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An engaging narrative

When a corporate warrior with over five decades of have-been-there-have-seen-it experience writes, you take notice. In a pacey narrative, peppered with anecdotes, R Gopalakrishnan, formerly of Unilever and the Tata Group, answers several questions.

Like: What is the purpose of a business? Is private enterprise relevant? How to unlock the animal spirit in rural India? How much has India changed? How can one encourage and measure innovation? Can you be both humane and chase business goals at the same time? And most importantly, what makes our country tick?

DIVERSITY, NOT RELIGION, MAKES INDIA

Over time, Gopal has picked interesting nuggets of India that make for rich reading.

Did you know there is a community called ‘Hussaini Brahmins,’ that believes both in Hinduism and Islam and that matinee idol Sunil Dutt practised it? Or for that matter the ‘Siddis’ of Karnataka are direct descendants of the Bantu tribe of Africa? Did you realise that Parsi folks are the most cosmopolitan lot? How many north of India know Saurashtrians migrated south of Vindhyas and came to be called Saurashtrian Tamils? Or how many south of India have heard of ‘Gadi Bero Tamils,’ who live in a village in Bengal? These examples tell us that diversity not religion or language, is what binds India and the extensive research and knowledge of Gopal in history and geography.

The author says businessmen see this when they step into any market and that people who define India as a one-size-fits-for-all have no understanding of the ground reality. Reminding us about the Nazi party, Gopal cautions on the perils of fascism that “can disturb the equilibrium of centuries-old, ecologically balanced societies.”

CAPITALISM AND TRUSTEESHIP

While 250 years ago, Adam Smith spoke about the ‘invisible hand’ aka self-interest that helps build an economy, Gopal talks of the ‘visible hand’ of a business leader in shaping post-independent India. He also makes a reference to how, over the years, ‘ businessmen,’ once seen as moneybags who dodged taxes, have come to be regarded as inspirational, in the real sense of the term.

Next, there is the issue of what Mohandas Gandhi once pointed out: of business being trustees of the society. Gopal shows how the house of Tatas has struck the delicate balance of being good corporate citizens even as they reward the shareholders’ wealth. For sure, corporate India can continue to be instruments of change as India heads to becoming cleaner, less miserable and more urbane.

Today much of the puzzle is the handiwork of technology. Gopal provides a peep into how HUL and Tata used innovation to drive change and have adapted to social norms of different eras. The author argues that constant innovation is key to success in business. If the Tata group has been around for 100 plus years, and if the Unilever group has sunk its teeth deep into India, it is because they have kept pace with changing times through innovation. But how can one encourage and measure innovation? Gopal offers some insights.

BHARAT, JUDICIARY, AND THE NEW CEO

Gopal talks about the other India, Bharat, for whom the benefits of economic liberalisation are still to percolate. In a section on the Indian judiciary he writes about the pains of delay (the Salman Khan case), of injustice (Vijay Mallya cocking a snook at the court), of corrupt institutions (CBI included), helpless problem solvers (like the CJI shedding tears in public over the difficulty involved in the courts, functioning) and suggests some solutions. For the new CEO, he also writes about how to mop up the mess that his predecessor has created and how to deal with leaders who love themselves to death.

In my view, the best part of the book is where he says that the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu had evolved an exciting ‘management development and succession planning system.’ “When a boy in a family turned eleven years old, he was inducted into the business as an assistant (Podiyan). He worked for a decade as a ‘podiyan’ and then became a deputy (Aduthavan) for another ten years. In the third decade of his career, he became a shareholder (Pangali), and at age of forty-one, he was groomed to be the chief (Mudhalali). This system is brilliant and can stand alongside any modern management development system.” Phew.

At times the book reads like a compendium of articles, but then that’s okay. After all Gopalakrishnan warned us that this is about Doodles.

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