I think it is fair to say that of all Indian industralists past and present, J. R. D. Tata has been the most widely admired. Part of the reason had to do with his business acumen, his skill in taking the Tatas beyond their core competence in steel and heavy engineering into hotels and computers. But then there have been other entrepreneurs who have been as effective in expanding their empires and moving into new areas of profit-making business. What distinguished JRD from these other men was his commiment to professional excellence and to ethical practice. To add to that, he was a notable philanthropist, who helped fund high-quality institutes of scientific research, student scholarship schemes, theatre and art programmes, rural development schemes, and much else. And, as if all this was not enough, there was his own larger-than-life personality, as manifest in his elegant foreign wife, his friendships with the good and great of at least three continents, and his near-legendary achievements as an aviator.
J. R. D. Tata’s reputation is well founded, but some items that came my way recently perhaps dent it just a little. While doing research on Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, I found a report by a senior New York Times journalist on those years spent by us Indians under that lady’s dictatorship. This reporter, J. Anthony Lukacs, found that the Emergency was widely hailed by the middle-class, who compared it favourably with the strife-torn decade that had preceded it: years that saw the Naxalite upsurge, the great railway strike, the Bihar and Gujarat movements, and Jayaprakash Narayan’s all-India campaign of civil disobedience. But now that strikes and dharnas had been outlawed, the crime rate had come down and the trains ran on time. A good monsoon in 1975 meant that prices also fell. Lukacs was told by an official in Delhi that it was only foreigners who cared for such things as the freedom of expression. ‘We are tired of being the workshop of failed democracy’, said the official: ‘The time has come to exchange some of our vaunted individual rights for some economic development’.
Lukacs discovered that, aside from the middle class, the business community were also pleased with the Emergency. A Delhi hotel owner told him that life now was ‘just wonderful. We used to have terrible problems with the unions. Now when they give us any troubles, the Government just put them in jail.’ In Bombay, the journalist met J. R. D. Tata, who told him that ‘things had gone too far. You can’t imagine what we’ve been through here—strikes, boycotts, demonstrations. Why, there were days I couldn’t walk out of my office into the street. The parliamentary system is not suited to our needs’.
In January 1977 the Emergency was lifted. Fresh elections were held in March, which saw Indira Gandhi and her Congress party being removed from office. However, in January 1980 Mrs Gandhi commenced a fresh term as Prime Minister, sent there with a fresh mandate from the people. India had returned emphatically to democracy, to voting and freedom of expression, but also to popular expressions of grievances large and small, real as well as imagined. For these were also the years of the renewal of the Jharkhand movement, the radicalization of the Punjab movement, and the birth of the Assam movement. To these assertions of ethnic identity were added protests based on more orthodox class lines, as in the massive textile strike in Bombay in 1982.
The next year, 1983, J. R. D. Tata was honoured with a reception hosted by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay. This, in part, is what he said:
‘The Bombay of my youth with its magnificent harbour, its shady wooded hills, its flowering trees, its then disciplined population—there were no morchas then to impede one’s travels through the city—its virtual absence of beggars, its freedom from law and order problems, and how happy a place it was in which to live and to work, a city of which we could be proud’.
The Bombay of JRD’s youth was, of course, the Bombay of the British Raj. In that colonial autocracy, as in its post-colonial successor of 1975-7, the state looked with deep displeasure on morchas and the like. The key phrase in the lines I have just quoted is, I think, ‘its then disciplined population’. Here, as in that other remark made and recorded during the Emergency, JRD appeared to be saying: ‘The parliamentary system is not suited to our needs’.
As is well known, one of JRD’s abiding passions was population control. Along with many others of his class and generation, he believed that one reason India was not progressing quickly enough was that there were far too many Indians. He wrote often to the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, about this, wrote with a certain impatience too, making clear his view that the Government was not adequately committed to promoting contraception among the poor. The impatience, one has to say, was not only with Nehru or his Government, but also with the cumbersome procedures of democratic practice, with the need to obtain so many approvals before action could be taken—approval from budget committees, from the Cabinet, from the Parliament, and, not least, from the Indian people themselves.
Viewed sympathetically, JRD’s attitude towards democracy might be understood as a product of the despair of old age. All his life this great man had sought to build a great industrial house and, by that means, a great country. His dreams for the Tatas had been perhaps three-quarters fulfilled; the remainder falling victim to the stranglehold of the state on the economy. His dreams for India were however only half-fulfilled (at best); the remainder falling victim to the corruptions of politicians and the corrosions of competing interest groups. As death approached, this unselfish man had no regrets as to the life he had himself lived. But the thought crossed his mind, and crossed it again—would his fellow Indians perhaps have been better off under a benign and corruption-free dictatorship?
Viewed sociologically, JRD’s views seem of a piece with the wider impatience with democracy and democratic procedures displayed by industralists everywhere. Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek before him, floated the fantastic theory that those who believe in a free market necessarily believe in freedom of political choice. I say ‘fantastic’ because this theory has been violated by countless dictators from Antonio Salazar to Augusto Pinochet, the violations encouraged, at every step, by factory owners seeking to safeguard the operations of their factories from prying reporters or self-organized workers. The Hayek-Friedman thesis is also decisively repudiated by the governments of their own countries, the United Kingdom and the United States. These have always found dictators easier to deal with, and especially to sign arms and other contracts with. Here, too, the denial of democracy has been silently—and sometimes not so silently—hailed by the capitalist class.
J. R. D. Tata, of course, was not the common or garden variety of capitalist. The type typecast in the preceding paragraph was (and is) motivated by profits and by profits alone. On the other hand, JRD was a man of a larger and more humane vision. He wished all Indians to share in the fruits of economic growth. This end he served by building world-class industries under the Tata label, and by donating vast chunks of his personal wealth to charity. However, there was only so much one man and one House could do. But what if India was run as a well-managed company, with a brilliant and disinterested man (or woman) as its CEO? Might not poverty be removed much faster? Such appear to have been J. R. D. Tata’s political views. The best, or at least the most polite, word I can summon to describe them is: ‘naïve’.