Has Ratan Tata ruined the Tata brand image?

Although it has a finger in every pie, the Tata group has enjoyed a sterling reputation as a cut above the rest. Unlike the Ambanis and Birlas and everybody else, the group boasts of a “clean and incorruptible” image. Unlike others, it has been known to do things differently, keeping the “community” at the core.

Is that well-earned image in danger, judging from a bunch of recent incidents? And as he prepares to step into the shadows, having turned a quiet Parsi outfit into a global conquistador, will Ratan Tata—under whose leadership the revenue of the Tata group has gone up 40 times—go down as the dikra who messed with the holy grail?

For starters, the Tata group is smack bang in the middle of the Rs 173,000 crore 2G spectrum allocation scam. The tapped conversations of Ratan Tata’s chief lobbyist, Niira Radia, reveal how a gang of politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and journalists re-inserted the tainted A. Raja into Manmohan Singh‘s cabinet in 2009.

# One key conversation (on 13 June 2009) between Radia and DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi‘s third wife Rajathiammal matches with the contents of a set of documents that were doing the rounds earlier this year, that revealed that the Tatas (through their subsidiary Voltas) had agreed to build a building in Madras, apparently as a payoff to DMK for keeping Dayanidhi Maran out of the telecom ministry.

# And, for another, the Tatas come out poorly in a Radia conversation that reveals that former Jharkhand chief minister Madhu Koda had demanded Rs 180 crore for a Tatas’ mining lease to be extended. Radia gets the lease extended through the governor Syed Sibte Razi, and she is rewarded a “success fee” besides a Rs 1 crore reward to her team.

In conversations with Radia ranging from the cute to the colourful, Ratan Tata reveals more than just passing interest in the retention of A. Raja in the telecom portfolio. “I’m surprised that Raja after all that you supposedly did for him is playing this game,” he says in one conversation. “I guess the only concern I have is that Maran is going hammer and tongs for Raja. And I hope Raja doesn’t trip or slip or…”

These one-liners only add grist to a delicious rumour, twice repeated, that Ratan Tata actually wrote a hand-written letter to Karunanidhi on Raja’s “rational, fair and action-oriented leadership” in December 2007. To now see the same Ratan Tata say that if the government did not step in and uphold the rule of law, the environment of scandals could see India slide into becoming a “banana republic” and to see that he is thinking of invoking the right to privacy and moving the Supreme Court is revealing in a Freudian sort of way.

Obviously, doing business in India and growing at the kind of rate the Tatas have, is not a walk in the park. Equally obviously, the Radia conversations do not represent the full story. Still, have the tapes removed the halo from around the head of the Tatas? Is Ratan Tata right in seeking shelter under right to privacy, or is he trying to hide more dirt from coming out? And has Ratan Tata proved no different from his much-reviled peers?

The most noise usually comes from the people who have the most to hide.

Also read: Tatas, turtles and corporate social responsibility

External reading: The Niira Radia tapes and transcripts