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Lunch with BS: Vikram Mehta

'I was never a multinational hack'

Jyoti Mukul  |  New Delhi 

Vikram Mehta

He quit the because he found it politicised but public service runs in his DNA, says ‘Mr Shell India’

Vikram Mehta, I was told, would prefer to lunch at The Chambers at the Taj hotel on Delhi’s Mansingh Road. I was not a member of this exclusive establishment, so I couldn’t host him there. His next choice may have severely tested my newly acquired driving skills but Indian Accent at The Manor in New Friends Colony was certainly more interesting, writes Jyoti Mukul.

Anxious not to be late, I arrive half an hour early to an empty and slightly warm restaurant. After a confirmation call from his office, the chairman of arrives on time. It is a hot day but he is dressed in a suit and a blue tie with polka dots, which seemed to fit his reputation for stiff formality. Preliminaries over, he tells me Indian Accent is run by chef (of Chor Bizarre fame). Like Khattar’s famous first restaurant, Indian Accent has a fusion menu. “One good thing is that the menu is not heavy,” Mehta says. “It is Indian but not a typical one in which you order three dishes and share. You have to order your own dish.”

We order fresh lime sodas as he mulls over peanut butter chicken and Andhra pickled chicken for a starter. Before he can choose, his mobile rings and he goes out briefly to take the call. When he returns, he decides to try the puchkas and I panko crusted mirch (chillis stuffed with paneer and batter fried in Japanese breadcrumbs).

We’re meeting for this lunch because Mehta has made the news by unexpectedly deciding to step down from Shell after being with the oil major for 24 years — he has been, in a sense, “Mr Shell India” for the organisation. He would have retired in the normal course in October, which is when his successor, Yasmine Hilton, takes over.

No, there’s no other offer, he clarifies first, but the reply suggests he’s been thinking of this move for a while. “I decided that I have done this job for a long time. A time comes when you really look for reinvigorating yourself intellectually and professionally,” he replies.

He had wanted to do something around his 60th birthday in October. “I had planned it that way. It is not difficult to stay on in a particular position. Status quo is easy but my career has always been a search in some ways,” he adds.

That is an understatement. His original career was in the Indian Administrative Service, or IAS, (1978 batch) because his “lineage and DNA is related to public life”. True enough. His grandfather was a bureaucrat and his father, Jagat Singh Mehta, was foreign secretary. “My mother was the first woman to join the foreign service and that is how they met,” he explains.

As the starters are served, he tells me why his stint didn’t last beyond two years. “I realised very soon that I had looked at the from the prism of my father.” It was its politicisation after the Emergency in 1975 that got to him. “There was no reason for me to leave but I realised this is a bureaucracy that is hierarchic, where politics had become a more important component of our day-to-day job and where merit counts less than seniority.”

So in January 1980, he decided to quit. “Everybody thought that the ‘Rajasthan son’ thing – pride – had affected my thinking and judgment and I was leaving a prestigious job for unemployment.”

It was a reaction based on intuition, he added. “I knew I was doing the right thing but could not explain to people who were asking for rational explanation, which requires you to say either you are unhappy or you have another job. I was not unhappy and did not have another job!”

Before his long innings with Shell, he tried two jobs. Within six months of leaving the IAS, he joined as a senior economist with Philips Petroleum where he worked for four years, first in London, then Oklahoma. But the desire to be in public service endured. So, in 1984, he returned to India and joined Oil India as an advisor. “I left a lucrative job of $70,000 a year and came back to earn Rs 7,000 a month but I was clear that my career and life should be in India.”

In another four years, he realised that being an advisor has its limitations. “People listen to you but do not necessarily take your advice. It is heady for a while because you are involved with senior people and you think you are influencing a change but the headiness wears off after some time,” he says wryly.

Mehta quit the IAS at age 25. By the time he was 36, he probably achieved what he could not have earlier — a senior position in Shell, even though he was from a “non-traditional nationality”. He was on the board of Shell companies in west and south Asia. “Imagine being an Indian, and being on Shell Pakistan’s board!”

Shell was then the largest company there, he reminisces. Unlike India, it had not been nationalised. Two factors worked in his favour — his grandfather had been a high commissioner in Pakistan in the 1950s. “The second was much better and much more powerful. Everyone knew I was Benazir Bhutto’s friend from Oxford. But I did not meet her in Pakistan when she was prime minister.”

Mehta was in an interesting class at Oxford, along with Benazir and Imran Khan. Benazir and his sister had the same guardian in John Kenneth Galbraith (the economist and US Ambassador to India in the sixties). “In 1971, Benazir and Galbraith’s son Peter came to Oxford. We became friends.” Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was Pakistan’s prime minister then. Cautious about talking to people from Pakistan, Benazir would confide in Mehta. But later, when she became prime minister, it became difficult for her to be seen with an Indian. Imran Khan and Mehta, though, continue to be good friends.

The panko mirch was a bad choice, being extremely bland, but Mehta clearly enjoys the puchkas with five flavours – tamarind, mint, pineapple, garlic buttermilk and pomegranate – as he tells me that his first CEO position came as managing director of Shell Egypt for the chemical and marketing business. But when India started to liberalise, he wanted to come home. “So, I became the first employee of Shell here in 1994.”

There was no Shell in India at that time since it had been nationalised in the seventies. First came the lubricants business through a joint venture with BPCL. Then the LPG company, LNG business and, finally, petroleum retailing. “We are now the most diversified multinational company in India and have the largest footprint here,” he says proudly. Few know that Shell runs a technological centre with 700 scientists and technocrats. There is also a centre with 1,500 cost and chartered accountants working for Shell worldwide, Mehta tells me.

While we wait for the main course, I ask him how far his gilded family connections helped his career. “I had relationships that were created because of my father and because I was in the IAS,” he admits, “but one of the reasons I had access was that I did not come across as a multinational hack — people felt I was genuinely concerned about India.”

But family connections sometimes also made things difficult and he relates a story about his IAS interview. “I was nervous as hell. On the extreme right, there was an Air Marshal. He looked at my CV and said, ‘Mr Mehta, you went to Mayo, St Stephens, Oxford and you are studying in Harvard. What do you know about India? Have you ever eaten bajra ki roti? Describe the taste’.” Mehta remembers being completely confused. “I was not sure what I had done wrong. It was only because my father was foreign secretary at that time but I could not argue against that.”

I try the tandoori paneer and sarso ka saag and Mehta seems to like the chicken meatballs and wild mushroom kulcha truffle, so I am almost apologetic about asking why people thought him stiff. “Stiff meaning arrogant?” he asks. “I can imagine people saying things because they do not know me.”

We decide against dessert and over coffee he tells me I should write something about petroleum prices. As we walk towards the car park, he asks for a lift. The Brio is tiny and his tall frame is squashed in the front seat, which is pulled right up. We chat about the car till we get to his residence around the corner, and he considerately gives me directions out of the colony before we part ways.

First Published: Tue, May 08 2012. 00:30 IST