April 03, 2020
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A Voyage That Was Seldom Calm

It was challenging to choose the top 50 CEOs in India by far. The list, we believe, includes all the key sectors that have contributed to the country’s growth in the past 25 years.

A Voyage That Was Seldom Calm
A Voyage That Was Seldom Calm

Surely, it was not a mere happenstance that in January 1992 Prime Minister P.V. Nara­simha Rao chose to recommend J.R.D. Tata for the country’s highest national honour. JRD rem­ains the only business leader to be so honoured with the Bharat Ratna. Nara­simha Rao was making a point. Six months earlier, he had unleashed domestic private enterprise from the shackles of the infamous Licence-Permit-­Quota Raj. Tata was always a critic of India’s post-Independence economic policies, even though he enjoyed good personal relations with both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and may well have benefited in his business from those relationships. By 1992, he was a grand old 88 and the tallest business leader of Bombay. Till then, 27 emi­nent Indians had been named for the Bharat Ratna. Of these, two were scientists, one was an engineer, two were social activists and three were educationists and scholars. The rest were all political leaders.

In any list of 50 top business leaders of the past quarter century, JRD would be on top. Our jury recognised that and chose to name him posthumously. However, we also noted the fact that JRD’s own contribution to the Tata business empire was not as impressive as his successor Ratan Tata’s. Having decided to name both JRD and Ratan Tata, it was inevi­table that we also recognised three other father-son teams that played a stellar role in the rise of Indian enterprise: Dhiru­bhai Ambani and Mukesh Ambani, Brij Mohanlal Munjal and Pawan Munjal and Aditya Birla and Kum­ar Mangalam Birla.

These names would not surpr­ise anyone familiar with the rec­ent history of Indian business. What is truly significant about this list of 50 business leaders and CEOs, who have made their mark and left their imprint on their firms and the national economy, is that as many as 35 of them would not have figured in a similar listing in 1991. The most dynamic leaders of Indian enterprise this past quarter century are all, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh famously dubbed them, “children of the reforms of 1991”.

Consider the list of top 50 business leaders and CEOs in the years 1950, 1960, 1970 and 1980 and one would find almost the same names occurring decade after decade. Most of them would be based in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi. If the list were to include CEOs of public sector companies (as our list does) only the names of individual CEOs would change but not that of too many firms. The big Indian firms of the 1950s were also the big ones of the subsequent three decades, with a few exceptions.

Three phases define India’s business history: quota raj till ’91, the liberalisation era’s benefits till 2010, then a slowdown.

By 1990, change was already underway. Dhiru­bhai Ambani would not have figured as prominently in 1980, as he did by 1990. There were others too who were on the rise in the 1980s. B.M. Munjal was well on his way to becoming a top business leader, as was V. Krishnamurthy, in the public sector. The real change, however, occurred in the 1990s. Almost all the names in this list from sectors like information technology, pharmaceuticals, banking and finance, consumer durables, automobiles and media made their mark and their fortune in the 1990s.

N.R. Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji, Shiv Nadar and S Ramadorai transformed the IT sector. Parvinder Singh and Anji Reddy took the pharmaceutical industry out of its inward-orientation and declared to the world that India was willing to stand and be counted as a global player, signing on to intellectual property rights protection. Many others, like Dilip Shanghvi and Habil Khoraki­wala drew inspiration from Singh, Reddy and Y K Hamied and the Indian pharma sector marched forward, like IT and software did. Incidentally, the name of Nandan Nilekani figures in our list not for his role in the rise of Infosys as indeed for his leadership at the Unique Identification Authority of India and the success of the Aadhar card initiative.

By the turn of the century new opportunities opened up for domestic enterprise and many of our top 50 made their mark taking advantage of these opportunities. Sunil Mittal in telecom, Pratap C. Reddy in corporate health care, Anand Mahindra in automobiles are some of the names that come immediately to mind. The first decade of the 21st century also saw Indian CEOs make their mark in three very different sectors, earning their place in this list of top 50—Samir Jain and Subhash Chandra in media; S. Kasturirangan and E. Sreedharan in space and surface transportation; Uday Kotak and Aditya Puri in banking. In an earlier decade K.V. Kamath was the banker of the era.

Choosing the top 50 was not an easy task since there are many others whose enterprise and leadership deserve recognition alongside those named here. Our effort has been to ensure that all the key sectors that have contributed to growth and employment over the past quarter century figure in this list. We have also included the names of pioneers like Varghese Kurien, Ela Bhatt and Ramesh Chauhan, in recognition of the leadership role they played in opening up new terrain for domestic enterprise.


In writing the history of Indian business the past half a century can be divided into three distinct phases. The first ends with 1991, the year of economic liberalisation and the end of the Licence-Permit-Quota Raj. From 1991 till 2010, India experienced unprecedented economic growth, creating new business opportunities. This was the second phase. The third, from 2010 to now, has been a phase of a secular slowdown in the rate of investment—both public and private. The celebratory atmosphere of Phase Two has all but evaporated as Indian business rem­ains anxious about what lies ahead.

Phase One was a period of expansion, with the Indian economy moving from the long-term trajectory of annual growth of 3.5 per cent to 5.5 per cent. Much of this was driven by an incr­ease in public investment. This was the phase in which public sector companies like BHEL, SAIL, ONGC and Maruti Udyog made their mark. It is an interesting sociological fact that the social base of private sector leadership in Phase One was limited to traditional business communities like the Marwaris, Gujaratis and Parsis. The expansion of the social base occurs essentially in Phase Two, a fact that business journalist Harish Damodaran has recorded in his work, India’s New Capitalists: Caste, Business and Industry in a Modern Nation.

