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BW Businessworld

25 Years of Reforms: Unleashing The Indian Entrepreneur

The economic reforms did not kill or destroy Indian companies and Indian entrepreneurs as some had feared. In fact, the exact opposite happened

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Soon after July, 1991, pundits had started writing advance obituaries for India Inc. According to them, the economic reforms launched by the P. V. Narasihma Rao regime would enable and encourage giant multinationals to gobble up Indian companies. Ominous and sinister references to East India Company were often made. In the early days after the July, 1991 reforms, it did appear as if the Cassandras would be proven right.

The feisty entrepreneur Ramesh Chauhan of Parle who had battled Pepsi with guts and glory for years announced that he is selling off his brands like Thums Up to Coke. Most analysts agreed that Coke would gradually kill and bury the Thums Up brand. Around the same time, the Tata group announced that it is selling off group company Lakme to multinational Unilever. There was more "grim" news from the Tata group. The iconic J. R. D Tata had announced his retirement as chairman of the group and anointed Ratan Tata as his successor. Powerful satraps like Russy Mody (Tata Steel) and Darbari Seth (Tata Chemicals) openly revolted against Ratan Tata. It looked as if the days of Tata as a single unified group were numbered. Amidst all these upheavals, hardly anybody knew anything about two gentlemen named Subhash Chandra who had launched his Zee television network and Sunil Bharti Mittal who was selling the Beetel brand of telephone handsets. People like Sachin Bansal, Kunal Behl and Vijay Shekhar Sharma were either babies or in school.

If you look back objectively at the 25 years gone by, there can be no doubt that the pundits and the Cassandras were dead wrong. The economic reforms did not kill or destroy Indian companies and Indian entrepreneurs. In fact, the exact opposite happened. Ramesh Chauhan did sell off brands like Thums Up. But his company Parle is still going strong and his mineral water brand Bisleri is the number one by a wide distance distance despite the best efforts of a host of multinational giants. Incidentally, Coke did make an attempt to quietly bury the brand Thums Up. But battered by Pepsi, it had to "reinvent" Thums Up for survival. Some marketing analysts contend that Thums Up is still the largest selling carbonated drink in India. The Tata group never disintegrated and nor was it gobbled up by global giants. In fact, Ratan Tata made waves towards the end of the 20th century when group company Tata Tea bought the iconic British tea brand Tetley. Since then, the Tata group has acquired dozens of global companies, Corus and Jaguar Land Rover being the big and better known names. Ratan Tata has retired after a glittering career as chairman of the group and handed over charge to Cyrus Mistry. He is still busy and active, funding a mentoring a host of start up companies.

Subhash Chandra and Sunil Bharti Mittal are household names. Despite brutal competition from global giants with deep pockets like Rupert Murdoch owned Newscorp (Star Network) and Sony, the Zee Network is not only a contender for the top slot in India, but has a genuine global footprint. Sunil Bharti Mittal has grown even bigger. His mobile services brand Airtel is the undisputed number one in the country and his company Bharti has a major presence in the Asian and African continents. And don't forget the super stars created by the IT and ITES sector. Who hasn't heard of the exploits of N. Narayanmurthy, Nandan Nilekani, Azim Premji and a host of others. Then again, don't forget two icons who passed away in 2015. Brijmohan Lal transformed Hero into the largest two wheeler company in the world. Surinder Kapoor transformed his company Sona into a global auto components giant. The emergence of Unicorns (new companies with billion dollar valuations) in the start up world is further proof that the reforms of 1991 well and truly unleashed the stifled entrepreneurial spirit of India.

Of course, it is not all hunky dory. As the next and concluding article in this series will show, India, apart from being blessed by an entrepreneurial revolution, has also suffered the curse of persistent Crony Capitalism.