What JRD means to me ....
The people at Infosys have been unabashed admirers of JRD Tata, who sought excellence in everything and pioneered the notion that ethical business is possible in India. A tribute by N R Narayana Murthy on JRD’s 101st birth anniversary.
IREMEMBER a 1970s film called Chupke Chupke, in which the hero (Dharmendra) gets sick of his wife’s (Sharmila Tagore’s), penchant for turning every conversation into a paean for the virtues of her Jijaji. Dharmendra finally decides to teach Jijaji a lesson and succeeds very well at that! My case was not much better: most conversations with my thenfriend and now wife, Sudha, were spent in her extolling the virtues of “Apro JRD”, as she always called him. Unlike Dharmendra, when I got to meet Sudha’s hero, I was bowled, neck and crop, by his simplicity and affection for his younger colleagues.
It was a wintry evening in 1979, when I took a taxi from my Nariman Point office to pick up Sudha, from her office at Bombay House, on my way home. I had been delayed in the office. It was completely dark and I was worried that she would be alone on a deserted road. As the taxi ground to a halt, I saw a tall, old gentleman talking to Sudha. When I got out of the taxi, I met JRD for the first time. His words, which I remember even today, were a gentle admonishment that I should not make my young wife wait in the dark. I believe he saw her waiting alone outside Bombay House when he was leaving the office, and decided to wait with her till I picked her up. I was stunned by this gesture from India’s biggest industrialist to a young and lowly executive in his company. Most great people are remembered for their small acts of courtesy. This is what makes them great. To them, these are natural rather than put-on.
A few years ago, my daughter, studying in the US, wanted to profile an industrialist as part of her course on Leadership. I suggested she profile Ratan Tata. Sudha and I took her to meet Ratan. The perfect gentleman that he is, Ratan gave her two hours as against the scheduled half an hour. During this talk, we asked if ever he saw JRD abandon his principles, even slightly. Ratan was unequivocal. He said the old man always came on the right side of every issue no matter how tough the choices. That, to me, is JRD — a man who had simple values and stuck to them every time. We, at Infosys, have been unabashed admirers of what he stood for. In fact, the first hitech conference room we built in our heritage building, was named the JRD Hall. Of course, we had the privilege of Ratan inaugurating our even more impressive and, perhaps, Asia’s most advanced corporate conference room named after Jamsetji N Tata, a hero to many of us, but particularly to my colleague, Nandan, and Sudha.
Most of what I learnt about JRD was from Keynote, a compendium of his speeches, a gift from Sudha on my 40th birthday in 1986. Many of my own values and opinions were fortified by JRD’s views. In fact, there are only two public figures whose death evoked deep emotional reaction in me. The first was our young, dynamic and idealistic leader, Rajiv, whose ghastly murder deprived India of a fine leader. The second was JRD, who demonstrated, much before all of us, that ethical business was possible in India.
JRD sought excellence in every thing he did. When I irritate my colleagues with my insistence on excellence, I have sought refuge in JRD’s words — I confess to being excessively intolerant of slipshod work and irritatingly insistent on pursuing excellence even in tasks which hardly demand it.
To him, honesty was extremely important even from people who opposed him. He admired and respected people who were honest in voicing their opinion even if he did not agree with him. No wonder, his favourite politician was Jayaprakash Narayan. He had tremendous affection for even fiery union leaders like Prof Bari because they were honest with him. He believed that the high growth rate (he once put it as monstrous growth) of India’s population would be a burden for the country’s stretched resources. He did not lose a single opportunity to call for serious effort in controlling our population. Unfortunately, even today, our politicians do not pay heed to his advice.
HE TOTALLY believed in the welfare state, whose aim should be to assure every Indian the basic necessities of life, the right to work, and the right to earn a decent living. In his speech to the Rotary Club of Bombay in 1970, he said: “In the economic, if not the philosophical plane, a welfare state is the very essence of 20th century socialism to which I subscribe unreservedly”. He did believe there was a role for the public sector but a public sector removed totally from political and bureaucratic interference which has progressively increased over the last 30 years and emaciated every institution of promise in the public sector.
JRD was equally clear about his antipathy for what he termed negative socialism mindset of our politicians and the bureaucratic rigidities “which aimed at and have been aiming at preventing undesirable things being done rather than encouraging desirable ones; at reducing the income of the relatively well-to-do rather than increasing that of the poor; at restraining initiative and action by good elements because of misconduct by a few bad ones; and at pursuing ideological goals, however detrimental to the economy rather than harnessing all forces for producing wealth and taxing them for welfare purposes”. In a speech given by him at a Planning Commission meeting of industrialists in 1968, he said: “In fact, the only fearsome concentration of economic power, that exists today, lies in the hands of ministers, planners and government officials. It is this concentration of power which is a real threat to democracy.”
On communism, he was very clear: “The Indian socialists cling to a 19th century Marxist form of socialism notwithstanding the fact that almost every economic theory and prophesy of Marx has been falsified in the last hundred years.” His belief in corporate social responsibility was pioneering. His sense of fairness and transaction-orientation is something that I have come to cherish and practise. Such qualities generated warmth for JRD in even fiery union leaders like Prof Bari. What would his dream for India of 2030 be? In his lecture — India 2030 A D, delivered in 1981, he envisioned an India which will control her population growth rate; where women will see value in family planning; where Indians will make spectacular success in genetics, molecular biology and other sciences and technologies; and an India which will have reached 6% annual growth rate in GDP. Well, successive governments from Narasimha Rao’s to Manmohan Singh’s have made this possible. If only our communist friends show a little bit of foresight, I am confident we will be able to fulfill the worthy dream of one of Inda’s finest sons.
(The author is chairman, Infosys)