In search of a hero

What India needs is idols its people can look up to and emulate

There is plenty that is happening in India that bodes well for the country. For example, when you look at Indian society, you see that the position of women has transformed over the past 20 years. Female literacy has shot up, as has female labour force participation. As a result, women are marrying later, having fewer children and are continuing to work post marriage in far greater numbers. This obviously bodes well for income levels in our country, especially in the less privileged sections of society where such trends have become very marked in the past decade or so.

When you look at politics, you cannot help but admire how a combination of the law courts, helpful legislation, the media and “civil society” has derailed the poisonous intersection of politics and commerce. Furthermore, the rise of a dozen or so independent economic regulators (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Competition Commission of India, Securities and Exchange Board of India, Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board, etc.) led by competent and largely fair-minded civil servants is yet another startling positive as is the relentless rise of regional parties. All of this should be celebrated because, as James Robinson and Darren Acemoglu highlight in Why Nations Fail, countries that fail to create inclusive political systems eventually collapse because, without inclusive politics, you cannot get inclusive and, therefore, sustainable, economic growth.

And yet for all this profound and positive change, we appear to be a nation lost for direction and fed on a daily diet of corruption scandals. One manifestation of this lack of direction is the paucity of heroes in our country — if you leave aside the make-believe heroes from the world of cinema and sport, our country really does not possess idols that we can look up to and emulate. 

Many of our business icons are now largely discredited because they are either viewed as reckless adventurers with little or no focus on shareholder value and/or eager rent seekers, keen at the drop of a hat to cut a dodgy deal or two with avaricious politicians. It would appear that we will have to wait for a long time for our domestic Steve Jobs, Richard Bransons and Akio Moritas. Or will we?

In this time of drift, I find it fascinating that a number of important corporate captains have chosen to maintain a low profile. Rather than take a firm stand on the issues that will define our generation, these men and women, many of whom have risen to high office from humble, middle class origins, have chosen to continue doing what they know best — quietly building great businesses.

Look at the Nifty. Of the 50 companies that were included in the index when it was created in 1995, only 19 are still part of the Nifty. Two of those companies are HDFC and HDFC Bank.

Right at the top of the pantheon of Indian corporate heroes, I would place the group that created HDFC and HDFC Bank — Deepak Parekh, Aditya Puri, Keki Mistry and many others whose names I know not. These are world-class financial institutions and the bankers who built these firms are right up there with any globally fêted Wall Street titan. Most of these men have chosen to avoid the media spotlight but in the years to come, the Indian public will, I think, gradually come to admire and appreciate this genuinely inspiring tale of a few good men who built two transformative institutions. 

Even more startling than HDFC and HDFC Bank are the companies from the Tata stable. Of the 19 companies from the original 1995 Nifty that are still in the index, three are from the Tata empire — Tata Motors, Tata Power and Tata Steel. I was living in the UK when both Corus and JLR were acquired by the Tatas. Along with the Brits, I gave the Indians little chance of pulling these moribund businesses around. The fact that they did shows the strength and discipline that they bring to running large, capital-intensive businesses. One day their story will be told in technicolour.

And my final set of heroes are Indian middle managers in offices and shopfloors across the country. I have worked in many different parts of world and my discussions with others who have also done so suggests that there are few countries with a more competitive work ethic than India. Combine workplace competition with long commutes to and from work, cities with few civic amenities, temperamental promoters (sometimes masquerading as professional managers) and clients based at the other end of the world, and life and work in India is uniquely draining. The fact that Indian professionals continue to deliver in such circumstances and continue to push this nation forward makes them my “Hero No. 1”.

These are the author’s personal views