Tata. The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism

Raianu, Mircea
Cambridge, M.A. 2021: Harvard University Press
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Christina Lubinski, Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School

Mircea Raianu’s book traces the storied history of one of India’s oldest industrial groups: Tata. Founded in 1868 by Jamshedji Tata, the conglomerate towered over the Indian business landscape and strongly influenced economics and politics on the subcontinent for over a century. Raianu, who received his PhD in History from Harvard University (2017) and is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, tells a captivating story about one of the most prominent Indian companies in the world. His study gives evidence for the fact that it is impossible to separate Indian business history of the twentieth century from nationalism and politics. What strategy scholars sometimes clumsily describe as “non-market strategy” is crucial for making the market and for understanding it.

Raianu’s analysis is based on sources from two company archives: the Tata Central Archives in Pune and the Tata Steel Archives in Jamshedpur. The book is structured chronologically, with the first three chapters dealing with the period before World War II and the subsequent three chapters with the post-war era. Raianu chose World War II – rather than Indian Independence in 1947 – as the main separator of his narrative because, he argues, it was the war that “redefined the relationship between state and capital” (p. 12). An interested reader may have liked to know more about this choice and why the war was more fundamental to creating a new dynamic than the transition to independence, but the chapter on World War II is informative and detailed in its analysis. It rightly highlights that India’s political economy was both “domiciled and globalized” (p. 110) and domestic business groups navigated the tensions between national policy and the inflow of foreign capital. This was certainly the case for Tata, as Raianu explains, a group that was particularly reliant on foreign expertise and capital goods from abroad. The endpoint of the narrative is the period of Emergency (1975–1977), which he again stresses as a major turning point for the relationship between Indian big business and the State.

In each of the two parts of the book, Raianu tackles three themes. Chapter 1 and 4 explore Tata’s expansion with an emphasis on its embeddedness in the global economy and financial markets. Chapter 2 and 5 focus on Jamshedpur, the home of Tata’s steel plant, and explore the management and labor relations there. Finally, chapter 3 and 6 deal with Tata’s philanthropic activities and how they were mobilized to advance not just a social but also a political agenda. While the first two pairings are in line with the literature on Indian Business History and South Asian Studies; the two chapters on Corporate Social Responsibility pick up on a more recent trend, arguing for the importance of such activities especially in an emerging market context.[1]

One of the strengths of Raianu’s work is his attention to understanding lesser-known individuals and their role in the development of the Tata Group. For example, B. J. Padshah, Jamsetji’s right-hand man has so far figured less prominently in the historiography. Similarly, Minoo Masani, one of Tata’s advisors after the war, and A. D. Shroff, one of the architects of the famous 1944 Bombay Plan, are only starting to receive the attention they deserve.[2] At times, the framing of the argument indicates that Raianu speaks first and foremost to an US audience. The repeated analogy of India with the US “Gilded Age” or the way he uses Tata’s endurance as a motivation for the book – “It is as though the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers themselves … owned Amazon, Apple, and Google” (p. 2) – may be less intuitive for readers outside of the US, especially in parts of the world where long-lasting family-influenced companies are more common. For German India scholars and Business Historians, it would have been insightful to know more about Tata’s relationships with German multinationals, especially about the important joint venture with Daimler-Benz after World War II, when the German automobile manufacturer and the Tata Locomotive and Engineering Co. Ltd. (TELCO) collaborated on building diesel trucks. The work by Stefan Tetzlaff and Julian Faust can fill some voids in this respect.[3]

Overall, Raianu wrote an impressive history of Tata and deserves credit for his archival and intellectual work on this important business group. Undoubtedly, his book will become an indispensable reference point for scholars of Indian Business History and South Asian Studies. His explorations of the relationship between companies and the state as well as the role of what we today call Corporate Social Responsibility have relevance beyond the specific case of Tata. The book makes an important contribution to the field and, like all good monographs, raises a series of new questions that will guide scholarship going forward.

[1] See for example, Valeria Giacomin / Geoffrey Jones, Drivers of Philanthropic Foundations in Emerging Markets. Family, Values and Spirituality, in: Journal of Business Ethics (In Press), (09.01.2022); Valeria Giacomin / Geoffrey Jones / Erica H. Salvaj, Business Investment in Education in Emerging Markets since the 1960s, in: Business History 63, no. 7 (2021), pp. 1113–1143, (09.01.2022).
[2] Sucheta Dalal, A.D. Shroff, Titan of Finance and Free Enterprise. New Delhi 2000; Medha M. Kudaisya, Tryst with Prosperity. Indian Business and the Bombay Plan of 1944, New York 2018.
[3] Stefan Tetzlaff, Revolution or Evolution? The Making of the Automobile Sector as a Key Industry in Mid- Twentieth Century India, in: Arve Hansen / Kenneth Bo Nielsen (eds.), Cars, Automobility and Development in Asia. Wheels of Change, London 2017, pp. 62–79; Julian Faust, Spannungsfelder der Internationalisierung. Deutsche Unternehmen und Außenwirtschaftspolitik in Indien von 1947 bis zum Ende der 1970er Jahre, Baden-Baden 2021.

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