The most powerful CEOs of India Inc sure wield influence by virtue of wealth. And that’s certainly not a novelty. Money and influence have gone hand-in-hand across the millennia.
In the mid-17 th century, Jain jeweller-banker Shantidas Jawhari petitioned the Mughal emperor Shahjahan and got a temple restored to him that Aurangzeb (Shahjahan’s patricidal son), the then governor of Gujarat, had forcibly converted into a mosque. When Aurangzeb ultimately seized power, instead of taking revenge for the slight, it was the all powerful emperor who had to placate Jawhari.
Around the same time, Surat merchant Virji Vohra, counted among the world’s richest merchants, lent money to the English. The merchants of Surat were akin to the Venetians in India and used their wealth to command absolute control.
When Aurangzeb, in financial doldrums, sought an interest-free loan from the Surat merchant bankers at the imperial camp, they simply refused on the grounds that it would set a bad precedent. It was not just in the Mughal era either; the power of paisa has been the power through the ages, to the extent that even when real power was perceived to be flowing from the blade of a sword, it was the lure of the lucre that was the real motivation.
Throughout India’s history, power has flowed from diverse factors — class, caste, religion, and even gender — but as a separate class, the men of Mazuma have always had a special place in the various power dynamics that have emerged and evolved over the centuries. It was, nevertheless, a gradual shift. The merchants’ relationship with the ruling class and also their standing in society became stronger over a period of time as trade and commerce took centre stage.
Back in the Harappan culture as the gahapatis (land owning house holders) transformed into setthis (entrepreneurs of trade and finance), they became more prominent, though they still had a long way to go before wielding power. Later, during the Mauryan era, the artisan associations became large and gradually metamorphed into guilds and according to Romila Thapar’s The Penguin History of Early India, these guild leaders become quite powerful.
Things turned around between 200 and 300 BC when the guilds exerted power, though their heads still did not seek political will. However, the nexus with royalty provided a political edge to their activities, notes the eminent historian. It was towards the 10th century that shresthis (merchants) gained power. Some wealthy merchants of the 13th century, such as Vastupala and Jagadu, even became respected members of the urban council at Anahilapattana, the Chalukya capital.
With the dawn of the Mughal era, the business community came of age and traders gained a place in the power hierarchy . Trade as a whole gained much more respectability as a profession. Even royalty couldn’t desist from dabbling in trade. Jehangir’s mother, Maryam Zamani, for instance, conducted extensive overseas trade and so did Nur Jahan and Jahanara.
There were several others like them early in The Mughal World. Not to be left behind in profiteering and maintaining a royal monopoly in commodities like salt, the emperor too stepped in. As the power of the Mughals began to wane, the merchants slowly established power centers of their own as the Europeans began increasing their foothold.
Towards the dusk of the Mughal era, emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar even had to borrow money from Delhi moneylenders Lala Saligram, Bhawani Shanker and the richest among them, Lala Chunna Mal for his son Prince Mirza Jawan Bakht’s wedding.
The power pendulum started swinging towards the merchants as the British East India Company and other European colonisers started flexing their muscles. The conquest of India was determined by the wealth it had, and as the sniff game continued, the Europeans used guns and roses to get a grip over the struggling Mughals and feudal chieftains.
The Battle of Plassey in 1757 set a precedent as the British East India Company came to dominate the sub-continent, a subject that gloriously comes to life in the Satyajit Ray film, Shatranj Ke Khiladi. The Mughals became irrelevant and the merchants came to be known as the new Mughals of India. In the year 1833, the emperor’s name was removed from East India rupees and when Lord Auckland visited Delhi, he didn’t even bother to pay a courtesy call on Akbar Shah 11, the reigning Mughal’.
In the days of the Raj, as India shifted to the industrial mode, there emerged a set of businessmen Parsis from Mumbai, Marwaris from Calcutta and Delhi who would build new businesses in India under British patronage. The most prominent among them was a man who was born in 1839 in Navsari, Gujrat, who not only built India’s largest business empire but also stood tall as an astute nation builder: Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata.
It’s a feat that nearly two-and-a-half centuries later, his descendent Ratan Naval Tata remains India’s most powerful CEO while globally old dynasties like Rockefellers, Krupps and Agnellis are languishing or have ceased to exist.
A few of the leading Indian businessmen, like Birlas and Bajaj, were involved closely with the freedom struggle too. Mahatma Gandhi even adopted the founder of Bajaj group, Jamnalal Bajaj, as his ‘fifth’ son. Gandhi happened to be living at the house of another businessman close to him when he was assassinated — the Birla patriarch, Ghanshyam Das Birla. In 1910, Sir Ratan Tata even supported Bapu in his struggle against apartheid in South Africa with generous donations.
After Independence, Indian business houses like Tatas, Birlas, Godrejs, Mahindras , Modis, Dalmias and Shrirams would build businesses under the ‘licence permit raj’ that benefited the chosen few who had proximity to political parties and flourished under their patronage.
Independent India’s first minister for commerce and industry, and later the finance minister, was TT Krishnamachari, the founder of the TTK Group. Politicians and prophets of profit were becoming inseparable. In the ensuing period, some notable groups emerged making money much more influential than the monarch — Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani’s Reliance Group was one such.
At first wave of liberalisation in 1991, Indian business witnessed another power shift — the rise of a new breed of entrepreneurs like Sunil Bharti Mittal, NR Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji, who began riding new-age businesses and became distinctive voices in the society. As revenues grew on the sails of globalisation, so did the archetypal do-gooder CEO image in a world that was increasingly becoming flat.
The need for corporate governance knitted companies with the thread of transparency. And openness with vendors, shareholders and stakeholders at large made the CEO voices more voluble, whether in communities or at policy making. Clearly, greed is not good anymore. It’s the greatest good that matters and that’s why a Tata is at the top.