Those who seized the opportunity and made a difference.
“From Manmohanomics to Manmohanpolitics”, said the banner headline of this newspaper when the man who has never won a Lok Sabha election became India’s prime minister on May 22, 2004. But the leader of Opposition in Parliament, L K Advani, kept calling him a weak PM and even his own party members thought of him as somebody who had power without authority. Others said the prime ministership of this self-proclaimed “politician by accident” would be just a brief interval before the Gandhi family’s Gen X took over.
Five years later — again on May 22 — Manmohan Singh, the world’s most qualified head of government, proved everybody wrong and moved into the corner office at South Block for a second term — a first in India’s history after Jawaharlal Nehru.
Manmohan Singh the politician clearly disappointed, the admirers of Manmohanomics who hoped he would use his unique position in India’s political firmament to be a game changer in Indian politics, but he has surprised the world with his game-changing foreign policy, even putting his prime ministership at stake to get the historic Indo-US civil nuclear agreement done.
At a time when corruption in public life is as common as the ubiquitous cell phones, India has a PM who has not allowed his family to acquire either a public profile or traits of dubious entrepreneurship. His transparent honesty and simplicity has endeared him to even those frustrated by his unwillingness to say ‘the buck stops here’.
The decade (2000-2009) also saw many other game changers who share the prime minister’s knack of going off the beaten track. When Ratan Tata took over India’s largest business group, few had faith in his ability to steer the conglomerate through the challenges of globalisation. Yet, the beginning of the decade saw Tata piloting an audacious acquisition of a British company — audacious because Tata Tea, then a $114-million company, bought global brand Tetley, three times its size, for $450 million. Since then, the Tata group has acquired 36 global companies for $30 billion. Its turnover has increased almost eight times to over $71.5 billion, of which two-thirds come from overseas.
Tata also made India’s largest truck maker Tata Motors produce the “people’s car”, the Rs 1 lakh Nano, frugal engineering of which has prompted many global car companies to see affordable small cars as the future.
Yet another Indian who left his imprint on the decade is 59-year-old Lakshmi Niwas Mittal. This was the decade when Mittal Steel became the biggest steel maker in the world — almost three times bigger than the number-2 — after the $35-billion acquisition of Franco-Belgian firm Arcelor, in 2006. The turnaround artist (he earned the sobriquet by making sick mills profitable) blazed through the decade with gigantic acquisitions and his business now covers 60 countries in five continents, controls 10 per cent of the world’s steel output and the Marwari, who was born in Rajasthan’s remote Sudulpur village, is now the eighth-richest person in the world.
Mittal, with $30 billion net worth, is, however, only the second-richest Indian. The top position ($32 billion) goes to Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries — a job he took over after his legendary father, Dhirubhai Ambani, died in 2002. Ambani made headlines throughout the decade, and his public spat with younger brother Anil and the reportedly $1-billion residence he was building in Mumbai were just two of the reasons.
In 2005, Mukesh made the famous statement on prime-time television that there were “ownership issues” at Reliance, which sparked a prolonged battle with his younger brother that continues in government corridors and courts.
But Mukesh has done many other things as well — his company began pumping natural gas from its deep-sea block in the Krishna-Godavari basin early this year. The total hydrocarbon output from the block would rise to 550,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boed) in about six quarters, which would amount to about 40 per cent of the current indigenous production in India. And apart from building the world’s largest refinery, he might just end up buying India’s biggest outbound deal by buying out Lyondell-Bassell. This was also the decade when Ambani made a foray into retail and has already opened a chain of nearly 700 stores selling food and various wares.
The passion for scale has, however, not been restricted to Tata, Mittal and Ambani alone. Kishore Biyani, who started out by selling stonewash fabrics to small shops, was the first to bet on India as a big consumption country. Biyani, now the Group CEO of Future Group and Founder, Pantaloon Retail, had opened the first store of Big Bazaar in Kolkata just eight years back. Today, he owns 13 million square feet space in over 1,000 stores all over the country. And Big Bazaar, which accounts for 60 per cent of the group’s turnover of Rs 6,400 crore, brought mall culture to the doorstep of Indians by providing affordable products to the masses.
