Book: J. R. D. Tata Keynote

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Foreword

When some of my colleagues in Tatas warned me of their intention to publish a book of excerpts from the speeches I had made over the past fifty years, I tried to dissuade them from pursuing a project that I said would induce a lot of kind people who had done me no harm to pay for being bored. Not only was my advice brushed aside, as an old man's usually is, but I was summarily called upon to write a foreword.

Some of those who will have been misled into buying the book will no doubt ask why I had to make all those dull speeches and to expound in them unsolicited views and advice on so many subjects on which I was not specially qualified to speak. As they will have noticed, many of the excerpts are not from speeches but from the Chairman's annual statements to shareholders. I must confess I could not resist taking advantage of the free forum, captive audience and widespread newspaper coverage the statements gave me to publicise my views, as head of the largest industrial group in the country, on the government's economic policies. I felt, in particular, that if my small voice in the national economic debate could arouse public opinion, it was my duty to use it to oppose the outdated and sterile form of socialism that successive governments insisted on inflicting on the country year after year despite all the contrary evidence and experience in India and elsewhere in the world.

Some of my speeches were made in answer to invitations to talk on subjects such as aviation, on which, like the one-eyed in the kingdom of the blind, I seemed to have established an exaggerated reputation for expertise and achievement. The fact, incidentally, that so many of the invitations were to talk only on aviation was good for my soul, deflating as it did any belief I might have had that I knew something also about business and industry.

One obvious weakness of the book from the reader's point of view is that, over the years, I said the same things over and over again. I couldn't avoid doing so as, until recently, my pleas for a change in economic policies were ignored. I hope they were at least recognised as being motivated only by a desperate desire to see a better life provided for our people than the miserable one in which, after thirty-five years of socialist planning and controls, deprivation, ignorance and hopelessness were still so heartrendingly reflected in the faces and eyes of so many of them.

I would have liked to end my foreword on this note, but I was instructed to draw upon my memory and recall important events or encounters, which could be of interest even today. Unfortunately, I have little to offer partly because I didn't keep a diary, but also because most of what I could recall even with the help of a diary is either well known or could be of interest or amusement only to me or members of my intimate circle.

Some events were indeed important when they took place but mostly only to me. For instance, the occasion when, some forty years ago, in the excitement of the Quit India days, I attended a Congress public meeting at which fiery speeches by Jawaharlal Nehru and others led to some arrests. That meeting was a dramatic one for me for I was then torn between an urge to be personally involved in the freedom struggle and the realisation that I could not do so meaningfully without deserting the heavy management responsibilities entrusted to me. I have never regretted my decision to stay out of politics – which I rationalised to myself at the time by concluding that I could do more for the country in business and industry than in politics – for which all my instincts, in any case, made me unfit. I had no doubt that freedom was on the way and that when it came Jawaharlal would lead the Government. 'Who knows,' I thought, 'I might one day have an opportunity to serve in more useful ways than going to jail today!'

I am often asked about the outstanding people I have met in the course of my career, about my relations with them and my opinion of them. Those who made the greatest impact on me were, naturally, political figures, starting with Gandhiji, who led the freedom struggle.

Gandhiji, by far the greatest personality and, to this day, the most extraordinary human being I have ever met, inspired in me, as in most people, a mixture of awe, admiration and affection combined with some scepticism about his economic philosophy despite which one would follow or support him to the end, come what may. Perhaps the most unexpected and endearing trait I found in him was his almost childlike sense of fun to which he gave vent in a chuckle, which he sometimes used deliberately to put one at ease in his presence. He was also, like Jawaharlal Nehru, the most considerate and courteous of men who would never leave a question or a letter, however unimportant, unanswered.

In his and my own youth, Jawaharlal was the heroic knight in armour who awakened in me some of the passion and fire that burned within him. While the love and loyalty I had for him remained undimmed to the end, I soon found myself increasingly out of tune with him once he came to power. He knew that I disagreed with most of his economic and international policies, which perhaps explained the fact that our contacts, while always warm, became increasingly infrequent after he became Prime Minister and neither he nor Indira Gandhi ever found any need to consult me or have me to do anything for the Government except letting me lead Air-India for twenty-five years after nationalisation. My relations with both were wholly on a social plane, based on mutual friendship and affection.

