Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t have a very high opinion of businessmen. He disliked wealthy men in general and intrusive businessmen in particular. Under Nehru’s influence, the All India Congress Committee resolved in May 1929 that “in order to remove the poverty and misery of the Indian people and to ameliorate the condition of the masses, it is essential to make revolutionary changes in the present economic and social structure of society and to remove gross inequalities”. And when Nehru became president at the Lahore session of the Congress later in the year, he left nobody in doubt where his heart was: “I must frankly confess that I am a socialist and a republican and am no believer in kings or princes, or in the order which produces the modern kings of industry, who have greater power over the lives and fortunes of men than even the kings of old, and whose methods are as predatory as those of the old feudal aristocracy.”
Little surprise, then, that Nehru didn’t get along well with most businessmen. M J Akbar in Nehru: The Making of India (Roli, 2002) and Gita Piramal in Business Legends (Penguin, 1998) give a good account of the relationship he shared with the two leading businessmen of his times, Ghanshyam Das Birla and J R D Tata.
Nehru had first met Birla in 1924. Mahatma Gandhi, just out of jail, was recuperating in the industrialist’s beach-facing house in Mumbai. That’s when the two met. A year later, Nehru told Mahatma Gandhi that he was a little tight for money. Gandhi said that he could find him work somewhere. Gandhi mentioned Nehru’s plight to Birla. Almost overnight, Birla turned up at Nehru’s home at Allahabad and offered to help him out of the situation. Nehru was incensed but managed to conceal his anger from his visitor.
Their differences became serious in the days to come. Nehru thought Birla supported the Hindu lobby within the Congress. Agnostic to the core, Nehru found no place for religion in public life. Birla, on the other hand, found Nehru’s sympathies for the Soviet Union and his socialist bent of mind a bit too much to handle. In 1936, Birla wrote to Mahatma Gandhi: “In London, Nehru was making speeches that Russia was India’s best friend and Japan a weakening power. I don’t know about Russia, but I definitely know that Japan is not a weakening power.”
Independence didn’t help matters. Birla had to junk his plans to set up a steel plant at Durgapur in West Bengal because Nehru had decided that it was the job of the public sector to make steel.
When he was short of money, Nehru had toyed with the idea of working with the House of Tata. He had even used a Tata aircraft during his campaign in 1937. The Tatas were Parsis and did not wear their religion on their sleeves. They had built assets like the steel mill in Jamshedpur and the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, which had done all Indians proud. Under J R D Tata, they had earned a name as an ethical business house which did things the right way. In fact, the Tatas were one of the few groups that came out unscathed from the probe into super-normal profits during the Second World War.
But fractures in the relationship began to emerge soon after Independence. Tata did not approve of Nehru’s economic policies. Nehru once told Tata that he hated the word profit. “Jawaharlal, I am talking about the need of the public sector making a profit,” Tata shot back. “Never talk to me about the word profit; it is a dirty word,” Nehru retorted. Tata, unsure of the prime minister’s socialist bent of mind, turned down his invitation to join a delegation to the United Nations on the ground that there was so much to do inside the country. Giving the same argument, he declined Nehru’s invitation to head Indian Rare Earths, one of the first public sector units floated after Independence. In turn, Tata’s Air India, Air India International and insurance outfit were nationalised by the government.