Incurable Optimist

Ghanshyam Das Birla
Ghanshyam Das Birla

By Gita Piramal

1894: Born in Jaipur into a rich merchant family. Moves to Calcutta in 1910.
On his way to London with Gandhi to attend Second Round Table Conference.
A frequent traveler, he was at home in London.
In Pilani with Nehru. This proximity didn't hostility from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

We are not a society that admires success, especially business success. Hinduism frowns on the fruit of our labour, Islam on the giving and receiving of interest. But a passion for work made G.D. Birla a rich and powerful man. Consequently he evoked admiration in a somewhat reluctant, slightly resentful way. As one of his biographers said, "Capitalists on so grand and unrepentant a scale tend to be regarded with suspicion in an ostensibly socialist society." Cold cash can attract envy.

Today there is awe for Reliance's Dhirubhai H. Ambani and Infosys' N.R. Narayana Murthy. So exactly what should we remember GD for?

His industriousness perhaps. Starting his business career as a jute broker at the age of 16, GD migrated from the deserts of Rajasthan to a rented room in Calcutta with his brother. Sleeping, cooking, washing -- everything was done in that one room. This was in 1910. By 1939 Birla Brothers were India's 13th largest managing-agency firm. The Tatas, headed by J.R.D. Tata, were No. 1. The firms in between were mostly British. Both men attained their creative peak between 1939 and 1969. The two groups' growth during this period thus offers an excellent point of comparison. Between 1939-69, Tata assets jumped from Rs 62.42 crore to Rs 505.36 crore while Birla's from Rs 4.85 crore to Rs 456.4 crore. In percentage terms, Tata grew at 709 per cent, Birla at 9,310 per cent. (In the '80s, Bajaj Auto grew at 1,852 per cent, Reliance at 1,100 per cent).

In GD's case, it's not just the money he made but how he made it, which is so remarkable. To build a jute mill, he had to break the stranglehold British businessmen had on this industry. To build Hindalco, he had to hack his way through jungles, real and bureaucratic. His empire-building spree preceded licensing. So during the most aggressive period of GD's growth, he had no power to block others, no licence to print money. He also had to contend with the active hostility of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

A letter to the Prime Minister's Office, dated April 20, 1953, reveals the frustrations he faced. "We have received proposals from Britain for manufacturing explosive substances and from Germany for starting a steel factory in collaboration. I am now 60 and am least interested in starting some new business merely for more money. My only interest is greater production in the country. I just want to know whether I can proceed in the matter. I want no commitment from the government but only want to know the policy of the government in such matters," GD wailed. There was no reply.

Birla was as much associated with industry as with the freedom movement and philanthropy. Mahatma Gandhi considered GD both a friend and a counsellor. GD preferred to describe himself as an "unofficial emissary and honest interpreter" between Gandhi and the British. GD was a philanthropist on a vast scale -- a school dropout, one year he opened 400 primary schools. And he taught himself to read, think and write on religion, medicine, history and current affairs, English and Indian literature as well as most aspects of India's economic problems.

But what kind of man was GD? In my opinion, three characteristics made him an outstanding business leader. He was a rebel, he had a modern mind and he could happily accept opposites at the same time.

He was a man of strange contrasts. One of his favourite sayings was, "Money is easy to make but difficult to spend properly." The motto, not very tactfully, decorates many Birla factories and offices. The founder of Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani didn't believe in formal degrees. None of his sons were graduates and he favoured pedigree over merit certificates. In business, GD disliked speculation though the family fortune had been built on it. The Birlas were devoid of a political tradition, but GD plunged into the national movement with complete abandon. The unresolved conflict between GD's pragmatism and morality was but one the many contradictions in his character. GD didn't think twice before saying, "My grandsons disagree with me but I think caste is what holds this country together. Abolish caste and India is in trouble." Could this be the same man who so staunchly supported Gandhi's Harijan campaign and was even the Harijan Sevak Sangh president?

Birla's business approach was equally eclectic. For JRD, the consumer was more important than the shareholder. For GD, it was profit over quality. JRD liked to call himself a "consensus" chairman, one who headed a team of dynamic managers equipped with the support system they needed to perform. GD, on the other hand, had a "monkey brigade" (this was the name he gave his sons, grandsons, nephews and cousins in the firm) which not only followed up on what he started but showed considerable initiative of its own. Above them was GD's small but lean and mean core team of battle-scarred executives whom he backed to the hilt. In 1930, GD silently bore a Rs 75 lakh loss caused by a manager in a hessian deal. "This brought Birla Brothers to the brink of disaster but GD's support to him remained unaffected," recalled a peer.

In his youth, a rebellious GD overthrew many caste conventions. He refused to do praishchit, or the traditional act of repentance on returning from an overseas trip. He split the Marwari clan over marriage traditions. But his attitude towards women remained conservative to the end. He provoked men's emancipation in Marwari society but not the woman's. Something of a dandy, GD loved good clothes and fine furniture but his personal needs were austere and spartan and became more so with age. Some say he didn't know how to enjoy the pleasure of life. He himself felt that Hinduism provided him with all he needed.

In the twilight of his life, when asked about his achievements, GD gave a profoundly simple answer. "A good guy, that's all I've tried to be all these years. Forget G.D. Birla," he said in his last interview. But he was an unforgettable man.

Dr Gita Piramal is author of Business Maharajas and Business Legends.



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