Vallabhbhai Patel was the one with whom I felt most in tune and for whom I developed the greatest personal admiration and respect. While I was awed by his formidable political and administrative talents, the source of which was difficult to understand in a man of his background, one could not but be enormously impressed by the clarity of his mind and the simple good sense and logic with which he addressed and solved seemingly intractable problems.

While I usually came back from meeting Gandhiji elated and inspired but always a bit sceptical, and from talks with Jawaharlal, fired with emotional zeal but often confused and unconvinced, meetings with Vallabhbhai were a joy from which I returned with renewed confidence in the future of our country. I have often thought that if fate had decreed that he, instead of Jawaharlal, would be the younger of the two, India would have followed a very different path and would be in better economic shape than it is today. Vallabhbhai's stern and somewhat forbidding appearance concealed a warm and considerate personality, which endeared him even to the tough British and Indian civil administrators he ruled over after Independence. On top of that, he had an unexpected sense of humour of which I was myself once a victim. On one occasion I will never forget, having requested an appointment with the great man, he asked me to join him on his morning walk. I was happy to agree, until I found that it was to be at 5 a.m., and that he had given the same appointment to three others! As can be imagined, the four of us spent the next hour mainly in pushing one another aside in order to get in a few words of our own, only to be pushed aside in turn. Vallabhbhai was visibly amused by our antics.

Of all the politicians I have known, Jayaprakash Narayan was, in many ways, the least representative of the breed, but one for whom I developed an unbounded liking and admiration. I first heard about him when, during the Second World War, he had gone underground in or near Bombay and indulged in the delightful activity of toppling Tata Electric high-voltage transmission towers in order to interrupt power supply to Bombay. He and his men soon discovered that, sawing through the legs of a tower, which stood in a straight line with others, merely made it sag without breaking the electrical connection, while a tower forming an angle with others similarly attacked, obediently collapsed on its side. Jayaprakash was betrayed to the police by the Communist Party who, by then, had somersaulted from being violent opponents of the war effort when Russia joined Germany's attack on Poland and Western Europe into sturdy supporters when Hitler attacked Russia.

I personally met Jayaprakash only some years later in connection with some labour problem at Jamshedpur and was impressed by his transparent sincerity and gentle reasonableness, unexpected in an ex-revolutionary activist. It was, in fact, this unreasonable reasonableness, which I believe, prevented him from being an effective political leader and playing the powerful part he could have played in Indian politics. He was too honest and too prone to see the other side and to accept compromises and would never be a party to the political shenanigans into which Indian politics increasingly sank in spite of Jawaharlal's effort to keep the political arena clean. Jayaprakash died a sad and disillusioned man whose friendship and regard I felt privileged to have earned.

My second longest and closest association with a political leader was, of course, with Indira Gandhi with whom my relationship was very similar to the one I had with her father. We were good friends socially but, as with Jawaharlal, I never was able to break through the fence that they both built around themselves. While I regretted the limitation in our relationship, which deprived me of the chance to communicate freely with them on matters of national interest about which I felt I had something worthwhile to say, it helped to maintain, unspoilt, a friendship which persisted till the end.

As I said after her death, in a small contribution to a book about her, there were two distinct Indira Gandhis – the shrewd and all-powerful politician-statesman and the gracious, cultured human being for whom the expression civilised' in the best sense of the term was particularly apt. She was a very complex person whose character and deeds will fully emerge only when sufficient time has passed after her death for uninhibited reminiscences and biographies to be published about her.

Politicians were not the only distinguished people it was my good fortune to know and to be associated with. The most outstanding of the distinguished men I have known was, undoubtedly, Homi Bhabha. In addition to the unique intellectual gifts nature had bestowed on him, he was, in the mould of Jamsetji Tata, a visionary with the boldness, relentless energy and drive to convert his vision into reality. Homi was one of those who made me believe that some men in human history are born with the stamp of predestination on them which leads them to accomplishments beyond ordinary human capabilities. Some of them – and Homi, alas, was one – are also predestined to die young, an unconscious premonition of which drives them to superhuman effort to complete their task in the short time allowed to them.

