This piece of mine was published today in the Wall Street Journal Asia.
Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined that four of the 10 richest chief executives in the world could be Indian. But Forbes recently released a top-10 list showing how much India has changed. Lakshmi Mittal, the steel tycoon, was ranked second, followed by Mukesh Ambani (sixth), Anil Ambani (seventh) and Azim Premji (ninth); Warren Buffett came in first.
One can quibble with how the list was compiled, but there is no doubt that India has become a force in the world of business. The leading bidders for Jaguar and Land Rover are the Indian automobile companies Tata Motors on one hand, and Mahindra and Mahindra on the other. In 2006, Mr. Mittal brought the European steel behemoth, Arcelor, into his empire. Last year, the Tata Group took over Britain’s Corus, another large producer of steel.
Just as significant as the success of Indian businessmen abroad is a shift in the way they are viewed at home: The biggest names in Indian business are among the biggest heroes of India. The society pages of newspapers show them at parties, the gossip columns feature them, and young men and women name them as their icons, even as those youths prepare for their own MBA entrance exams.
It wasn’t always like this. In the early decades of our independence, businessmen were not looked upon highly. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously once told the business tycoon J.R.D. Tata that “profit” was “a dirty word.” Indian films routinely portrayed businessmen as evil capitalists out to exploit the poor. Ironically for a country that was so poor, the pursuit of wealth was looked upon with suspicion.
Mr. Mittal had to leave India to build his empire. Dhirubhai Ambani, Mukesh and Anil’s father, built his business by manipulating the system in the finest traditions of cronyism. The businesses that did exist were protected from competition by the high entry barriers placed by the government, at the cost of consumers.
All this changed when India liberalized in 1991. As India opened up to the world, its entrepreneurs sprang into action. The middle class grew, the quality of life in cities improved, and tens of thousands of young men and women went abroad as the software industry boomed. Indians realized that free enterprise was providing them with the opportunities they had lacked in the socialist years.
Consider that earlier this year, Ratan Tata, the successor to J.R.D. Tata’s empire and the chief of Tata Motors, unveiled the Nano—a car expected to retail for approximately $2,500. Some complained about the increase in pollution that it might cause, and other worried that it would add to traffic congestion in big cities. But most of India applauded.
Mr. Tata’s ingenuity and vision will bring vehicle ownership within reach of millions of people who could otherwise have never dreamed of it, and it demonstrates what business does best—improve the lives of people, and help them fulfill their dreams, all in the quest of that “dirty word,” profit.
The heroes of the old India were film stars, cricket players and, perhaps, freedom fighters and politicians. The heroes of the new India include businessmen. In 2003, when MTV India held a poll among its predominantly young viewers to pick the Icon of the Year, Anil Ambani won. The people he beat included filmstar Shah Rukh Khan and cricket hero Sachin Tendulkar.
India’s successful businessmen, even as they enter lists such as the one compiled by Forbes, embody the hopes of their country more than their elected government possibly can. India is finally beginning to give them their due.
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For more such pieces by me, check out my Essays and Op-Eds archive.