The Tatas do plain talking

The Tatas do plain talking

The Tata group is ruffling its feathers. A bit like a grand turkey that wakes up, shakes itself up and decides to strut its stuff because not everyone thinks it’s pretty.

It all started a few days ago when the Tatas made an offer— entirely unsolicited—to team up with the luxury hospitality chain, the Orient Express. But unannounced suitors can never really tell their fate and must always be prepared for rejection.

Except, the Tatas were faced with a bit more than rejection. Orient Express, more than miffed by the Tata approach with the mopping up of some 11% of their shares by the Indian firm on the side, suggested it didn’t measure up to their level of premiumness and refused to help it scale up and improve the performance of its Indian properties.

Somewhere along the way, the Tata group, which bid for Ford Motor’s European luxury marquees Jaguar and Land Rover, met resistance from American dealers who said they didn’t really want to deal with an Indian company. Even though a somewhat stodgy labour union in the UK, where the factories are based, said they preferred Tata over other bidders, including international private equity players.

Then, not so long ago, the headlights were trained on the much-awaited Rs1 lakh car after the head of rival Suzuki Motors took a swipe at the still unseen car’s ability to meet safety and technology standards. The truth is, Suzuki couldn’t have known, since the details of car are as closely guarded as the British crown jewels, perhaps even more. The Tata group doesn’t give out details of the car, which is chairman Ratan Tata’s dream and vision of putting Indians with less in their pocket, more on the road in their own vehicles.

But the finger-pointing is proving too much. The Tatas, who have for years been held as icons of everything understated, upped the ante last week.

A non-executive director on the Tata Motors board, in fact nobody less than R.A. Mashelkar, a former chief of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, waxed eloquent about the Rs1 lakh car. He spoke of how great the technology was, how, even he, some six feet tall, could fit into it comfortably, and how it was an eco-friendly car.

After months of silence on the car’s details, the intent was clear. It has the same message as the now public letter that the Tatas have written to the Orient Express chain asking they apologize for suggesting the Tatas don’t measure up, complete with statistical detail on the international reach of the Tata hospitality chain.

They want their share of presence in the global arena and want it now.

For a group that pulled off an audacious $12 billion takeover of the steel maker Corus Group, several time its size, dug its heels in to buy Jaguar and Land Rover, made good its acquisition of Tetley Tea, runs the premium Taj chain of products and owns one of the better-known IT firms in the world, the fitting answer to questions about its ability and pedigree may not be in cheek-puffing public outrage.

It may be in bringing out world -class product every single time and in making its international ambitions work every single time.

Really, Mr Tata, nothing will silence the critics more.

Anjana Menon is national editor (corporate) at Mint. Comment at