On the brink of a tantalising tale

T.C.A. SRINIVASA RAGHAVAN | Updated on December 14, 2011 Published on April 07, 2011

From the Brink of Bankruptcy The DCM Story By Vinay Bharat Ram Publisher: Penguin Viking Price: Rs 499

Like the ‘Bata' price on its dust jacket, this book seduces only to deceive. It tells the story, but not all of it. It leads you into some interesting issue and leaves you with the equivalent of a few grudging grunts for an answer. It starts off debonairly, only to do a clumsy hop, skip and jump through the lives of some of the greatest achievers and interesting men of the 20th century.

It is as if Vinay Bharat Ram — member of a once great business family, musician, economist and businessman in that order — is emulating Macbeth, who said, “If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.” What a pity. What a missed opportunity.

DCM was a great name in Delhi, and in India, for at least 60-odd years of the last century. Originally called the Delhi Cloth and General Mills, and occupying a large tract of historic land in Bara Hindu Rao, which is just behind the famous ridge where the British won their first important victory in 1857, for at least two generations of Delhi-wallahs it was a fixture on par with any other monument.

Starting as traders in the 19th century, under the extraordinary leadership of Lala Shri Ram, the family and its friends became the first big, modern mill manufacturers of cloth in the North. By 1947, they had been in the major league for a generation. Half a century later in 1997, their descendents had been pushed to the periphery of the minor league. Today, DCM no longer makes cloth. The land it stood on — over 60 acres — has become a major commercial complex, just as Mumbai's Parel has.

The company ran into serious trouble in 1983 when Swraj Paul, the London-based businessman, decided to launch a hostile takeover bid on DCM (and Escorts). The families that ran these large firms with less than 10 per cent ownership of the shares were caught completely off-guard. They ran to the Government for help. Rajiv Gandhi, who was not yet Prime Minister, thought it was very mean of Swraj Paul to do this to his friends; but his mother, who was the Prime Minister, thought it was fine.

There followed a major, high-decibel battle in which the media was used, for the first time, as weapon by the anti-Swraj Paul group. Journalists took sides, excoriating Paul. The Government flipped-flopped. So did the RBI, which was then under Dr Manmohan Singh. His then boss, Pranab Mukherjee, was the finance minister and was quietly supportive of Swraj Paul.

It was an altogether unedifying episode. Vinay Bharat Ram devotes all of four pages to it. That tells you all you need to know about his approach to writing this book.

This indeed is the tragedy of this book: it ought to have been a definitive business history written by a person with a scholarly bent. Instead, it is sketchily told by Vinay Bharat Ram, who seems unable to decide on how much to tell and about what — himself or the business.

Even when he is talking about himself, he can't quite decide on his primary identity — musician, economist or businessman. Given his erudition, intellect and an obvious inclination towards goodness, it need not have been so.

There are a lot of anecdotes and vignettes, many of which, sadly, are incomplete. There is some understandable immodesty as well, as when the author suggests that interest rates were brought down by the RBI the day after his meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, who had called him to understand the cost of money in India.

Should you buy and read the book? Yes. Should you grumble about it when you are done? Vociferously.

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Published on April 07, 2011
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