Biyani’s story, in a nutshell, is also about scale and the ability to go off the beaten track. Example: all big business houses have followed this first-generation entrepreneur into organised retail.
That’s the ability that also saw the emergence of Kundapur Vaman Kamath, arguably India’s banker of the decade. Now the non-executive chairman of ICICI Bank, India’s second largest bank, Kamath saw tomorrow and converted the development lending institution into a dynamic universal bank and spawned the retail lending boom even in villages.
The aggression (Kamath would often say that if India is growing by 8 per cent, the financial services industry has to grow four times that) helped, but it also pushed the bank into a crisis during the financial meltdown, prompting the institution to take a break and slow down its growth. Like all great leaders, he piloted this course correction.
If the story of the decade is also about how India was one of the least affected by the global financial meltdown, a large part of the credit goes to Yaga Venugopal Reddy who was the Reserve Bank of India Governor from 2003 to 2008. At a time when the world was captivated by exotic derivatives and so-called hot-money transactions, Reddy kept India grounded and ring-fenced the Indian banking system.
For example, when he started sensing that real estate had entered bubble territory, he banned the use of bank loans for the purchase of land whose prices had skyrocketed. Only when the developer was about to commence building could the bank get involved. Seeing inflation on the horizon, he pushed up interest rates which dampened the housing frenzy at that time. The move triggered huge criticism and he was often termed an ultra-conservative central banker. In hindsight, those were the only smart moves that any central banker made at that time.
It’s not the world of industrialists and bankers alone that saw game changers in the decade. Take a certain Lalit Modi. Very few knew the man till he became the youngest vice-president of the Board of Control of Cricket in India in 2005. Just four years later, he has become a household name for changing the landscape of cricket. Modi’s brainchild, the Indian Premier League, started in 2008 and has consolidated India’s position as cricket’s economic powerhouse. Till Modi came in, BCCI’s revenue was $70 million. Just four years later, that figure has crossed a billion dollar. In the process, cricket also became prime-time TV entertainment.
The other man who refused to give up and made one of the most famous comebacks to the limelight in this decade was Amitabh Bachchan. After a long break, when he was almost jobless and his firm, AB Corp, became bankrupt, Bachchan, then 63, gave up his clean-shaven looks and made salt-goatee and pepper hair his signature style. In 2005, Kaun Banega Crorepati happened and the Big B hasn’t looked back since then. At age 67, he is estimated to be a Rs 700 crore brand, with TV and film producers still queuing up to sign him. As the decade draws to a close, Bachchan has resurrected AB Corp which produced the latest blockbuster — Paa — where his son plays the role of his father.
The last name on this list of the 10 Indians who made the most impact in the decade is also the most controversial. Narendra Modi is a man who is either admired or hated in his own home state, but in the rest of the country he remains an enigma. He gained notoriety as Gujarat chief minister, in February 2002, for not doing anything to stop the violence that broke out across the state, claiming over 1,000 lives, in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning incident, in which 58 Hindu kar sevaks were burnt alive by a mob. The Godhra ghost continues to haunt him, even though the Nanavati Commission has given him a clean chit.
In the meantime, Modi has become Gujarat’s longest-serving chief minister and is now into his third term. The reforms that he has managed to bring in the state’s governance have been an eye-opener. Faced with an economic crisis, he re-organised the government’s administrative structure, embarked upon massive cost-cutting exercise and started various schemes such as Sujalam Sufalam, a scheme to create a grid of water resources. Result: Gujarat became the top investment destination for two years. His crowning glory came when top industrialists ranked him the country’s best CEO at a Destination Gujarat event.
This has been an interesting decade for India, and it has produced its fair share of game changing leaders in many fields.