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Monday, January 27, 2020

A quiet hero

Viren Shah disproved the view that wealthy business leaders like to flirt with authoritarianism

Written by Jaithirth Rao | Published: March 22, 2013 2:47:28 am

Viren Shah,who passed away recently,was more than just a veteran businessman and a public persona with gravitas. He represented a world of sophistication,courage and resilience that we Indians would do well to keep in our memories. His name had the sanskritic resonance associated with bravery and heroism. He certainly was a hero — not a loud brash one,but a quiet hero who carried his distinctions with a light and deft touch.

Viren was probably the only wealthy and well connected figure from the world of Indian business who went to jail protesting the notorious Emergency imposed in 1975. Many may not be aware that he was out of the country when the Emergency notification was proclaimed. He could easily have stayed out. But he chose to come back,knowing full well that he would be incarcerated as soon as he reached India — and that is just about what happened. Bullied and weakened by the endless torture and tribulations of the licence raj of “free” India,most business leaders had forgotten the legacy of a J.N. Tata,a Jamnalal Bajaj,a Walchand Hirachand or a V.O. Chidambaram who had stood up to the so-called ruthless foreign rulers. Every Indian business was dependent on the tender mercies of all-powerful officials like the joint chief controller of imports and exports (the tyrannical JCCIE who discouraged imports and tried as best as possible to make exporting a difficult activity),or the director general of trade and development (who made sure that very little trade developed).

Over the years,kowtowing to the bureaucracy and the political powers that be became second nature for those who ran private enterprises. As a result,despite being shocked by the violation of democratic norms,an eerie silence descended across the various chambers of commerce in India. And,of course,some business leaders became active supporters of the Emergency sensing that they could get goodies from the new gravy train. Some actually thought that Sanjay Gandhi’s authoritarianism would be good for their own businesses,and by an insidiously clever extension of the argument,good for the country at large. Knowing full well that not only would he suffer,but that his steel business would be persecuted by the minions of the Indian state (the DRI,the enforcement directorate,the ITO,the labour commissioner,the sales tax commissioner,the excise inspectorate,the customs department,let alone the then all-pervasive MRTP Commission),Viren calmly and deliberately decided to defy the incipient totalitarianism in the country. He risked his physical well-being; he risked his family’s wealth and influence. He single-handedly disproved the oft-expressed view that wealthy business leaders like to get into bed with fascism.

Viren was a consummate businessman. Given the range of interests he had,one could sometimes quite easily forget that he knew pretty much everything there was to know about steel-making. He was just not boastful. He was widely read and had an abiding interest in constantly trying to learn more. His patriotism was palpable and sometimes touched by a naïve innocence. When he was president of Assocham,I remember him telling some of us that Indian business could not progress unless we strengthened two key bridges: the bridge between India and the external world and the bridge between urban and rural India,a challenge we faced within our country. He had hit the nail on the head long before it became fashionable to talk of globalisation or inclusive growth.

Viren was a man of incredible sophistication in his speech. His choice of words and soft delivery,be it in English,Hindi,Gujarati or Urdu,was a joy to listen to. I would sometimes keep listening to him,just captivated by his tone and modulation. Having all my life suffered from a tendency towards loudness and a fondness for high decibels,I felt that I had a lot to learn from someone like Viren. He was un-Indian,very un-Indian,in one matter: he was punctual to the dot. I can remember many desi functions where he and his gracious wife Anjana would be the first to arrive at the exact time mentioned in the invitation,sometimes before even the hosts turned up! He could also be sharp and tick people off when he felt that a basic propriety was being violated. Having done that,he would break out into a delightful smile reassuring the person he had just upbraided that he was trying to be helpful,not insulting. Viren was always nattily dressed,whether in an elegant dhoti-kurta or a silk scarf and cashmere jacket. Just being around him during an evening of top-notch conversation was a pleasurable aesthetic experience.

I remember Bill Rhodes,a veteran American business leader of his times,once telling me: “Let’s talk to Viren Shah from Mukand. I can always understand him. And he is one of the most realistic persons I have met — does not get carried away with either excessive pessimism or optimism.” And Rhodes,who was well acquainted with many parts of the world went on to add: “Viren and Venky (he was referring to Venkitaramanan,who was then the governor of the Reserve Bank of India) are real patriots who are committed to doing good for their country. I wish we had more of them in the world.”

Viren went on from a solid innings in his own steel business to leading an important business chamber in the country,to a membership of Parliament and to becoming the governor of a state. And that state was the communist-ruled West Bengal. How a former Swatantra party member got along so well with the comrades is a tribute to his democratic credentials. He leaves behind as his legacy what may seem to be commitments to abstractions: courage,patriotism,sophistication and free democratic discourse. They may be abstractions — but Viren showed us that they are well worth living for,fighting for.

The writer is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur

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