Handing over the baton of leadership of a company that bears one’s own surname is not an easy thing to do. But Ratan Tata has done that, apparently effortlessly, by stepping down from today as the chairman of the Tata group. He had been at the helm of the company from 1991. Through these two decades, Mr Tata led the process that completely transformed the scale and profile of India’s best-known industrial house. When Mr Tata took over the reins, the Indian economy was beginning to open up. Freeing the Indian economy from the stranglehold of State control was something which his predecessor, J.R.D. Tata, had championed. Thus Mr Tata had his own dreams and visions to fulfil as well as those of his distinguished — many would say larger than life — predecessor. Mr Tata never allowed the past to overwhelm him because he had an almost uncanny clarity about where he wanted to take his company. In his retirement, Mr Tata can bask in the glow of contentment without the smear of smugness. The best may yet to be but he initiated the striving for the best and the new.
Mr Tata’s vision was to make the Tata group a global player. He commenced the global strategy of his company. This was not done merely through the acquisition of the Anglo-Dutch steel producer, the Corus, even though that acquisition made Tata Steel the world’s sixth largest steel maker. Mr Tata also piloted the acquisition of Tetley by Tata Tea and of Daewoo, Jaguar and Land Rover by Tata Motors. The global strategy and its success were not achieved at the expense of innovations aimed at the domestic sphere. Mr Tata launched the Nano, the first car with an Indian design and know-how aimed primarily for members of India’s growing middle class. It was unfortunate, of course, that Mr Tata’s small car project met its only major hurdle in West Bengal, where a populist and irresponsible opposition from a political leader forced Mr Tata to withdraw the project from the state. This would suggest that while J.R.D. Tata had to battle all his life against State regulation, his successor’s tenure was also not free of political interference. One of the pioneers of the Tata group, Dorabji Tata, as a dying wish, told his cousin, R.D. Tata: “If you cannot make it [the family name] greater, at least preserve it.’’ Ratan Tata has done both: he is a worthy bearer of the Tata torch.