Like any responsible writer, Deepali Gupta steers clear of speculation and points to what the available information says, thus demonstrating a journalist’s even-keeled outlook towards her subject matter.
Tata vs Mistry: The Battle for India’s Greatest Business Empire
by Deepali Gupta
A significant episode in a company’s life may produce two kinds of writing-- these are based on level of access to privileged information. The first kind has the company itself commissioning a writer; on offer is access to its boardrooms and archives. The price for such access? Circumscribed editorial freedom. Even censorship of unflattering information about the company when such information might hurt its business. This shows in the writing. At an extreme, commissioned writing is brand-building for the company concerned, and might not leave the reader any wiser.
A writer need not be ‘embedded’ in a company to write about it with insight; her writing can still be full of juicy detail. This kind of writing, which we are dealing with in the form of ‘Tata vs Mistry’, relies for the most part, on public information, so it tells the story more independently. As a corporate, the Tata group is mandated by law to regularly update the public record with key information about its functioning. Added to such information are thousands of pages of documents and submissions to the courts that were produced through its legal conflict with Cyrus Mistry, its one-time chairman, who was removed from his position. There’s more, however; added to these sources are the writer’s own, coming from her career as a business journalist. According to the writer, around fifty people were interviewed for purposes of researching the book.
Therefore, the reader will expect this book to answer the question adequately: Why did Ratan Tata have a falling-out with Cyrus Mistry, the man who succeeded him as executive chairman of Tata Sons, and who was the so-called son he never had?
By way of answer, Gupta speaks of three forces feeding the conflict: “… inter-personal friction between Cyrus Mistry and Ratan Tata; what the role of the (Tata) Trusts should be in the running of Tata Sons and Tata Group companies; and, lastly… how the Tata Group should be turned around.”
Both through text and subtext, Gupta underlines these three forces. The book, until roughly its midpoint, is a chronological account of the conflict from the time of Mistry’s removal as chairman, though it also segues into flashbacks of corporate history. After the midpoint, though, the book becomes an analytical report of, mostly though not exclusively, the business decisions that contributed to the Mistry-Tata conflict-- including the purchase of Corus, the steel manufacturer in the UK; the ill-fated Nano car project; the disastrous Tata Docomo venture; and, of course, the Air Asia venture.
More than cold facts and numbers
This thoroughly researched book is not mostly about cold facts and numbers, however. The reader who reads closely should be able to guess the psychological factors motivating the protagonists, namely, Tata and Mistry. Some available insights could be, how conflicting interests play out in the boardroom, and how personal psychology impacts a corporate’s trajectory. Like any responsible writer, Gupta steers clear of speculation (as should we) and points to what the available information says, thus demonstrating a journalist’s even-keeled outlook towards her subject matter.
As for the writing, for the most part, Gupta has a winning style. Where a sensationalist, screechy narration would have turned the story into a soap opera, the matter-of-fact and restrained voice of Gupta’s is well-pitched enough to present, with decorum and gravitas, a serious episode in contemporary business history. She has the newspaper writer's flair for snappy, pacy, economical language. Using this she controls her narrative, making it tick along without being hurried.
As to the flow of the book, she structures it fairly richly. Into it she folds the brief career profiles of Tata and Mistry, the brief histories of their respective companies, and also provides adequate stage time for the secondary characters, such as the directors of Tata group companies. All in all, the book’s structural elements, for the most part, are arranged in pleasing proportions.
The omissions in the book must, however, be flagged. For one, it’s fair to say that the Tata-Mistry conflict may have come to the detriment of a chunk of Indian industry in general and the Indian stock market in particular, though of course, the markets recovered later. So, there may have been economic consequences of the conflict. Moreover, the conflict may well have impacted the way Indians viewed their industrialists and leaders of companies; these are cultural consequences. The writer mentions these things in passing. It would have been worthwhile, therefore, to add to this otherwise engrossing book the common investor’s perspective as well. History is not only about leaders and kings, is it?
Secondly, the book offers no case studies about other incidents involving prominent Indian companies where the leader was removed. Admittedly, that subject is murky and also hard to investigate. Also, that may not have been the writer’s brief. But it would have enriched the book and given the reader even greater perspective. While cultural analysis is not expected of a business writer, some amount of it, if possible, would have given more elevation to this well-researched, well-structured and eminently readable narrative. It is a recommended addition to your business bookshelf.
Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named The Centaur Chronicles.