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Ram Shahaney: A Person to Salute


25 November 1963, my first day in my job, I met this man with whom I would work for 46 years till I retired out of CII. But, our deep and abiding friendship has continued. Earlier this year, Ranjana and I made it a point to spend the evening with Ram and Sunita on our way to Chettinad.

25 November 1963 afternoon was the meeting of the Railway Wagons Division and, I, 24 years old, met 33 year old Mr Shahaney, Company Secretary of Jessops, then a premier Wagon builder. He grew in the company to become Managing Director and the Indian Engineering Association (which became CII), reached out to him to become the Vice President and, then, the President. He accepted and his involvement continued for his entire lifetime, till he passed away today.

During his Vice Presidency, he had to take a major personal decision. Mantosh Sondhi, Secretary, Heavy Industry, with whom he had great mutual rapport, had been transferred as Steel Secretary. British Leyland were reaching out to him. The public sector was facing major challenges. He decided to move to the private sector, to head British Leyland in Madras now (Chennai).

But, what he did with IEA was of a different order completely. Recognizing that IEA was committed to Regional rotation of Presidents, and he had been elected from the Eastern Region, (the President was Sandy Santhanam from the Southern Region), Ram Shahaney sent in his resignation as VP so that someone else from the East could take his place. But, the Association was already evolving norms. The highest office would be from a particular Region but the person and company mattered more. His resignation was regretted. He continued as VP and succeeded as President in March 1978. Thus, there were 2 Presidents from the South in successive years.

In a 30 year period, from 1974, the only time that an AGM of the Association was held without a Chief Guest from the Government or elsewhere, was in 1979, when RJ Shahaney was the “outgoing President”. It was, therefore, “his” AGM and it was his choice and decision to have the AGM for members only with the President giving a detailed report on the activities of the Association and developments within the economy. He felt differently about such events and he got his way. He had no interest in personal publicity or public profile.

This rare quality of a man who thought of the Institution first and self last, resurfaced many times over the next 50 plus years. Again and again, in a variety of ways, especially in the choice of Presidents and Regional Chairmen. He would put aside personal likes and dislikes and place the best interests of the Institution in front.

A simple man. A straightforward man. A man of few words. When he spoke, it was always to the point and reasoned. There was never a personal agenda. He was truly a role model of a President who saw his term as a year of public service. And, after his term, he constantly showed his caring through giving time, attention, interest and energy. His loyalty was only to CII. His commitment only to CII. He carried his Presidency as a quiet badge of honour. He said little but his actions spoke louder than words.

When CII started engaging internationally, he felt that, apart from the Middle East Offices, CII should be in London. He took the initiative to arrange a meeting with the Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and accompanied by me, negotiated a partnership, CII-CBI, under which a CII executive would be based in the CBI. An unprecedented arrangement which continues till this day.

This was the most significant overseas footprint for CII and Ram Shahaney, who had been President 9 years earlier made it happen in the late 80s , some years before the 1991 landmark economic reforms started. USA, Singapore, Germany, France, Japan, and others, followed.

As a direct result of this, CII became the Indian partner to the British Government on the Indo- British Partnership Initiative. Prime Minister John Major was the Republic Day Chief Guest on 26th January 1993. That afternoon, he came to the CII HQ on Lodhi Road to meet Indian and British CEOs together and he launched the Indo-British Partnership Initiative (IBPI) with the President CII (Jamshed Irani) and Bob Evans (CEO, British Gas) as the Co-chairs. In his last year as British Prime Minister in 1996-97, John Major came for the CII Partnership Summit in Kolkata in January 1997. On that occasion, because of the Prime Minister’s love for cricket, and his admiration for the Eden Gardens, a special cricket match was organized at the Eden Gardens. He lost the election that year but his successor, Tony Blair continued the tradition of meeting CII at 10 Downing Street. Later, Tony Blair came for the CII Partnership Summit held in Bangalore.

A Knighthood for Jamshed Irani, a CBE for me, an OBE for Supriya Banerji, Head of UK Office and a MBE for Rama Naidu. All because of the foresight of one man, R.J. Shahaney.

And, even more significant Partnership Summit was held in Chennai in the late 90s with the Prime Minister of Italy, Prof Prodi and the President of Poland, both delivering Keynote Addresses. Ram Shahaney led the CII team on this incredible occasion and his dinner in honour of his friend, the Italian Prime Minister remains engraved in everyone’s memory. He continued his constant interest in the development of CII at National level as well as with the Southern Region, of which he was especially fond.

The saying “They don’t make them like him anymore” applies to this unique person. He was quiet, he was reserved, he was private. But, he was very strong. And, he did open up with close friends whom he trusted. And, he was a contrast to his extrovert, outreaching, lovely wife and partner in life, Sunita. As Honorary Consul for Chile, she brought another dimension to his life and exposed him to a part of the world new to him.

We will miss his presence, his quiet words, his small smile, his caring and his love for CII. But, Sunita will miss him most.

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©2020 by Tarun Das and Ishan Roy.