissan, along with a list of slow officials).
The icing came when the Left-wing chief minister invited the Japanese home, and served them homemade fish curry—a delicacy in Kerala. He also reached across to the BJP’s Kerala face and union minister for tourism, Alphons Kannanthanam, who flew down almost overnight for a breakfast meeting with the Nissan team, in a show of opposition cooperation. Tharoor hosted another lunch. Vijayan confirmed these details to Mint on 28 June.
“We had a checklist of 100 things we are looking for. Ability and to attract talent was our first litmus test. Second was the overall environment, quality of life, traffic, diversity ration etc. Third was the support from the government, the personal involvement of the chief minister and even opposition members,” said Thomas, who is moving his family to Japan.
“I have been in this ecosystem for the last 15 years. Traditionally, politicians here were doing a run-of-the-mill stuff. But I see a big change in Kerala now and delivering Nissan is a fine example of it,” said technology expert and chief administrative officer of UST Global Inc, Alexander Varghese.