Ratan Tata in Calcutta. (Kishor Roy Chowdhury)
Calcutta, Aug. 31: Ratan Tata today suggested that the renewal of his group’s investments in Bengal would depend on a “more friendly” political environment, tingeing with sadness the end of an extraordinary journey that sucked him into one of the most tumultuous events in the state.
“… one day when we believe the environment is at the political level more friendly — at the people level (he emphasised the phrase) I think it has always been friendly and I always recognise the warmth we have received — we will be here because it is part of India and we consider ourselves to be an Indian group,” Tata said in his last message to the shareholders of Tata Global Beverages (Tata Tea) as the chairman.
He did not rule out “a Tata Motors factory somewhere in Bengal” one day and “hopefully (it will) be welcomed”, suggesting that the political leadership will have to take the initiative if it wants the group to invest in the state.
Tata, who will hand over the reins of the group in December to Cyrus Mistry who was by his side today, added: “We have no difference, bias or prejudice as such. So both the group and I personally have no intention of walking away from Bengal.”
The annual general meeting saw several poignant moments as veteran shareholders shook hands with Tata, handed over bouquets, garlanded him and shared memories — one person recalled playing cricket with him in Jamshedpur in the 1960s.
Few shareholders pored over the fine print of profits and turnover but Singur was the elephant in the room.
Several shareholders pleaded with him to settle the Singur imbroglio before stepping down. Someone suggested “shaking hands” with Mamata Banerjee to bury the hatchet just like he did with Russi Mody once. (On August 11, 2007, Tata and Modi, who quit as Tata Steel chairman after acrimony and boardroom upheaval in the 1990s, had shaken hands in public in Calcutta.)
Tata, not known for playing to the gallery, did not give a direct reply to the handshake suggestion but spoke on Mody. “One of you asked about the meeting with Mr Mody at the lobby of the hotel (Taj Bengal). Mr Mody and I have become friends again many years ago. There is no need to do it publicly. He and I have buried our differences. And we continue to have this friendship at this point of time… maybe not to the extent that we used to… but there is no animosity or acrimony at this point of time.”
The mood was markedly different from that on October 3, 2008, when Tata announced the pullout from Singur. “If somebody puts a gun to my head, you would either have to remove the gun or pull the trigger. I would not move my head. I think Ms Banerjee pulled the trigger,” a granite-faced Tata had said then.
Today, Tata let his prized privacy slip and looked back at that pre-Puja day. “Several of you asked about Singur. I think it is something that does not bring any sense of anger to me, but just a sense of sadness that we could not do something here,” he said.
Bengal industries minister Partha Chatterjee declined to comment. Trinamul sources said the party could make a statement only after consultations with the chief minister.
Then Tata added: “It (Singur) is sub judice in the courts today and whatever the outcome is, I think we will respect the law whichever way or the wishes of the Bengal government. And who knows, maybe one day we will have a Tata Motors factory somewhere in Bengal and hopefully, be welcomed.”
Tata spoke at length on a project that has made a big difference in eastern India: the cancer hospital in New Town.
“I think it has its genesis in this room (the AGM venue at Oberoi Grand) when the hospital was first conceived of. And I think I feel proud that we have been able to set something up which will save lives in this part of the country,” he said.
Tata then referred to something which policy makers in the east have either turned their back on or have been unable to find a solution to. “We saw so many patients came to Bombay, treated badly or arrived too late and so their lives could not be saved. And they were all from this part of the country. So we felt this is the place to put up an advanced cancer hospital that could deal with this ravaging ailment…. It is very touching that the largest number of patients are children suffering from leukaemia...”
Tata visited the hospital on his way back from the AGM and told the doctors and staff that he would continue to be associated with the project as a trustee. Sources quoted Tata, who spent over an hour at the hospital, as telling them that “next time I’ll spend more time with you”.
The sources said he first went to the paediatric ward. “He met an eight-year-old boy who had undergone bone marrow transplant,” a hospital official said. The children presented Tata with a card made by them.
At the AGM, Tata bid an emotional farewell to shareholders such as Manoj Gupta who chose to speak about their long association rather than financial details.
“I can only say thank you for your sentiment and warm wishes. This has been an equally emotional meeting for me,” Tata said, promising to be back as a shareholder in the future. “People have asked me whether this is the last time they will see me. No, from time to time I will be happy to attend the meeting and sit where you are sitting and ask questions to my successor.”