Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Transition traumas

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The transition from Ratan Tata to Cyrus Mistry and back again in the $100+billion empire is also about the return of the king, dissatisfied by loss of control to his anointed heir.

Column in Business Standard, November 5, 2016

Donald calls Hillary a liar and crook. She hurls vitriol at him, of “bigotry and bluster and bullying”. We all know what The Trump thinks of women and wants from them. We also know that after a full term as secretary of state La Clinton couldn’t tell between use of private and official emails.
There is also Uncle Shivpal calling Nephew Akhilesh a liar, snatching the mike on stage, and the two nearly coming to blows. Then there’s bloodshed in the boardroom with Cyrus dishing out the dirt on Tata — they’re clueless about corporate governance and responsible for huge losses. Ratan hits back, charging Cyrus of unforgivable mud-slinging and tattle. In essence — and without saying so — they’re shaming each other as liars.
This is not the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” the poet promised; it reeks of overripe rot before winter chills take their toll. In the world’s most powerful democracy, in India’s most populous state and in a 148-year-old global business empire it’s a time of dangerous transition. Could it get worse?
No US election campaign in recent memory has been as treacherous or base, given the choice between a sleazy tax-dodging billionaire, loathed by most African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and women, and a cynical first-time woman candidate, subject of an FBI inquiry and curious fund-raiser whose charity reportedly took large donations from, among others, steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, hotelier Sant Chatwal and the Samajwadi Party (SP)’s newly-resurrected wheeler-dealer Amar Singh. These generous handouts don’t make Hillary Clinton criminally culpable any more than itchy-fingered Donald Trump’s lewd locker room patter but it dips the bar to new lows.
Whoever wins the close-run contest next Tuesday, when the world looks back it will speak of Barack Obama with the hushed reverence reserved for John F  Kennedy and Camelot — a time of personal courage, political resolve, dignity and social inclusion. The present American choice is between an immoral swaggering male and an over-rehearsed amoral female.
The result of UP’s election early next year will be decisive for who rules India in 2019. The ruling SP’s parliamentary strength is down to five family seats in a small pocket borough and its majority in the state is under heavy assault; its socialist legacy of backward castes and Muslims is squandered in a feudal clan succession battles the Mughals fought in Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Allahabad. Only the scene has shifted to Lucknow where the nasty Yadav factions assemble this weekend, their knives sharpened under velvet gloves, for the party’s silver jubilee celebrations. But the auguries are bleak: Already the youthful chief minister’s Rs 5-crore red Mercedes convertible rath broke down inconsolably on the very first leg of his election campaign.
The SP’s transition trauma is popularly interpreted as a joust between a ruling crown prince and an old cantankerous king surrounded by his coterie of carpetbaggers but, in fact, it is focused on power and authority: The ageing king won’t exit and wants to grab centre stage. In this backstabbing drama there will be no good losers as “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
The transition from to and back again in the $100-billion empire is also about the return of the king, dissatisfied by loss of control to his anointed heir. Mr Mistry is not a Tata by descent. Still, other than his family’s large shareholding in the mother company, he bears close family kinship. Now that illustrious name that for generations has built its public reputation by combining good work with good profits stands sullied in the eyes of millions of shareholders.
Among the numberless Tata beneficiaries was a great uncle of mine, a man of modest education and means, who for years toiled away in a government office. But his long years as widower — and even longer years in retirement — failed to improve his prospects. Although fluent in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi, his command of English was as meagre as his pension. Till his dying day he clutched on to three words as beacons that would bring his ship home: “Guvmunt” (government), “divdund” (dividend) and “Tisco” (formerly the Tata Iron and Steel Company, now Tata Steel, being flogged piecemeal far away in the Queen of England’s realm).
I wonder what he would have made of a world in turmoil and the traumatic transitions of the men and women who rule it. He might have found refuge in an epigram coined by the worldly Lord Byron:
“And, after all, what is a lie?
’Tis but the truth in a masquerade.”
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