Saturday, March 26, 2011

Oxford University Press' Oxford India Anthology of Business History by Medha Kudaisya throws up interesting questions

At the launch of the book on March 25 at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, Medha Kudaiysa, who teaches at the National University of Singapore, made the pertinent observation that business history, which had branched off from economic history, is not yet a recognised academic discipline in Indian universities and that India's famed business administration courses -- the MBAs -- do not teach business history. That should make India's historians' community pause and think.
Gurucharan Das, author and former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, observed that out of the 64 countries which had implemented the same kind of economic reforms that India did in 1991, only India was able to become the second fastest growing economy in the world. His 'politically incorrect' argument is that India's caste system has helped in honing the business instincts of the Vaishyas, and that of the 100 Indian billionaires in the Forbes' list, about half had surnames ending with Aggarwal and similar Vaishya caste indicators. He thinks that when bad old socialism was thrown out and good old capitalism was brought in, there was a business --Vaishya -- community which knew the ways of doing business was in place to take advantage of it. It seems to be an interesting through even if a trifle inaccurate in empirical terms. Citing traditional Vaishya social self-perceptions, Das pointed to the the modest and moderate Vaishya who made money and lived frugally and the 'sahu', the merchant prince who lived lavishly and spent his way to pauperism and destruction. He identifies the 'dharma' of Vaishya with the type one.

Omkar Goswami, a business consultant and think-tanker, threw up some ideas which could prove to be useful for writing business history in India. He said that if one looks at the top companies in 1985 when Rajiv Gandhi came to power and Camelot unrolled, and compare the top 10 companies in 2000, there could be seen a radical shift. A top company in 1985 would have dropped 45 places in 2000. And that in itself is a fascinating tale.
The second idea of his was that of 'mofussil millionaires', the rich men in India's small towns.
The third was that of tracing the fund flows just through the scrutiny of money-order records in the post office, which would reveal the interesting details of who sent money to whom and where and from where.
While acknowledging that writing company histories was a difficult task in India because private companies would not reveal information -- he did not expand on this issue -- he thought that one company whose history could be written in a professional manner based on documentary records was that of the Tatas. He thinks that if a professional historian approaches Ratan Tata for the purpose and he is convinced of the person's credentials, then the records would be thrown opne for a frank history. Goswami's belief in Ratan Tata's critical sensibility is one based on good faith and it needs to be tested out.
The real issue with business histories in India is that Indian businessmen like the governments, bureaucrats and politicians in India do not believe in transparency even after time has lapsed and another generation has taken over.

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