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‘Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism’ review: Viewing India’s economic history through the prism of the Tatas

“The history of business is indivisibly linked to the history of mankind, and business historians should aim at understanding the interplay between the actions of individual companies and changes in the total society.”

This exhortation to business historians that features in the abstract to The Significance of Business History by R. Richard Wohl, Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, at the University of Chicago, is aptly reflected right through Mircea Raianu’s novel tome, Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism.

A historian of two seemingly disparate areas of study, global capitalism and modern South Asia, Raianu’s 291-page, exhaustively researched book connects the two strands of his scholarship into a fascinating tapestry of a family run business house’s evolution from colonial-era mercantilism — trading in opium and cotton — to its rise as an all-encompassing conglomerate that in its contemporary avatar spans industries from tea to high-tech and salt to steel.

Historical records

The University of Maryland academic acknowledges that his pursuit of the Tatas’ history was made easier by the unfettered access he had to the voluminous archival material housed at the Tata Central Archives in Pune and the Tata Steel Archives in Jamshedpur. Interestingly, the very existence of such detailed historical records and the fact that it is open to the public, prompts Raianu to remark: “Archives embody a powerful impulse to present oneself to the public and to posterity, analogous to the way a state chooses to selectively open its bureaucratic records to citizens as a prerogative of sovereignty. Indeed corporations that most closely resemble states keep ‘the most state-like archives’.” It is this quasi-sovereign approach that would appear to inform a wide gamut of the Tatas’ actions and runs as a kind of leitmotif right through the book.

‘Collective subjects’

The historian also makes clear up front that his work is neither an attempt to read the available material “against the grain” in order to uncover “archival silences and erasures” and come up with an expose of the Tatas’ failures, nor is it a hagiographic work “cementing a master narrative of the group as a bearer of an unbroken tradition of nation-building and socially responsible capitalism”. Raianu asserts that his is an “eye-level immersion in the ‘black box’ of information exchanges within the group, with an aim to draw attention to the “many ways in which people ‘enact’ corporations as ‘collective subjects’ through everyday conflicts and decisions.”

The narrative spans approximately 130 years of the group’s history — starting about a century before World War II, makes a temporal break at the War and then covers a three-decade period from the late 1940s to the late 1970s. As a result, those keen to uncover some deeper insights into the genesis and fractious denouement of the Tata-Mistry standoff or even glean some juicy tidbits from the Radia tapes controversy are bound to be disappointed, with only the former even finding mention over two pages of the Epilogue.

The journey

Raianu’s book is certainly not a ‘grab at the airport book stall and read on a flight for discovering the Tatas’ secret recipe to its enduring corporate heft’ variety.

Instead, the reader is drawn inexorably into the formative years of the group as an industrial pioneer as it transformed from its trading roots into manufacturing — first textiles, and then iron and steel and hyrdroelectric power — all the while navigating its liminal position astride the evolving political and economic landscape of British India and subsequently a newly independent nation.

Over six engrossing chapters, Raianu paints a veritable mindscape of a group that was sometimes consciously nationalistic and ‘swadeshi’, while at other times outward looking and almost uniquely invested in science, technology and its own distinct brand of philanthropy. This is a history worth reading not for knowing all about the Tatas but to understand how global and domestic political winds tilted economic policy in India, especially in the early post-independence years.

Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism; Mircea Raianu, Harvard University Press, ₹699.

suresh.seshadri@thehindu.co.in


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