This period also saw a change in the geogra­phy of Indian business with new business gro­ups emerging in southern and northern India. Calcutta lost its primacy as home of traditio­nal Ind­ian business and its Marwari business families moved out to Delhi and the South. As I rec­orded in my essay (year 2000) on “Economic Policy and the Development of Capitalism in India: The Role of Regional Capitalists and Political Parties”, political and economic change in post-green revolution India transformed the social and geographical base of the country’s private enterprise, launching a new phase of agrarian change and capitalist development. Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad made their presence felt on the corporate map.

Phase Two saw more widespread business development and industrial growth. Almost half of the names appearing on our list of top 50 made their mark in Phase Two. It was a phase of much higher economic growth, with the ann­ual rate of growth exceeding 7 per cent, but it was also a phase of more regionally spread-out growth. Private investment took a lead over public inv­estment, with the government having to cut down on deficit fin­ancing on the one hand, and, on the other, diverting its spending to social development—away from business development.

Phase Three has been a period of crisis and slowdown. Many companies piled up debt and are on the verge of bankruptcy. Perhaps a couple of years ago this kind of a list would have included a name like that of Vijay Mallya. But, no longer. There are others too, especially in the banking and infrastructure sectors, who have adorned such lists put out annually by business publications that you would find missing here.

Phase three has been witness to contradictory trends. On the optimistic side, it has been a phase in which new stars rose on the business firmament. Kishore Biyani, Rahul Bhatia, N. Chandrashekharan and Sanjiv Bikchandani have all made their mark during this difficult phase. On the pessimistic side, it was a phase in which many Indian companies have opted to invest outside India, contributing to a rise in capital outflows. There has been a sharp deceleration in gross investment ratio in this last phase and the turnaround continues to elude policy makers, despite an improvement in the ‘ease of doing business’ indicators and an aggressive Make in India campaign.


It was only natural that, beginning with JRD’s Bharat Ratna, Phase Two was a celebratory phase for business leaders. The business media began instituting awards for business leaders and most of those named were happy to appear at media events and accept these awards. There are now a plethora of events and the rapid multiplication of business awards has robbed them of any real value, even if business leaders opt to keep media in good humour by turning up at these jazzy events. Indeed, the institution of media awards for business and policy leadership has become commercialised to the ext­ent that these annual events have become a profit centre for media companies. It is not just their proliferation that has devalued lists and awards, but also the fact that in Phase Three the sheen has gone off business enterprise. Public concern about crony capitalism and yesterday’s success bec­oming today’s failure have forced a reth­ink on the value of premature celebration. Our list of 50 has withstood the test of time.

But the recent concern about failed enterprise, cronyism and bankrupt businesses mis­ses the point that failure is a legitimate outcome of enterprise. Investment is an act of risk-taking. Sometimes bets go wrong. Not all such failures are due to wrong-doing or poor judgement. If business leaders will not take risks, how would new enterprise emerge? It is equally vital to recognise that cronyism is very much a part of capitalist development. From the early days of modern capitalism, in Europe and North America, to its 20th-century variant in East Asia and the more recent experi­ence of post-Communist China and Russia, cronyism has defined capitalist development. Wealth does get created. Employment does get generated. The downside is that the benefits of wealth creation get distributed in a manner that is not warranted by the contribution made. It is such unjust and unfair enrichment, often at the cost of the public exchequer, that enrages public opinion. Which is why modern capitalism must provide for bankruptcy and legal action where necessary.

In recent times, the Satyam case offered such an opportunity where timely government inter­vention punished business leadership while protecting the firm and its employees. This did not happen in the case of Kingfisher. Capitalism renews itself by constantly seeking and secu­ring public legitimacy for private enterprise. When the regulatory system fails to impose due punishment and rewards wrongdoing, it robs capitalism of its social legitimacy.

Hence, even as we celebrate the success of indi­vidual enterprise we must always insist that business leaders are deserving of social acclaim. Perhaps not all who have been named in this list will find such social acclaim. Yet, to the extent that they have created shareholder value, gene­rated jobs and contributed to national development, one must celebrate their leadership role.

India chose to move away from the first phase of what some describe as state capitalism and others would call bureaucratic socialism to the second and third phase of private enter­prise led development. Today, we find ourselves at yet another inflexion point when neither the State nor private enterprise seems to have the resources to turn the investment cycle around and step up the pace of industrialisation. India needs new ideas to get out of this rut. One such idea has come from the ministry of finance—bad banks. Indeed, much of Asian capitalism has been built on ‘bad banks’ and long-term financial institutions.

India did create these institutions but has made them dysfunctional over time. The time has come for new initiatives like a ‘bad bank’ to rescue Indian firms and revive investor sentiment.

The importance of domestic solutions has gone up with the external environment bec­oming increasingly hostile. Even as developed economies turn inward and shun globalisation, China has created an engine of industrialisation that is contributing to de-industrialisation both in developed and developing economies.

What are India’s options? The government is fiscally constrained while large segments of the private sector are over-leveraged. What policies can unleash Phase Four? Where will new enterprise emerge? A decade from now who will enter this list of top 50 CEOs? Such are the challenges that India faces at 70.

(Sanjaya Baru is a political commentator, policy analyst and was the media advisor to Manmohan Singh as prime minister.)

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