Kolkata: Just when you thought it could not get more fulsome, it did. On a sweltering monsoon morning in Kolkata, there was slush outside and mush inside the ballroom of the Oberoi Grand hotel as Ratan Tata presided over his last annual general meeting of Tata Global Beverages as chairman.
“This is the last time I stand before you, so let me stand,” said Tata, turning down calls to give his responses to shareholder questions while seated.
“This is like kindergarten,” said one businessman as a line of shareholders, many of them former employees, lined up with gushing tributes including a box of sandesh.
But sandesh notwithstanding this must have been a bittersweet moment for the iconic chairman coming back to the city now under the rule of the woman who booted his much-heralded Nano project out of the state.
“I have no sense of anger about Singur,” said Tata. “Just a sense of sadness. The matter is sub judice and we will respect the law and the wishes of the Bengal government. Maybe one day Tata Motors will be back in Bengal. And hopefully it will be welcomed then. One day when the political environment is more friendly, we will be here. The people have always been warm to us. We have no intention of walking away from West Bengal.”
Singur hovered over a meeting that was ostensibly about tea, coffee and the company’s brave new ventures in the world of health drinks, grapefruit infusions and fortified water. For the faithful, Singur was just a nagging reminder of the unfairness of politics.
“I was taking a taxi from the airport and we passed the new Tata Medical Centre and the taxi driver said that it was a gift from Mamata Banerjee,” said Arun Boppanna. “Tata gives 350 crore and Mamata gets the credit.”
But others tried to put that bitterness behind them and celebrate the man who was stepping down. “He must get the Bharat Ratna,” said S. Gattani. “Perhaps twenty years from now his face will be on the 1000 rupee note.” Another person compared this RNT to another illustrious RNT – Rabindranath Tagore. “Please don’t join politics even if Sonia Gandhi asks you to go to the Rajya Sabha,” pleaded Manoj Gupta. “Those industrialists who become Rajya Sabha members, their industrial houses suffer.”
It sounds like a Tata durbar tweeted Subhash Pais and in some sense it was. There were young corporate types in the de rigueur blue shirt with white collars and cuffs. There were socialites and young MBAs as well as grizzled retired employees. It was clearly an example of how India hero worships corporate success, turning an annual general meeting into something that felt like Cher’s farewell concert, steeped in nostalgia and golden memories. But there was also a wistfulness about a certain kind of corporate India whose time, many fear, has passed.
“He was not just our boss or MD,” said Amarnath Dey, a second generation Tata employee. “He was there for all of us. When a sweeper got cancer he took him to Woodlands hospital. When he died, he personally asked if his wife needed a job. She is still working for us.”
“We feel emotional, of course,” said his colleague Biren Manna who has completed 30 years with the Tatas. His family history with the Tatas goes back 100 years. “The Tata name will be gone. The company will be there but the man will not. The dynasty is ended.”
For De and Manna and many of those who attended, Tata was the last symbol of the lifetime job in a company that took care of its own. A man who had retired from the company, showed up in a grubby t-shirt, clutching a plastic shopping bag, the kind Bengalis take to the fishmarket. He had a letter in a brown envelope to give to the big man. Another man queued up patiently at the microphone to reminisce about playing cricket with Ratan Tata in Jamshedpur. T. P. Goel thanked him for his hospital where his daughter in law had gotten her breast cancer treatment. “And it has pure veg food, free from onion even, dosa for Rs 17, chhole bhature for Rs 22,” marveled Goel. A young man, one of the few young people who spoke, said he had never met Ratan Tata but he and his father thought of him as their gurubhai and he had inspired him not to pay a bribe at the government sales tax office.
If you asked them what made Ratan Tata different, the word that came back over and over again was his “dignity.”
What was impressive about Ratan Tata was how indulgent he was with his shareholders as they lined up at the microphone with bouquets, garlands, requests for bonuses, photographs and handshakes. He made fun of no one and answered everyone with the same grave courtesy whether the question was about the font size on the reports or fears that the tannein in tea was ruining our intestines. (Ratan Tata reassured the audience it was not.)
Cyrus Mistry, the man who will take over the Tata empire in December sat next to him, getting some measure of the man whose shoes he will have to fill. The other officers tried to get the business of an annual general meeting accomplished amidst the bouquets. Harish Bhat, the managing director shared the numbers and plans – 10% revenue growth, 40% growth in profits after taxes, a tie-up with Starbucks, tea that you can brew in cold water, and fortified water that will “change for the Indian middle class consume water.”
But business took a backseat to nostalgia as Ratan Tata paid tribute to his colleague Krishna Kumar who he said had stood by him in his toughest times – when the company was accused of being anti-national in Assam and again during the siege at the Taj. He said the company that had been a “tea plantation company” was now about innovation and global health products. He left it as the second largest tea company in the world. He hoped the shareholders would give Mistry the same support they had given him.
“I too am an emotional person and I will not forget,” he said. “Your warmth, sincerity and affection I will carry back with me.”
And some sandesh.