Tracking India's business evolution

Updated on: Apr 14, 2011


This book is yet another, very necessary reminder that India has a rich business tradition and its businessmen are cool.

In the first 20 years after Independence, businessmen were not treated as rascals by the State. But after 1969, when Indira Gandhi split the Congress party, this became the norm.

From then until 1991, when there was another shift in the approach to handling the economy, a whole generation grew up regarding business and businessmen as ‘bad' and bureaucracy and bureaucrats as ‘good'.

It is not entirely clear what changed this attitude, but in the last decade or so, business has become as respectable as it ever was and it is now the State that is seen as comprising a bunch of crooks and criminals.

This book is yet another, very necessary reminder of something that our socialism of 1950-90 had made us forget: that India has a rich business tradition and its businessmen are cool.

A must-keep reference book, it is organised (as anthologies of already published essays must be) into five sections that cover different aspects of Indian business from the bazaar to communities to family firms and Indian business in the post-1991 reforms era.

The criterion used for selection appears to have been either the reputation of the contributor, mostly academic and sometimes journalistic. It is perhaps for that reason that Harish Damodaran's wonderful book India's New Capitalists: Caste, Business and Industry in a Modern Nation has not been included. The book is poorer for that.

As with all anthologies that are put together well, one learns a lot from this one also. For example, Asghar Ali Engineer tells us about the Bohras of Western India. “Being petty shopkeepers,” he says, “the Bohras have a rather narrow weltanschauung ” or worldview. It has been a vicious circle out of which they are now breaking out.

Ashok Desai, former Chief Economic Consultant to the Finance Ministry has written about the Parsis. He says they were neither better nor worse than other trading communities. What helped their emergence was the willingness of the Bombay Parsis to serve the British. The Sindhis, whose business sense and success are, for some odd reason, objects of derision in India are described in an essay written in 1843 by T. Postans.

The Marwaris have been dealt with by the doyen of India's business historians, Dwijendra Tripathi and the Chettiars by Christine Dobbin.

No anthology can claim to be complete without a full chapter on Dhirubhai Ambani. Medha Kudaisya, who edited the book, has reproduced an article on him by T. N. Ninan and Jagannath Dubashi. It was published in India Today in 1985.

The essay pretty much sets out the Ambani vision. But the accompanying interview with him is interesting only for the questions. Ambani pater denied all searching questions, including ones about the grace shown to him by the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee.

The Ambani saga has since been made into a film, Guru, and for that reason too, the essay and the interview are fascinating.

Anthologies are valuable for their Introductions as well. Medha has written an excellent one.

Given the platform, however, it could have been a little lighter and not so heavily academic in style and presentation. The footnotes, although impressively extensive, are quite forbidding.

One suggestion for the second edition, which will doubtless come: Medha should put in a few paragraphs about what changed the Government's attitude to the private sector. Was it Sanjay Gandhi in the mid-1970s or was it the influx of several foreign-trained economists in the Government or was it simply the pressure of the times?

All changes need explanations and any book or anthology is richer if it contains them.

Published on April 14, 2011
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