April 2004

Spirit of the skies

On the occasion of JRD Tata's 108th birth anniversary, we remember the values, traditions and business ethics he lived by and which continue to be the driving force of the group

It is a measure of the man and the life he lived that long before his demise, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata came to represent an exalted idea of Indianness: progressive, benevolent, ethical and compassionate. It did not really matter that the country itself failed this utopian test. JRD, as he was known to commoner and king, had by then transcended the frailties of his milieu.

As an adolescent, JRD loved France and flying more than anything else. By the time he stepped into the autumn of his existence, he had devoted some 50 years to heading and defining a unique business conglomerate, and just as long to championing the interests of India and her myriad people. The evolution, from a thoughtful if self-indulgent young man to a pan-Indian icon revered even by those who knew little about business, contains the essence of the JRD story.

Being one of the last of the great patriarchs of Indian industry contributed, no doubt, to the moulding of his legend, but to call JRD an industrialist is akin to saying Mahatma Gandhi was a freedom fighter. He considered his leadership of the Tata group and his dedication to the cause of India as complementary, and he brought to the two undertakings a rare dignity and sense of purpose.

It is said of JRD that he spoke French better than English and both better than any Indian language. That did not preclude him from forging a special bond with Indians of all ages and backgrounds. Kalpana Chawla, the Indian-born astronaut who perished in the Columbia space shuttle disaster, cited JRD and his pioneering airmail flights as her inspiration for taking up aeronautics. He touched the lives of countless others, rich and poor, manager and worker, as he became the embodiment of the principles and philosophy of the House of Tata.

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Nobody could have guessed this is how destiny would unfold when JRD was born, in Paris in 1904, to RD Tata, a business partner and relative of Jamsetji Tata, and his French wife Sooni. JRD, the second of four children, was educated in France, Japan and England before being drafted into the French army for a mandatory one-year period. JRD wanted to extend his stint in the forces (to avail of a chance to attend a renowned horse-riding school), but his father would have none of it. Leaving the French army saved JRD his life, because shortly thereafter the regiment he served in was wiped out while on an expedition in Morocco.

JRD then set his mind on securing an engineering degree from Cambridge, but RD Tata summoned his son back to India (JRD would forever regret not being able to attend university). He soon found himself on the threshold of a business career in a country he was far from familiar with. This was a young man aware of his obligations to the family he belonged to. In a letter to his father on his 21st birthday in 1925, JRD wrote, "One more year has fallen on my shoulders. I have been looking back and also deep inside myself with the merciless eye of conscience, and have been trying to find out whether during this last year I have gained in experience or wisdom. I haven't found out much yet!"

JRD entered the Tatas as an unpaid apprentice in December 1925. His mentor in business was John Peterson, a Scotsman who had joined the group after serving in the Indian Civil Service. At 22, soon after his father passed away, JRD was on the board of Tata Sons, the group's flagship company. In 1929, aged 25, he surrendered his French citizenship to embrace the country that would become the central motif of his life.

The first of JRD's big adventures in business was born of his childhood fascination for flying. He had grown up in France watching the famous aviator Louis Bleriot's early flights, and had taken a joyride in an airplane as a 15-year-old. In 1929, JRD became one of the first Indians to be granted a commercial pilot's licence. A year later, a proposal landed at the Tata headquarters to start an airmail service that would connect Bombay, Ahmedabad and Karachi. JRD needed no prompting, but it would take Peterson to convince Dorabji Tata, then Chairman of the Tatas, to let the young ace have his way.

In 1932 Tata Aviation Service, the forerunner to Tata Airlines and Air India, took to the skies. The first flight in the history of Indian aviation lifted off from Drigh Road in Karachi with JRD at the controls of a Puss Moth. JRD nourished and nurtured his airline baby through to 1953, when the government of Jawaharlal Nehru nationalised Air India. It was a decision JRD had fought against with all his heart.

Nehru and JRD shared an unusual relationship. They had been friends for long and there was plenty of mutual respect, but they differed significantly on the economic policies India needed to follow. JRD was not a political animal and he never could come to terms with the nature of the socialistic beast then ruling the roost (he once joked, many years after Nehru's passing, that the Chinese steward the Taj Group of Hotels had brought in from abroad earned more money than him). JRD was an articulate and persistent votary of economic liberalisation long before it was finally implemented in India.

The Air India saga certainly hurt JRD, but he wasn't the kind to bear a grudge. Nehru insisted that he continue to head the national carrier and that's what JRD did, right up to 1977, when another act of government forced him out. Indira Gandhi, when she came back to power, reinstated JRD to the chairmanship, but by then he no longer had the appetite for the responsibility.

