Anand Mahindra can’t wait to get back home from the US because all the action is happening in India with a new, stable government led by Narendra Modi in place. Hours after chairing a board meeting of Mahindra & Mahindra at midnight US time, the company’s chairman and MD spoke on Saturday to Satish John at length from Boston on his hopes and aspirations for the country. The new administration has begun well and a lot more is expected from it, he said. Excerpts:
On Modi government’s 10-point agenda.
I think it is almost brilliant to put at the head of the list the fact that bureaucrats should be encouraged to take decisions without fear. In a sense he’s gone to the heart of the problem of the paralysis. The Indian government is extraordinarily large and it is difficult to try and believe that one leader can make all the change. This is a federal system. In a large bureaucracy you cannot exercise the transformation of any situation without coopting bureaucracy.
So empowerment becomes important. It’s a good sign. If you remember, one of the major apprehensions about Modi was an autocratic style of functioning. By putting right at the top of the agenda the empowerment of the bureaucracy I think one has to appreciate and admit that it is definitely not the act of an autocrat.
On disbanding ministerial groups.
Without making much heavy weather of it, he’s been a case study for business schools on how to exercise leadership and have an impact from day one in the new job. He’s setting a clear agenda and is making a clear promise of making a measurement of progress made against that clear agenda. For example, making an agenda for 100 days will make it clear what the matrix would be for measuring success of that agenda. It is important that every day some incremental progress is made towards that agenda and that progress is communicated transparently. He has got his team ready, which is a focused team. To me, every decision needn’t be a big-bang reform but a signal of proactive decision-making and removal of red tape and bureaucracy. And a promise of even speedier decision-making in the future.
On the government’s immediate priorities.
Back in the 1980s, I had written a column headlined ‘Roads to Nowhere’. At that time we were not building enough roads. (Among) America’s competitive advantages happen to be its highways and its transportation network. Those are like blood vessels to the economy and they create job opportunities. Therefore, in a funny sense, the best thing anyone can do to create an inclusive economy is ironically through building roads, because access to markets or the lack of access to markets is one of the most discriminatory things one can do to the poor, especially to the rural poor. It’s not a point that we automatically think of but roads are a mechanism to create inclusiveness in the economy. So, I think, the faster he does that the better for the economy. There is huge economic data to show that roads (give) a bigger boost to rural income than even irrigation. It will help power dual income for families and will allow a kind of diversity from dependence on agriculture which creates productivity.
On India-US ties.
I’ve been here (in the US) for quite a while now. The Indian elections have generated enormous interest. Most of the diplomatic and political pundits are now urging the leadership in Washington not to miss out on what they feel is the diplomatic opportunity for the US in reaching out to and rebuilding a very strong relationship with India. They feel US has lost ground because of the visa controversy and that they should now rediscover the ground and build a strong relationship.
There is a feeling that both Japan and China have both stolen a march on building this kind of relationship with India. There is going to be, in my opinion, a strong effort from decision-makers here to reach out to the prime minister and his colleagues to rebuild the relationship.
On the perception that the new government will tilt more toward the east — Japan, China, South Korea.
There has been significant interest shown by Japan. It is a country with a liquidity overhang and an investment surplus. Modi is well aware of that. Why Japanese investors have been holding back is because they did not perceive any of the promises we’ve given to be gaining traction.
In the area of construction and large industrial projects, they can take pole position in large projects here. That being said, everybody speculated what the position of the PM and the Cabinet would be and the PM is his own man. My contention is that our PM is a practical man and he knows that any kind of vindictiveness has no role in foreign policy.
I think his whole objective is to enhance India’s economic health and through that gain what should be India’s rightful role in the world. The fact that we are the world’s largest democracy and we are all aware that power and a role in global affairs for a nation comes from economic strength. I think, in his own way and at the right time, he will respond positively when the correct signals are sent out from the US administration.
On FDI in defence
We have been consistent from the time we entered into JVs with foreign companies. We have not changed our stance. Right from the beginning we have been representing to the government that it is a positive step to allow at least 49% investment through the automatic route. Because it encourages the foreign partner to deploy the technology into the JV. Otherwise, there is wariness on their part to provide 100% support to the joint venture. So if you really want the best technology to be manufactured here, then (it should be) a minimum of 49% stake, which we have always advocated.
On Mahindra’s investments plans.
We have never shied away from making investments. Even during downcycles, we never stopped our investments. We invested in the Chakan automotive plant when the economy was down; we also invested in the tractor plant in Zaheerabad when the tractor market was witnessing a downcycle. When the market improved for tractors we were able to ramp up our output. We always have a long-term view of the economy. We have consistently been investing. In defence, for example, if the government starts buying again for the much-needed upgrade then we’ll certainly make the investments. Pawan (Goenka) has gone on record to say that we are considering a Rs 4,000-crore investment, which is independent of the new developments. It was something we were going to do.