The Five Musketeers
This is a true story of a few ordinary Indians. Its not a story of their lives, their careers, their achievements – of which there are many. Its about their qualities of head and heart.
It all came together when the late Suresh Neotia (Chairman, Ambuja Group), brought us together for an informal, relaxed evening in his home. No agenda. No structure-No planned outcomes. This was so appreciated by all that it became a regular feature.
Nandan Nilekani, then Chairman, UIDAI (Aadhar Project, now, Chairman, Infosys), N.K Singh (then Rajya Sabha, M.P. and recently Chairman XV Finance Commission), Ashok Ganguly (Former Chairman of Unilever India and, then, a Rajya Sabha M.P.), Suresh Neotia and yours truly.
Usually, the time spent together was about 90 minutes. No dinner. Just a mid-evening get-together to connect, converse and disappear to our respective homes. No notes were taken. No decisions. Views and information were exchanged freely. Suresh Neotia was central, the gentle nodal point, but sometimes, the venue shifted to Ashok Ganguly’s official residence.
I knew Nandan the least. We worked together for the “India Everywhere” Project in Davos in 2006. He led with great ability. Later, the “India@60” project in New York in 2007. He became Chairman of NCAER of which I was a Board Member. Low key, extremely knowledgeable, modest, outstanding.
NK – a 30-year association through his different incarnations in Government-Ministry of Finance in the 90s, Prime Minister’s office where he was Secretary (Economic) to PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Planning Commission and on and on.
Ashok Ganguly was the doyen of professionals in Industry, rising to become the Chairman of Unilever India-then, Hindustan Lever – liked and respected by all for his IQ, EQ and straight forwardness. A man with no personal agenda, a man of great knowledge, experience and integrity.
Suresh Neotia came into my life in 2000 when his group bought ACC from Tatas. The financial institutions wanted a neutral Chairman of the Board and the privilege fell on me. Slowly, because we were both reserved and selective in building friendships, the relationship grew, step by step, trust grew. He never made a request or demand of me which was out of place and we became deeply connected to each other.
So, this was the group. Five dissimilar people. Five different backgrounds. Origins from Karnataka, Bihar, Rajasthan and Bengal, brought together by accident, not design, but all dedicated to India, all confident of India, all unafraid of the world, all with a record of some service in different ways.
A feature which emerged again and again was the quality of Thoughtfulness in the group. There was understanding that India was complex and diverse and “instant” solutions were not going to work. Every issue needed careful Thought so that challenges could be met and overcome.
Why was “India Everywhere” organized with great expense and enormous effort in Davos in 2006 led by Nandan? Because there was a realization that the positives about India were not getting through into the minds and hearts of world leaders of business, academia, governments, NGOs, etc. It was undertaken by CII to project to the world that India had come of age and the world should look seriously at India. That India was ready and willing to engage with the world. That India’s time had come.
Why was “India@60” organized in 2007 in New York in September during the annual session of the UN? To project India to the world gathered in New York in the second half of September.
These were events put together with a national purpose under the leadership of Nandan Nilekani, which worked very well for India’s image and global standing. And, through outreach, Government’s support was constant.
The imagination to take these on came from Nandan Nilekani. The organization and management came from CII. And, many Indian companies came together to fund and participate these initiatives. The Late Prof CK Prahalad, speaking in Davos in 2006, said “I feel so proud of India today”. And, the same CK came to New York in 2007 to deliver his famous Keynote on “India@75”. Lets work for a New India in 2022. Lets not spend time on celebrating India@60.
Our evening conversations shared thoughts about a variety of subjects, be it harnessing Technology and Development (Nandan’s Aadhar Project), Disinvestment and Privatization of the Public Sector as well as its autonomy to be able to perform because there was much talent in the Public Sector. Also, greater freedom from controls and regulations to create and build a different Economic Environment.
So, much of the time the conversation was about the country, our country, India. Many thoughts, many ideas, many exchanges. How to speed growth? How to distribute Development? How to build a good society? How to address corruption? How to connect people?
Governance of India, it was clear, was deeply challenging and complex and there were no perfect solutions. But, competence and decisiveness were essential ingredients to take the country forward to realise its true potential, which was great.
Businessmen are known to have Big Egos. Its all about themselves. They know all the answers. They tend to be arrogant. Self-centred.
In this group, there was a difference. Each one had achieved much. A co-founder of Infosys, a great technology company. A founder of a Cement empire which set new standards of efficiency and professionalism. A scientist who rose to lead a MNC in India. A civil servant with an enormous track record of getting things done, of implementation, of administrative excellence.