Air India was never just a job for JRD; it was a labour of love. Tata executives would always be complaining — in private, undoubtedly — that their Chairman spent more time worrying about the airliner than he did running all of the Tata group. JRD's ardour for and commitment to Air India was what made it, at least while he was at the helm, a world-class carrier. Wrote Anthony Simpson in his book Empires of the Sky: "The smooth working of Air India seemed almost opposite to the Indian tradition on the ground… [JRD] could effectively insulate Air India from the domestic obligation to make jobs and dispense favours."

The qualities that JRD brought to the running of Air India were as much in evidence in his steering of the Tata group. The 'permit raj' era created a difficult, if not hostile, environment for ethical entrepreneurship. The socialist dogma of the time insisted that capitalism was a creature that had to be rigidly controlled, to be tolerated but never trusted. JRD and the Tata group were certainly stymied by the political tenets and orthodoxy of the period.

When JRD was elevated to the top post in the Tata group in 1938, taking over as Chairman from Sir Nowroji Saklatvala, he was the youngest member of the Tata Sons board. Over the next 50-odd years of his stewardship the group expanded into chemicals, automobiles, tea and information technology. Breaking with the Indian business practice of having members of one's own family run different operations, JRD pushed to bring in professionals. He turned the Tata group into a business federation where entrepreneurial talent and expertise were encouraged to flower.

In later years, this system began to fray at its edges. Detractors contend that it degenerated, as satraps and fiefdoms emerged to challenge the core structure of the Tatas. If it can be held against JRD that he failed to comprehend the dangers of handing away too much control in the operation of individual Tata companies, it must also be acknowledged that he took the lead in consolidating the group when matters came to a head. JRD was brave enough to run the gauntlet and he was man enough to face the fusillade that came in its wake.

Conducting the affairs of a business empire as panoptic and complicated as that of the Tatas would by itself have been a prodigious task, but JRD had plenty more to offer. He played a critical role in increasing India's scientific, medical and artistic quotient. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Tata Memorial Hospital, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the National Institute of Advanced Sciences and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, each an exemplar of excellence in its field, were projects that would not have come to fruition without JRD's steadfast support.

In India the term 'national interest' means all sorts of things to all kinds of people. To JRD, it meant advancing the country's scientific and economic capacities. He had strong views on what would help India and what would hinder its gigantic struggle to eradicate poverty. Though he did his share of it, casual charity did not hold any charms for him. His inclination to put his own money where his beliefs were resulted in the setting up, in 1944, of the multipurpose JRD Tata Trust. A few years later he sold more of his shares and an apartment in Bombay to establish the JRD and Thelma Tata Trust, which works to improve the lot of India's disadvantaged women.

A pet theme with JRD was India's "desperate race between population and production". Here, too, he disagreed with Nehru, who thought "population is our strength". JRD spent a considerable amount of time and resources in figuring out and propagating methods to control the country's population growth. To this end, he helped start what eventually became the International Institute of Population Studies. In 1992, JRD received the United Nations Population Award, late recognition for a lifelong obsession.

Despite his very public persona, JRD was a shy and reticent man. He never hankered after honours but was showered with them, to much bemusement on his part. On being told that the Indian government was thinking about giving him the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award, he is reported to have said: "Why me? I don't deserve it. The Bharat Ratna is usually given to people who are dead or it is given to politicians. I am not prepared to oblige the government on the former and I am not the latter."

Self-effacing, modest, wistful and endearing are a few of the adjectives used to describe JRD. It wasn't all peaches and cream, though. JRD could not suffer fools and he was scathing when confronted with pomposity or pretension. There was always about him a dapper and cosmopolitan air, with a dry wit thrown in to lighten the load of legend. When a friend began a letter to JRD with the 'Dear Jay' salutation, he wrote back: "I have looked up the dictionary and find that a Jay is 'a noisy, chattering European bird of brilliant plumage' and, figuratively, 'an impertinent chatterer or simpleton'. For future reference, please note that my name is spelt 'Jeh', in abbreviation of 'Jehangir'. Any resemblance between me and the bird is purely coincidental."

He and his wife, Thelma, whom he married after a Paris romance in 1930, did not have any children, but JRD always appeared most comfortable with kids. With adults, a more problematic lot, he displayed a generosity of spirit which held that, whether in business or in life, it was people who mattered. When JRD breathed his last, in a Geneva hospital on November 29, 1993, it could be truly said that an epoch had ended. A noble bit of India — and Indianness — was gone forever.