It has been a source of great satisfaction to me that I was able to play a part, however small, in helping Homi Bhabha to launch a programme that led to his magnificent achievement in making India, in a mere two decades, virtually self-sufficient in nuclear science. Scientist, engineer, master-builder and administrator, steeped in the humanities, in art and music, Homi was a truly complete man.

An odd trait of his mental make-up, however, was his disdain for time which made him somewhat casual, at times, in his dealings with people. This seems to be a privilege attached to great mathematicians, including Einstein and Paul Painleve, for a time Prime Minister of France, who was once found sitting at the top of the stairs outside the door of his Paris apartment waiting for Mr. Painleve to return as promised in a note pinned on it by himself when he had left a little while earlier!

One of Homi's distinctive traits was his ability, like that of Gandhiji and Jamsetji Tata, to create men, in contrast to others under whose leadership no one of outstanding merit ever seemed to emerge. In fact, I believe that the greatest contribution Homi made to India's development into the modern state it is fast becoming, lies in training and bringing out to their full capability a host of young scientists and administrators who, today, lead so many of India's scientific and technical establishments.

Within Tatas too, I found, and in some cases recruited myself, many brilliant men who, individually and collectively, were largely responsible for the continuous progress and high reputation of the firm over the fifty years and more during which I have been active in it. In fact, they formed a constantly renewed galaxy of stars in technology and administration. Perhaps, the most remarkable, and to me important, common trait in them, has been their uncompromising adherence and dedication to a set of beliefs, traditions and ideals propounded by Jamsetji Tata.

Outstanding managers are usually strong-willed and of independent character with distinctive styles of management and personal behaviour. This made it difficult sometimes to ensure that a reasonably uniform philosophy of management prevailed in all the companies in the Tata group. If Tatas have, on the whole been surprisingly successful in that respect, it is because their directors and managers have been professional men allowed full freedom to deploy their talents and ideas while keeping within the pattern of traditions and standards introduced by Jamsetji in regard to fair and honest management, product quality, human relations in industry, industrial philanthropy, all of which I am glad to say have become widely recognised as the Tata industrial ethos.

I shall always be grateful to men like Homi Bhabha, Ardeshir Dalai, John Matthai, J.D. Choksi and others who have passed on, after serving and adorning the firm for many years, and to those happily still with us whom I need not mention by name, who brilliantly carry the burden today.

My colleagues responsible for this book have insisted that I present in this foreword a 'more intimate image of myself, my personality, of what makes me click, than can be drawn from my speeches.' What can I say about myself that isn't either well known or insignificant?

While I consider myself a reasonably nice and dependable fellow, unaddicted to drink or gambling, fond of children and animals – I am ready to plead guilty to a number of faults or weaknesses.

For instance, I have a nasty temper when provoked which, annoyingly, seems to have no effect on those at whom it is directed, least of all my wife. I suffer from an irresistible urge to correct not only my own drafts, letters or speeches, but also those of others, much to the distress of my long-suffering secretaries whom I must have driven up the wall many times and to whom I shall ever be grateful for their understanding and patience. My excuse for my correcting mania lies in my abiding love for the English language, so often profaned in our country, which makes me forever search for a better word or turn of phrase. I have corrected the draft of this foreword three times.

I confess to being excessively intolerant of slipshod work and irritatingly insistent on pursuing excellence even in tasks that hardly demand it.

I don't mind admitting also to a number of continuing love affairs: a lifelong one with the languages, literature and poetry of France and England, which makes me wish that more of the little formal education I have had, had been in one of the rich and beautiful languages of our own country. Another, the happiest as well as the most demanding one, has been with flying; a third with sport, particularly with highspeed driving, and skiing in which I still happily court minor disaster every winter, alas, with diminishing skill and vigour.

Friends who tell me it is ridiculous and foolhardy for an octogenarian to ski, fly a plane or drive fast cars, do not understand the thrill and sense of self-fulfilment obtained from living a little dangerously. In fact, to me, the cruellest penalty of age is the relentless loss of physical ability and of opportunities to indulge in it!

Apart from these flaws in my character, there is little of interest that I could publicly divulge about my private life. I find it much more fun to leave undisturbed such illusion as may exist in the minds of some people, about allegedly fascinating events in my life.

I now leave you, dear reader, with the option either to put away the book, or to turn the page and read on.

 

 

April 8, 1986

 

J.R.D Tata

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