A part from other things, capitalism is also an enigma. It has always striven to escape from its own contradictions, and in the process, got entangled in them further. Its initial milestone is the free market, one owner of capital launches into competition with other owners, the tussle is between feats of efficiency, cost-paring and innovativeness. Precisely because of such intense intra-mural competition though, one capitalist, by virtue of sheer competence, squeezes out his fellow-capitalists; what then emerges is monopoly capital. Competition provides the setting for capitalist endeavour. But the end-point is monopoly, the very antithesis of free-wheeling capitalism.
Over time, however, even monopolies fall prey to biological development, a phenomenon economists and lawyers prefer to explain in more technical terms. As monopolies grow, managerial strains tend to be more and more evident; those presiding over the monopoly houses either are not perspicacious enough or fail to delegate adequately organizational responsibilities. In consequence, efficiency is impaired, profits dip, and there is the threat of internal discords. If wise counsel prevails at the top, arrangements are voluntarily entered into to ensure a kind of division of business — industrial units as well as spoils — amongst the constituents of the monopoly: a split in time saves nine.
Post-independent India has never really broken free of its colonial moorings. In the Nehruvian phase, we loyally followed the British example and set up legal and institutional roadblocks against monopolies and restrictive practices. Liberalization has brought an end to such irritants to big industry, paying obeisance to huge monopolistic concerns is once more the rage, reservations for small units are being ruthlessly abolished; the kingdom, really and truly, now belongs to the giant monopoly houses. To the list of old established houses such as those of the Tatas and the Birlas, there have since been additions of new, richer dynasties.
As the economy has diversified, more space has been created for the large houses to operate in; they have also often entered into some sort of a gentleman’s agreement not to tread on each other’s territory.
Even so, accidents occur, caused not so much by external factors as by problems that are endogamous to the monopoly house themselves. Consider the most recent instance of the Priyamvada Birla will, which has rocked the House of Birlas. It is almost a Yeatsian situation, the centre cannot hold and the parts, for all it is possible to surmise, could come apart. This too is a species of disinvestment, one that erodes the cohesiveness of the capital stock held by monopoly power. A long process of litigation lies ahead; lawyers are understandably smacking their lips. It is difficult to predict at this point how it will all end, whether the legal battle would be carried to the bitter end or whether a kind of compromise would be reached between the parties at some intermediate stage. And perhaps a tinge of sorrow, if not regret, will pass through the minds of Birla family members: no official trust-busters, but their own kith and kin have donned the role of the Great Anarch.
The family need not however be excessively heart-broken. It could have been worse. They should recall the near-calamity their traditional rivals, the House of Tatas, was once confronted with and from which it was saved only by the skin of its teeth.
It is a fascinating story. Nassenwanji Tata, the founder of the dynasty, had five children. The eldest — the only son, Jamshetji — was followed by four sisters, Ratanbai, Maneckbai, Vibai and Jerbai. Nassenwanji’s closest friend was one Shapurji Saklatvala. They lived together, breathed together and dreamed together, but, as it happened, the equity of the firm they built together, was held in entirety by the Tatas. After his father’s death, Jamshetji arranged the marriage of his youngest sister, Jerbai, to Saklatvala’s elder son, Dorabji. At the time of the wedding, the sister was piled with clothes, jewellery and cash, but no Tata shares were handed over to either her or her husband. Jerbai’s husband. Dorabji, the Saklatvala, was treated more like an underling, and was soon packed off to Madras as the firm’s representative. Jerbai herself was persuaded to move into Esplanade House, the palatial mansion the Tatas had built in the heart of the Fort area in Mumbai.
The Birlas should breathe easy. They are only victims of a wayward will; they have not suffered the fate of breeding a communist within their fold. But conceivably either outcome is nature’s revolt against the irrationality of monopoly capital.