Review: India’s New Capitalists by Harish Damodaran

Hindustan Times | BySujoy Gupta
Mar 15, 2019 03:38 PM IST

Meticulously researched, India’s New Capitalists shows that the social base of India’s entrepreneurial class has expanded to include new groups

425pp, ₹500; Hachette
425pp, ₹500; Hachette

This book has a promising title and describes itself on the cover rather grandly as “the first serious study of Indian business in the period since Independence.” The title page carries a subtitle: Caste, Business and Industry in a Modern Nation that doesn’t appear on the cover.

The first word, ‘caste’ is the subaltern giveaway. The author has worked hard to fathom the nation’s industrial happenings using a caste narrative that is, in my view, inappropriate in modern secular India.

In the preface, Damodaran explains that “the so-called non-traditional business communities (are) the real focus of the book.” The same sentence carries on to generously praise two successful “Kamma” magnates. I have kept away from naming individual businessmen since the tally of persons and castes named runs into scores.

Are readers really interested in learning that two unconnected promoters of Indigo Airlines and Yes Bank are both “Punjabi Khatris?” The diamond merchant, we are told, who “paid 4.31 crores for the famous monogrammed ‘bandhgala’ suit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had worn during US President Barack Obama’s visit in 2015” is a “Patidar entrepreneur.”

In an extraordinarily long paragraph the author lists “assorted industrialists from other communities.” For the sake of good humour here’s a verbatim sample excerpted at random of companies and their owners’ castes. (I name the former but not the latter.)

Indiabulls: Jat, Cafe Coffee Day: Vokkaliga), Chennai Silks: Kaikolar Mudaliar, MGM Group:Nadar. And so on it goes.

What’s the great idea? The author explains: “Business in India is no longer the preserve of the ‘Bania.’ The social profile of its capitalist class is far more diversified than at the dawn of Independence. (Women are still notably under-represented, though).” To prove his point, Damodaran presents a caste-wise breakup of 119 Indian billionaires by 2018 net worth in the latest Forbes 2018 list. At the top figure 38 non-Gujarati/Bania/Marwari, 10 Gujarati Bania/Jain, 8 Parsi, 6 Sindhi and “a mixed bag of 15 Brahmin, 5 Muslim, 4 Patidar, 3 Christian, 2 Jat and 10 castes faithfully listed with 1 billionaire each!

Author Harish Damodaran (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Harish Damodaran (Courtesy the publisher)

Readers who haven’t given up browsing by now are advised to flip back to the Contents page and check out some chapter or sub-chapter headings they might have missed: The Gounders, Patidars and Marathas, Nadars and Ezhavas, The Paradox of Northern Farming Communities, The Ramgarhias, A Note on the Minorities (15 pages), all of it wound up in a 9-page Conclusion.

This book has some worthwhile characteristics. It is meticulously researched though the analytical rigour is misdirected. It does make the point that India’s overall entrepreneurial gamut has expanded to count those left out earlier. Therefore the social base of Indian capital is much more inclusive than it was some decades ago. True, the business arena is expanding so rapidly the “old capitalists” are willy-nilly yielding ground to the new technology-savvy generation.

All said and done, till the end, sadly the author refers to old and new “mercantile castes.” Caste involves religion and we are aware that God and Mammon are mutually exclusive. Caste fixation is this book’s fatal flaw.

Read more: We need a better understanding of intra-caste inequalities

To be fair to an errant author, here are the concluding lines of the last paragraph of Damodaran’s Introduction that comprises, as it were, his case for the defence: “The entrepreneurs under consideration, having transcended their primary caste loyalties, provide poor base material for studying business communities. But this line of reasoning is misplaced, simply because the big businessman today may not have been all that big in an earlier point in time. Moreover, during the incubation phase of his business, community connections would have played a vital role in securing him access to credit, raw material, information, marketing channels, government contracts and trading licences. The fact that he manages over a sustained period to outgrow these connections does not undermine the business community from which he emerged and which he outgrew. On the contrary, it is perhaps a measure of strength or vitality of a business community to throw up entrepreneurs, who after an initial grounding through kinship and caste backing, are able to operate independently. Successful industrialists produce a demonstration effect and become role models for others within the community.”

The verdict, as always, lies with readers.

Sujoy Gupta is business historian and corporate biographer

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