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Tata fiasco unprecedented, tragic

mumbai Updated: Oct 28, 2016 09:02 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
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Ratan Tata’s second coming, so to speak, to the top job in the Tata empire (even if for four months till a new chairman is found) has shaken up not only the corporate world, but the entire country.

Cyrus Mistry’s ouster and the dramatic overtones accompanying it – with allegations and counter-allegations being hurled directly and through leaks – has reduced every other major story playing out currently to a piffling also-ran.

Yadav v Yadav v endless Yadavs in Lucknow has been shown up as a crass vaudeville show, which it is. And Karan Johar being asked to cough up Rs5 crore for getting his movie released is stinking of low-grade political extortion, which in fact it was.

Ratan v Cyrus is stunning for the suddenness with which it has happened, but also because it goes completely against common comprehension of what Tatas as a corporate entity stand for.

Power struggles within corporations are fairly common. Even in Tatas, let’s be honest. But in the uppermost echelons, and to this acute extent, was entirely unexpected. The depth and breadth to which this battle has been played out is perhaps unprecedented in the history of corporate India.

A couple of days back while passing by Bombay House (where the Tata empire is headquartered on Mody Street) I wondered what the mood in the building would be like after the `coup d’etat’ against Mistry.

My ‘sources’ in Bombay House have dried up some time back. Mostly they were sportspersons: Milind Rege and Dilip Vengsarkar, who spent a lifetime there, Ravi Shastri and Adille Sumariwalla, who branched out into hugely successful careers after a fruitful stint with the Tatas, and a few others.

In any case, I doubt this could have been of great help. They would probably have been flummoxed like all of us, unless they were part of the Board instrumental in taking the decision. Moreover, a company of such long and rich tradition naturally devolves on its employees a covenant of secrecy in crises.

A Bombay House veteran, now retired, tells me that whenever things got a little hot between head honchos of companies, ‘important cabins’ would empty out quickly, its occupants opting for a break till matters cool down.

“Those who don’t go on leave become zombies for a while. Go about your work as if nothing has happened, pretend that you hear nothing and particularly, say nothing,” the Bombay House veteran explained tongue-in-cheek.

However, Bombay House can’t but help manifest such crises. If people working there won’t speak, its walls will, the corridors will. And empty desks and chairs in empty cabins most certainly are telltale.

At one level, Bombay House is an imposing building hewn out of Malad stone. It has achieved iconic status as the power centre of the biggest business house in the country and symbolic of Mumbai as the hub of Indian business.

At another – and this is the larger issue with graver implications – is what Bombay House represents. What it means to not just to the employees who work there, but to the corporate world, and most importantly, to people at large.

Because of the great legacy and tradition of the Tatas, the group has been revered. Bombay House is identified as the repository of faith where people who invested with them – or not -- are concerned.

Tatas came to stand for trust, probity, integrity, ethics and every other virtue that one can think of where doing business is concerned. This was not because of the physical structure that is Bombay House, but managers who ran businesses from there.

Ironically, these are the very attributes now put into question by the warring parties. To watch so much dirty linen being washed in public is most unedifying, and for millions who believed Tatas to be above such shenanigans, this will be hugely disillusioning.

There has been growing mistrust of India Inc in recent times but Tatas were always thought above reproach. Who is right or wrong in the current imbroglio in Bombay House I must confess is beyond the mien of this column. But that is not the crux. It’s the collapse of aura.

That Tatas, thought to be different, now appear much the same as any other business house, is the tragedy.