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God in the details

A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

AT THE HELM - A MEMOIR
V Krishnamurthy
HarperCollins

306 plus xxii pages; Rs 599

A widely known and celebrated story is that the first car produced by Maruti Udyog Ltd at its Gurgaon factory was handed over by then prime minister Indira Gandhi to an Indian Airlines employee, Harpal Singh, in late 1983. But V Krishnamurthy, who steered the automobile company for the first few years after its inception, has a different story to tell in this autobiographical account of his professional life of over five decades. The first car produced by Maruti Udyog, he says, was offered "for the service of the Lord at Tirupati".

The decision to donate the first car to Lord Balaji, the deity at Tirupati, was taken by Mr Krishnamurthy, an engineer by training and an otherwise rational person. He argued with his colleagues (one of them must have been an engineer and the other an officer from the Indian Administrative Services) that divine dispensation was needed to ensure that the project was completed on time. True enough, the factory came up on schedule and well below its estimated cost of Rs 200 crore - a rare achievement for a public sector venture.

But donating the first car to a temple was unprecedented and, naturally, raised some practical problems. How can a company "donate" its output to a temple? Mr Krishnamurthy's religiosity and innovative skills came to his rescue. He requested those who were "believers" among employees, vendors and dealers to contribute to the price of the car (a little less than Rs 50,000 in those days!).

There are many more anecdotes like this in the 300-odd pages of this book. Mr Krishnamurthy writes, for instance, that Maruti had first zeroed in on Daihatsu of Japan as a partner. Then he chanced upon a telex between the Japanese company and an Indian firm in which the former confessed that it was not really serious about partnering with Maruti. Mr Krishnamurthy promptly broke off talks with Daihatsu after that. There is also the fascinating story of how Suzuki came into the picture and the confession of why and how he had major differences with P C Alexander, a powerful bureaucrat who held many influential government positions.

Mr Krishnamurthy says he wanted to write this book to share with the world the many new management techniques and concepts he introduced to turn around three state-owned companies - BHEL, Maruti Udyog and SAIL - and the new work culture he infused in the industry ministry where he served as secretary in the department of heavy industries for about three years. But there aren't too many earth-shattering management ideas or concepts here. The author's quest for quality and the need to upgrade technology and invest big to achieve economies of scale are all important messages that are too obvious and basic to be ignored by any management student or practitioner.

There is also no doubt that Mr Krishnamurthy is well regarded as a successful manager of public sector undertakings. However, more than his much-trumpeted management techniques, his ability to work well with his political masters, particularly those associated with the Gandhi family, seemed to have helped him in his long career, too. The family played a key role in all his important postings or career advancements - Indira Gandhi gave him the responsibility of steering Maruti Udyog, Rajiv Gandhi wanted him to take charge of SAIL, the public sector steel behemoth, and Sonia Gandhi not only made him a member of the National Advisory Council, the United Progressive Alliance's powerful advisory body, but also was indirectly instrumental in his appointment as the chairman of the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council in late 2004.

When he was asked by the Janata Party government in 1977 to join the industry ministry, his initial reluctance to do so was quickly overcome when the political implications of his refusal were made clear to him. For a man with one eye fixed on the political weathercock, as Francis Bacon would have said, it is, therefore, a little mystifying how he came to fall foul of the P V Narasimha Rao regime.

Those few years of the Congress regime, when Narasimha Rao kept the Gandhi family at a distance from the government if not the party, were perhaps the worst time for Mr Krishnamurthy. But like the proverbial cat, Mr Krishnamurthy managed to land on his feet, gaining membership of the Planning Commission even then. It was the involvement of his son's firm with Harshad Mehta (it took a loan from him) and his own recommendation to people in government to give Mehta a hearing that landed him in big trouble.

Mehta later was held responsible for the securities scam and Mr Krishnamurthy had to quit the Planning Commission and suffer the ignominy of being detained by the Central Bureau of Investigation for interrogation. He was eventually acquitted of all charges but his reputation took a big hit. Here again, the author's need for divine dispensation encouraged him to go back to his village, Karuveli, which he had abandoned as a boy, and rebuild the dilapidated family temple. The author believes that this religious penance helped him overcome the adversities of the 1990s and regain public office during the United Progressive Alliance regime.

The book is an easy read. It sheds light on how public sector companies and projects are run and executed. It shows how politicians in power wield their influence and get decisions taken. And it also reveals the personality of Mr Krishnamurthy and his curious explanation of how religious deeds helped him rehabilitate himself.

First Published: Thu, August 07 2014. 21:25 IST
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