Book review: India Inc, by Vikas Pota

These profiles of the country's top entrepreneurs are randomly selected and over-hyped, reports John Elliott.

Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

This book is an uncritical survey of 10 randomly selected Indian businessmen. True to his trade in public relations, Vikas Pota, who runs corporate communications firm Saffron Chase, has written an over-hyped and far from complete picture of those he has chosen.

India's business scene has been transformed since 1991, when its main economic reforms began. Before then, most of the old business families that dominated industry and commerce used government controls to block competitors, obtain licences for products they might or might not produce, and then engineer shortages to ensure high prices and profits - and dissatisfied customers.

Most of the top names have changed, though Tata - one of India's two biggest groups - remains firmly in place, along with Reliance and a branch of the once all-powerful and widely diversified Birla.

Famous families that have vanished or declined include other parts of Birla and Mafatlal, Dalmia, Scindia, Shriram (DCM), Nanda (Escorts) and Modi.

Family-controlled firms still dominate, as in this book. Forty years ago, families controlled eight of the top 10 business groups (excluding banks and public-sector companies) and they still control about two-thirds of the top 20, with names such as the Tata conglomerate, Bharti (telecoms), Wipro (software), Sterlite (part of Vedanta mining), Mahindra & Mahindra (vehicles-based), and Jindal (steel).

The new names, and the old survivors, first faced foreign competition at home and then tackled it abroad - initially in information technology, but recently in manufacturing, especially the auto industry and pharmaceuticals.

There's little of this background in India Inc, though some of the profiles illustrate the trend, especially Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Shiv Nadar of HCL Technologies; Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon, India's leading biotechnology business; and Baba Kalyani of Bharat Forge.

Other profiles include rather skewed write-ups on Ranbaxy, India's leading pharma firm, sold last year by Malvinder Singh (profiled here) and his family to Daiichi Sankyo of Japan; and KV Kamath, chairman of ICICI Bank. Kamath brilliantly turned ICICI into - as Pota puts it - a technology-based company that handles money, but he wrongly describes it (in order to build up Kamath) as formerly an 'insipid industrial lender'.

India's brilliant mathematical and low-cost brains, which are attuned to software work, gave the IT firms a rich base on which to build. Mazumdar-Shaw, a bio-tech entrepreneur and India's wealthiest self-made businesswoman, had a tougher start because her industry was new in India and female entrepreneurs were rare.

I'd pick Kalyani as the most unlikely (but worthy) trailblazer of the 10, because he has succeeded abroad in manufacturing, once a no-go area for India. In one of the book's many excesses, however, Kalyani is said to be 'almost single-handedly responsible for establishing the "Made in India" manufacturing brand as a force to be reckoned with in the global market-place'.

Kalyani won't thank Pota for such praise, because it is vastly over-stated. First, Bharat Forge is scarcely known outside the autos and allied sectors; second, there are many other better-known names that have blazed trails - Tata (tea, cars, steel), Mahindra (autos, components), Ranbaxy and the IT companies, to name a few.

'World domination,' we're told, 'is not just a dream' for Kalyani. Knowing the man, I doubt if he ever uses the phrase, but Pota rolls it out equally improbably for Infosys's Murthy, Kishore Lulla of Eros International (a leading UK-based player in films and entertainment), and Ranbaxy's Singh.

Pota says he has selected people who have not been widely profiled elsewhere, but Murthy has been profiled in just about every business newspaper and magazine in the world - I wrote him up in Fortune in 1997; Mazumdar-Shaw has had many profiles; and Tulsi Tanti of Suzlon Energy was widely profiled as his wind-turbine business mushroomed.

There is little even-handed or analytical here. India Inc is just a series of quotations from the subjects, with supporting platitudes from others, hyped jargon to tie the two together, and rare negative points written dismissively. The 10 entrepreneurs deserve better.

'India Inc: How India's top ten entrepreneurs are winning globally' by Vikas Pota, Nicholas Brealey £18.00

- John Elliott is a journalist who lives in India and writes a current affairs blog, 'Riding the Elephant'

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