In the 1980s and 1990s, having a phone connection seemed a distant dream. In fact, you could even imagine not having one for an entire lifetime. The odd venerable owner of a landline stood out in a neighbourhood as something of a VIP, and PCO booths were sacrosanct spaces where you made concise calls while keeping an eye on the pulse rate.
These soon-to-be relics were swept away by a mobile telecom revolution that began with a — believe it or not — Rs 16 per minute call over a quarter century ago. The person to whom the call was made was also charged Rs 8 per minute.
As India completes 75 years of Independence, the dramatic changes that were wrought in the lives of its citizens after liberalisation of 1991 are best symbolised by the figure of a handset. It is akin to an extension of the human body, a vestigial organ from the future that needs updating or replacement every few years. On it we now rely more and more to connect with people and consume information and mis/disinformation that shape our understanding of the world.
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The shift from a Nehruvian to a neo-liberal model undoubtedly marked a cusp between the old India and new. For independent India, prior to 1991, when it was a mixed economy, the pace of change was slow. Yet, going back to 1947 to gauge how far we have come as a nation that has embraced modernity and is simultaneously full of paradoxes can boggle the mind.
For a richly diverse young nation built on the principles of secularism and not aligned with any superpower, the story would be untold without the part played by businesses. Along the way, brands have embedded themselves into our everyday life, defined eras and left their indelible imprints that evoke a sepia-tinted nostalgia like iconic culture products do.
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The role of business houses precedes the birth of independent India. A private business class had already made its mark in the early 20th century. Hereditary enterprises, with ownerships involving joint families, emerged — some belonging to traditional business castes (such as the Birlas who started out as opium and jute traders in then Calcutta), while others came from non-traditional ones such as the Kirloskars.
Over the decades, the big business groups would become inextricably tied to the industrial as well as social journey of India. In the years leading up to Independence, some would even form pressure groups allied to the Congress party and the freedom movement against British rule.
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After 1947, the public sector remained the dominant part of industry as a socialist government inspired by the Soviet Union and Communist China favoured government control over capitalistic freedom. It set in place the “licence raj”, while regulations turned more severe during the Indira Gandhi years with a decline of foreign companies, further expansion of public sector units and slower creation of private businesses.
Against a deluge of goods and services with the opening up of India’s economy, the years leading up to 1991 were also characterised by the lack of options — and it is a feature that our special issue serves up as a throwback to “simpler times” while listing the brands and personalities at the heart of India’s story.
India’s embrace of a free market while essentially remaining a welfare state has been accompanied by a rightward shift in politics.
The platinum jubilee of Independence is a moment to introspect and acknowledge the foundations that have allowed India to be seen as a healthy democracy for the best part of 75 years, often standing out in the region with its claim of unity in diversity.
In a world upended by Covid-19 and battling an economic crisis, India looks at self-reliance as the way ahead. Businesses, big and small, have earned a name for a uniquely Indian frugal innovation — captured in the concept of “jugaad”, despite its unflattering connotations.
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The reforms of 1991 were born out of a crisis. India@75 faces the question whether this is another hour of disruption, of remaking our lives. And, in this age of Big Tech, will India’s tycoons and mushrooming unicorn start-ups innovate and lead the way? We will know in the years to come.
THE GAME CHANGERS
The trailblazers: Some of them are “Midnight’s Children” — their businesses were born before 1947, but they came of age in the post-Independence India. Some are “Licence Raj Warriors” who refused to let red-tapeism slow them down. Some are “Offsprings of Liberalisation” who took the open economy as a springboard and launched themselves high, high and higher. And some are “The Millennials”, the tech entrepreneurs who have embraced the digital world and created the kind of businesses that were, perhaps, unfathomable not very long ago. Some are hard-nosed professionals who have transformed the way we do things or live our lives.
In the decades since Independence, some of the enterprises steered by these leaders have morphed into giants — into conglomerates with a footprint far bigger than what they started out with. Many have expanded beyond the borders of India, to become companies with a global presence. Others have shrunk in size, perhaps even fallen behind in time. Some have seen their Great Indian Business Family splitting into smaller units and going different ways. Some have moved on after creating a whole new business segment to try their hand at something entirely different.
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But each one of them has played an important role in the building of the country, taking ideas and giving them wings. They are the champions and visionaries of India Inc, inseparable from the idea of India.Global Indians: They’ve got the world to sit up and take notice. Starting from humble beginnings, these professionals, with the vision and confidence to innovate and cut through challenges, have come to lead companies with presence across geographies. Their story is as much India’s as it is the world’s.
The others: They started something big, something different, something new. But somewhere down the line, they lost their way, even landed on the wrong side of the law. These are the high-fliers who fell from grace.
From bicycles to cough syrup, from washing powder to music labels, from cosmetics to inkpot, from movies to stationery — some brands came to define the segments they represented. And when television became popular in India, it sent them deeper into our lives. Some taglines made us laugh. Some jingles made us sing along. Some mascots endeared themselves to us for a lifetime. Today, while some of these brands have braved the challenges of time, a few have become distant memories of simpler days. Some have reinvented themselves. Others have held on to yesterday while embracing tomorrow. One way or the other, they have remained a part of our lives.
What was the first big scandal that shook India’s stock market and caused a finance minister to step down? When were controls of IPO pricing removed? When did the Sensex come about? And when did the first non-UTI mutual fund make an entry? How did the Ketan Parekh scam impact the Unit Scheme-1964? A look at events that have shaped India’s financial landscape.
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First Published: Thu, August 11 2022. 18:00 IST