The John Company is reborn

The John Company is reborn

The world would be a very different place if there had been no East India Company, says Mumbai-born Sanjiv Mehta, who owns the new avatar of the political-commercial organization that largely shaped India’s colonial milieu. The new company launched its flagship store and website on, ironically, the 63rd anniversary of India’s independence.

The history of East India Company is commonly known: its creation in 1600, establishment of its trading posts in several Indian cities, acquisition of special trading rights and exemptions, and resultant trade monopolies. By 1757, the “John Company" was spread over large tracts of the country and maintained its own army. The Battle of Plassey that year sealed its position as a quasi-governmental body, and Company Rule began in India.

In comparison, the new luxury brands company is a tame animal. Other than the brand name, its only links with the colonial behemoth are some of the products that it trades in—notably, tea. To be sure, it is ironical that an Indian now owns the erstwhile arbiter of millions of Indian lives—a fact that is likely to arouse the ire of some imperial romantics and the fancy of many nationalists—but its significance is limited to its symbolism.

One look at the company website shows that symbolism is also the new company’s biggest selling point: East India Company’s legacy still arouses strong feelings, and Mehta has leveraged these to give his business instant recognition. It’s a nice strategy.

But the parallels, in fact, lie elsewhere. Some of the modern world’s most crucial concerns about businesses—ruthless profiteering, abuse of market power, flimsy governance, rapid and unstable growth—were just as relevant for East India Company. The 1857 rebellion finally ended its ambition to rule India. Less than 20 years later, the company was dissolved.

In modern India, monopolies are a thing of the past, though the shadow of crony capitalism continues to haunt us. So is the socialist interlude that hobbled business growth for decades. In a world where free-market ideologies are gaining ground, the Company Bahadur is an antiquated concept that can, at the most, live on in cups of Earl Grey tea on rain-kissed mornings.

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