Suresh Seshadri reviews Tata: the global society that built Indian capitalism, by Mircea Raianu

Profiling of a group, sometimes nationalist and sometimes outward-looking, but only invested in science, technology and philanthropy

“Business history is inextricably linked with human history, and business historians should aim to understand the interplay between the actions of individual companies and changes in society as a whole. “

This exhortation to business historians which appears in the abstract for The importance of the company’s history by R. Richard Wohl, associate professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago, is aptly reflected in Mircea Raianu’s novel, Tata: the global society that built Indian capitalism.

A historian of two seemingly disparate fields of study, global capitalism and modern South Asia, Raianu’s 291-page and exhaustive research book ties the two strands of his scholarship together in a fascinating tapestry of the evolution of a family business from the commercialism of the colonial era – the trade in opium and cotton – to its rise as a universal conglomerate which, in its contemporary avatar, extends from tea to high tech and salt to l ‘steel.

Historical documents

The University of Maryland scholar acknowledges that his quest for Tatan history was made easier by his unrestricted access to the voluminous archival documents held at the Tata Central Archives in Pune and the Tata Archives. Steel in Jamshedpur. It is interesting to note that the very existence of such detailed historical documents and the fact that they are open to the public prompts Raianu to remark: “The archives embody a powerful impulse to present oneself to the public and to posterity, from the same selectively open its bureaucratic archives to citizens as a prerogative of sovereignty. Indeed, the companies that most resemble states keep “the most state-of-the-art archives.” It is this quasi-sovereign approach that seems to illuminate a wide range of actions of the Tatas and runs like a sort of leitmotif throughout the book.

“Collective subjects”

The historian also specifies from the outset that his work is neither an attempt to read the available material “against the tide” in order to discover “silences and erasures of the archives” and to expose the failures of the Tatas, nor a hagiographic work “cementing a master narrative of the group as the bearer of an unbroken tradition of nation-building and socially responsible capitalism”. Raianu says it is an “eye-level immersion in the ‘black box’ of information exchange within the group, with the aim of drawing attention to the” many ways in which people “constitute” businesses as “collective subjects” through daily conflicts and decisions.

The narrative spans around 130 years of the group’s history – starting around a century before WWII, pausing time at war, and then spanning a three-decade period from the late 1940s to the late 1940s. 1970. As a result, those who wish to uncover more in-depth information about the genesis and grumpy outcome of the Tata-Mistry standoff or even glean some juicy tidbits from the Radia tapes controversy will be bound to be disappointed, only the former finding even one. mention on two pages. of the epilogue.

The trip

Raianu’s book is certainly not a “one to grab from the airport book stand and read on a flight to uncover the Tatas’ secret recipe for its enduring variety of business.”

Instead, the reader is inexorably drawn into the group’s formative years as an industrial pioneer as it transformed from its business roots into manufacturing – first textiles, then iron and steel. and hydroelectric power – while navigating its liminal position straddling the changing political and economic landscape of British India and subsequently a newly independent nation.

In six gripping chapters, Raianu portrays a true mental landscape of a group that was at times consciously nationalist and ‘swadeshi’, while at other times outward-facing and almost solely invested in science, technology and its own distinct brand of philanthropy. This is a story worth reading not to learn all about the Tatas, but to understand how global and domestic political winds tipped economic policy in India, especially in the early years. who followed independence.

Tata: the global society that built Indian capitalism; Mircea Raianu, Harvard University Press, 699.

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