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All hail the Bangalore Club: Protection has a new name

The way Sachin Bansal and Bhavish Aggarwal are asking for government backing against foreign companies, the poster boys of Indian startups sound like the businessmen of 1993.

business Updated: Dec 12, 2016 17:11 IST
Suveen Sinha
Suveen Sinha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Sachin Bansal,Bhavish Aggarwal,Flipkart
Bhavish Aggarwal, co-founder and CEO, ANI Technologies that runs Ola Cabs. (HT File Photo)

There is no evidence the Bombay Club ever existed, except that it did.

This is not the kind of club people born this side of 1991 would imagine it to be. This was a group of eight big industrialists who came together after the Narasimha Rao government opened up the economy. In a letter to the government on November 10, 1993, they sought protection against multinationals coming into the country. The Indian stalwarts said there was no way they could survive, because the MNCs had better technology and marketing acumen, and more money.

All these years later, they appear to be decidedly old-world, and all those men are actually old now; in fact, not all of them are around anymore. And none of them ever really admitted to forming a grouping against MNCs. However, listening to the young voices from the world of business these days, you wonder whether those days are back, of whether they ever went away.

“What we need to do is what China did [15 years ago], and tell the world we need your capital, but we don’t need your companies,” said Sachin Bansal, founder and chairman of Flipkart, India’s largest e-commerce startup, at the Carnegie India Global Technology Summit.

Read | Do Flipkart and Ola need protection?

He found a kindred spirit in Bhavish Aggarwal, the founder and CEO of Ola, who also spoke at the summit. “It’s much easier for non-Indian companies to raise capital because they have profitable markets elsewhere... it’s a very unfair playing field for Indian startups,” said Aggarwal.

For good measure, he added: “There is a glass ceiling for Indian start-ups. If I want to meet the Prime Minister, it won’t be as easy as [for] a foreign guy coming to India.”

Aggarwal’s bit about being able to meet the Prime Minister found resonance. TV Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Education, told a newspaper it is good the Prime Minister meets people like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Elon Musk of Tesla, but he should also have one-on-one meetings with the technology leaders of India.

Now Bansal is the biggest star of Indian startups, having founded the most valued e-commerce company in the country. He was the CEO till the other day, before stepping down in favour of co-founder Binny Bansal and becoming the chairman. The street in Bengaluru’s Koramangala that houses Flipkart’s HQ is a sort of mini-mecca for aspiring entrepreneurs. Ola’s Aggarwal is not far behind, having founded the country’s most popular app-based ride hailing service.

Pai is different from those two, but a legend in Bengaluru’s technology circles for having invested in several start-ups and being, in an earlier avatar, a big force at software star Infosys.

But their call to arms against the “foreign guys” is reminiscent of the Bombay Club’s clamour all those years ago. So much so it’s safe to see a rise of the Bangalore Club; not Bengaluru, in the spirit of the Bombay Club, not Mumbai.

Read | You don’t sell churan, hing and call it real sales: Flipkart’s Binny Bansal

Paytm’s HQ is on a decidedly working-class street in Noida, Delhi’s nearest suburb. But he is not to be left behind in the race to be seen as an Indian company. Of course, he has the most compelling reason.

In the wake of the government’s cancelling old notes of ₹500 and ₹1,000 on November 8, Paytm has been seen as the biggest gainer, becoming a generic verb for payments using a mobile wallet. At the same time, tongues have wagged that a Chinese-owned company benefiting would take away from the nationalistic rhetoric of demonetisation. China’s Alibaba Group, with its affiliate Ant Financial, owns more than 40% equity in One97, the holding company for Paytm’s ecommerce business and mobile wallet.

Flipkart, too, has Tiger Global, a big venture capital firm based in the United States, as a major investor, and its main corporate entity is registered in Singapore. And Ola has the backing of Japan’s internet and technology giant, SoftBank.

But they are splitting shareholding and identity. “The crux of what makes a company Indian is the entrepreneur and the management team, and where they are based,” said Aggarwal at the Carnegie conference.

Sharma of Paytm has gone several steps ahead and shifted the mobile wallet business to his new company, Paytm Payments Bank. Paytm Payments Bank has only two shareholders. Sharma, in his individual capacity, owns 51% equity, and One97 Communications owns 49%. So Alibaba has no direct shareholding in the wallet unit anymore. “Finally, the Paytm wallet will be a perfect Indian product. The payments bank will have no foreign shareholder, and no foreigners on its board except an independent director, who has international citizenship,” Sharma told HT.

This perhaps makes the Bangalore club different from the Bombay Club, which did not rely on foreign capital. The new club is not deterred by the foreign capital running in its veins.

Could that have something to do with the fact that for all the pressure Paytm has faced, Flipkart and Ola have their battles to fight? Amazon and Uber are not to be trifled with

Read | Everywhere the light touches Paytm sees opportunity

First Published: Dec 12, 2016 08:04 IST