The change of leadership at the Tatas, the country’s largest conglomerate, was watched keenly by Parsi-Zoroastrians. Though the companies under the group are run as corporate entities, with public shareholdings and professional leadership, the 150-year-old business group, founded and run by Parsis, is considered a community institution. In many ways, the companies and the public trusts that control them have been part of Parsi society: the trusts have built housing colonies for Parsis, founded educational institutions where children from Parsi families study, set up fire temples, and funded charity organisations that help poorer members.
Generations in families have worked at Tata companies, supplying blue collar labour at the automobile and steel factories, working as secretaries and clerks in the offices, and providing the leadership at many of the companies that form the group. Most families hold some shares in a Tata company, or have invested their savings in a term deposit account in a firm.
When the conglomerate announced last week that the group will be headed by a non-Parsi – specifically, a Tamil speaker - community forums were humming with comments on the change of leadership. Many comments were witty, a few downright racist. Some commentators wondered whether Western Classical Music at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai – an institution funded by Tata philanthropy – would be replaced by Carnatic Classical Music. Others wanted to know if the egg-chicken-fish menu at Ratan Tata Institute – another example of Tata benevolence - will be replaced by south Indian breakfast fare. There were questions whether the de rigueur suits in the boardrooms would be replaced by dhotis and bush shirts. Some joked whether Bombay House – the headquarters of the group – will be renamed.
“At the end of the day, the Bawas (a term used to describe them) enjoy a good laugh. When I read Bawa groups on Whatsapp there was a lot of funny conversation. This kind of light humour, not being serious about anything, it is a Parsi thing,” said Kersi Randeria, Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trustee and owner of the weekly ‘Parsi Times’.
There were some serious debates too. An online forum called ‘Zoroastrians.net’ conducted an online poll to find out the opinion. About 1,200 took part in the survey; three out of every four wanted a Parsi CEO at Bombay House. Three did not want another Parsi at the helm; the rest were fine with a change of leadership. Randeria said when the boardroom battle began at the Tatas with the ouster of Cyrus Mistry, scion of a Parsi business dynasty, there were hopes that another Parsi would succeed him. “Once people realised that this is not going to work out, they felt that the interest of the (business) group is more important, and not whether it is headed by a Parsi or a non-Parsi,” said Randeria.
Noshir Dadrawala, a BPP trustee and chief executive of Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy, said, “Much as a Parsi I would have liked to see a Parsi at the helm, but there was a dearth of leadership at the Tatas. If there was a good and competent Parsi who had been bypassed for the post I would have felt that this was some kind of reverse discrimination,” said Dadrawala. “The old (Parsi) war horses are all gone. One has to look at it in a balanced way. Once just hopes that the Tata banner flies high.”
When the uncertainty ended last week, people dealt with it in their own ways. “There were no serious (Parsi) contenders for the post. At the end of the day, if somebody is needed to run the group it has to be a capable person, not a Parsi,” said Randeria. “I have not seen any bitterness. To the credit of the Parsis, they have been fair.” Yazdi Tantra, a businessman and banker who did the poll, said there was disappointment when the new leader was announced. “Some comments (in the social forums) were in bad taste,” he said.