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The former Maruti CEO's memoirs offer a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the government and the public sector

Surajeet Das Gupta  |  New Delhi 

Jagdish Khattar

Jagdish Khattar's memoirs are different from other autobiographies because it is not focused on him. Instead, like a sutradhar, he is just one of the characters riding the roller-coaster of change from the 1960s when he became an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer posted in the backward district of Basti in Uttar Pradesh.

And roller-coaster it is! Khattar writes about experiences as diverse as his aspirations to become a film actor (he was offered a role in Raj Kapoor's Boot Polish after he acted in a movie called Son Of India), his tribulations in the Tea Board in London and Kolkata, the power that Sanjay Gandhi yielded over the political class and bureaucracy, his challenges in Maruti Udyog, where he was seen as a Suzuki man, and his tryst with entrepreneurship even though he lacked the cash.

But more than anything, this candidly written memoir is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Maruti. Khattar writes of the inter-personal battles in the country's largest auto company but also presents a bird's-eye view of challenges in the administrative services and how contacts can make a big difference. He also puts out there in the public domain the stiff relations that he had with his mentor R C Bhargava, the present chairman of Maruti Suzuki, whose name is synonymous with the car company over which he reigned supreme for many years. Just like Khattar, Bhargava started out in the IAS from the same state cadre.

Khattar sums up the strain in their relationship in one revealing sentence in the chapter on Basti, where he was worked under one Raj Kumar Bhargava. As he writes, "Little did I know at that time that many years later my path would cross with another Bhargava, whose first name also began with R and with whom I had a somewhat similar relationship: senior to me, a kind of mentor and yet a bit of needle between us".

Or needles, to be precise. One of the points on which Khattar criticises Bhargava was his inability to see the growing and unbridled competition in the automobile market after Suzuki chose him as Maruti's chairman. That is why, Khattar says, he never pushed for the introduction of new models, and in his decade-long tenure as managing director of Maruti only two models were launched - the Esteem and Zen. Also, Bhargava thought and said the would live forever. Khattar also says he differed with Bhargava on the latter's resistance to opening new dealerships to combat competition.

Khattar says he felt Bhargava could have defused the situation with the government, which was at loggerheads with Suzuki when T R Prasad was industry secretary. As Suzuki's nominee for managing director, Khattar says Bhargava leveraged his relationship in the Prime Minister's Office not to allow industry secretaries who were his juniors in the IAS to become chairman.

Written in collaboration with journalist Suveen Sinha, the book is replete with anecdotes on management and administration, invaluable for anyone managing a business or in government administration. He talks, for instance, of the importance of organising after-hours get-togethers for colleagues and their families with food and music thrown in to create a working bond.

But the really interesting parts are his experience as a bureaucrat in the districts. He says his stint in Basti taught him that there is never a shortage of funds for developmental projects - if projects fail it is for lack of innovation and poor execution.

Trying to implement Green Revolution technologies, for instance, entailed convincing farmers to have borewells on their lands and use chemical fertiliser. He solved this by identifying a few farmers who were brave enough to make the changes. When they were successful, they became role model for their peers. Identifying champions was a lesson that he replicated in Maruti whenever he wanted to influence his sales and service teams to change.

Similarly, as an officer in the districts, Khattar realised that senior officers only visited those blocks that were close to the headquarters and ignored the others. When he took charge, he made it a point to visit the farthest block, a practice that helped the most backward of them improve substantially.

He followed a similar strategy in Maruti's sales. He split the sales reporting by region, city and even by dealerships. This granular reporting structure provided a clearer picture of where the company was performing the worst. When efforts were refocused on the poor performers, they invariably improved.

Yet it is the candid portrayal of the top politicians, bureaucrats and even businessmen who crossed his path that makes this book much more than just an autobiography of an IAS officer or the boss of an auto company. It provides a ringside view of the well-known personalities of those times. He is clearly in awe of Sanjay Gandhi with whom he worked as CEO of Uttar Pradesh State Industrial Development Corporation. Indira Gandhi's younger son had entrusted Khattar with giving shape to his dream of building the controversial city of Noida from scratch into an industrial hub matching Mumbai-Pune. And to achieve that the bulldozers weighed in, even though the land had not been acquired.

Khattar talks of the breakneck speed with which the project came up thanks to the absence of government roadblocks. "During meetings called to resolve issues related to infrastructure, electricity drainage, etc the secretaries concerned would appear at the doorstep of the conference room, give their concurrence without entering the hall and leave." The reason was simple: there was no question of discussion on a project blessed by Sanjay Gandhi. Khattar, of course, found himself in trouble for a while after the Congress lost the elections.

He also talks about the role he played in getting Shiv Nadar's HCL to assemble computers in Noida. Nadar, in fact, offered him a job in the company but he turned it down. That job went to Vineet Nayar and the rest, as they say, is history.

Interestingly, Khattar also presents a very contrarian assessment of the Raja of Amethi, Sanjay Singh, once Rajiv Gandhi's blue-eyed boy. As chairman of UP State Transport Corporation, one of the most corrupt units in the state, Khattar says Singh, then transport minister and, therefore, his boss, was pretty clear what he wanted to do. "I am ambitious and I want to be the CM. The CM has given me this portfolio to fail," Singh said in his first meeting. But Singh stood by him as Khattar cleaned up the organisation, and took one tough decision after the other.

There were others, however, with whom Khattar had a tough time. Heavy Industry minister Manohar Joshi vehemently opposed the divestment of government shares to Suzuki and also supported the company union's strike when Khattar was managing director. He also had problems with Industry Secretary T R Prasad who backed R Bhaskarudu for the top job in Maruti, though Bhargava chose Khattar as his successor as managing director. Bhaskarudu did eventually get his wish. Khattar's readable and candid account does much to confirm these and many other facts about the infighting in Maruti, which were well known in restricted circles as well as the press, but were never reported in detail.

Author: with Suveen Sinha
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 325
Price: Rs 699

First Published: Fri, January 10 2014. 21:48 IST