And, yet Humble. Modest, self-effacing. Loath to talk about themselves. No bragging rights. No “I” syndrome. Quite remarkable. And, unique.
There was no patting oneself on the back even though the collective and individual achievements were extraordinary.
NK had built a unique mutuality with Japan in the 5 years he spent there at the Indian Embassy in Tokyo which was truly remarkable. He is the only Indian to have gone deep into the Japanese inscrutable system, built relationships for India with Japan, earned their respect and trust. But, if you ask him, he will talk essentially about Japan as a beautiful country and how much he learned from them. But, this is a man recognized and awarded by the Emperor and Government of Japan.
Suresh Neotia, together with Narotam Sekhsaria, built Ambuja Cement, a company of excellence. They pioneered developments hitherto unseen in India. His track record was outstanding.
And, his relationships were for “Life”. This was a man who stood by his friends through all ups and downs. His generosity knew no limits. But, he was loath to speak of what he had done, and what he did. It was his karma. It was the blessing given to him. Not the other way around. So many people were obliged to him.
Ashok Ganguly never spoke of his great achievements. As a Ph.d. As a researcher. As a scientist. As a manager. As a leader. This trim, elegant, tall man exuded charisma but you had to hear all of this from his legion of admirers, not from him.
Nandan, Co-builder of Infosys, the finest leader Infosys has ever had (my view, and no offence to Narayan Murty) because he was/is an inclusive leader who put others in front, and, personally stayed at the back. A man of quality. A man of vision.
Men of modesty. Humility. Self-effacing. Examples for all those who worked with them, came into contact with them, observed them, learnt from them.
This quality of Humility was unique and special. Lesser men (and women) often make it their mission to make known their achievements. Not these Men of Excellence.
It is only in private moments, and with deep questioning, that what they are all about comes through. Each one has served his organization, built institutions of quality, left rich legacies and have to be saluted as great Indians. But, they also belong to the world. Their footprints are deeply embedded wherever their paths have taken them.
What Do you think?
A special quality to be found in these people was the deeply ingrained characteristic of consulting others. “What do you think” was an oft-repeated question when in discussion on any topic.
There was no “I know it all” syndrome. Yes, I know something, I am thinking but I need to know what you think. This will help me. I need to listen. This was a rich feature of this odd combination of personalities.
Personal experience with them ranged over many subjects. Many issues. Many proposals. Many programmes. Many projects. Covering almost every aspect of India. Inevitably, there would be exchange of information and, ideas, but, always the question “What do you think”. And, it was not superficial. It was always genuine. The search for another view, a second perspective, an effort to understand and see through the lens of another person of dissimilar experience and background.
It put pressure on the other person, To think, to avoid superficial responses, to be deliberate and considered. To add value. It tested others and stretched their thoughts, ideas and views because these were persons who had had huge experience, knew the questions and probably also the answers but they still asked, they tested themselves, they tested you. An exercise for both, the questioner and the questioned.
This constant desire to seek a better solution through consultation was a unique feature and marked them as persons of true quality. They recognized there was no perfect solution, but was there a better way, a different way, a new way, which they may not have thought of?
They asked, they listened, and framed their views and moved ahead.
A classic example of national importance comes to mind.
It was New York, 2000. Prime Minister Vajpayee was to give a major address and N.K. Singh was to draft the speech. He submitted a fairly good quality draft to the PM, who went through it and called him in. He asked him to add a couple of big ideas.
Time was short. NK got on the phone to a few trusted friends. Racked his own brains. And, put into the PM’s speech two ideas which were transformational for the development and growth of India: opening of Telecom to the private sector and building National Highways. East-West-North-South, the Quadrilateral. The rest is history.
Telecom and Highways changed the face of India and the lives of all Indians. But how many know of the origin of these great ideas?
The Aadhar Project, brainchild of Nandan, has been equally transformational. There were many ups and downs, many hurdles, many disbelievers even at cabinet level but he persisted. Progress was made. Significant progress. Then, 2014 came and the work was not complete. A new Government, a new PM, and the corridors of Delhi rang with the noises of the project being terminated by the new Government.
Nandan, deeply committed to this project as extremely important to India, asked for a meeting with the PM, got it, made a presentation to him and the PM, convinced of its importance, not only approved continuation but also directed increased allocation of resources and greater speed.
Ambuja Cement was a Gujarat-based cement company, working to its own ideals and high standards and, also, collaborating with successive State Governments. In due course, the future PM became the CM of Gujarat and Suresh Neotia, over time, built a relationship of Trust, extending support beyond the call of duty. When Suresh Neotia passed away prematurely, the PM made a very special visit to an Institution in Varanasi set up by the Neotia family, spending valuable time with the family. Only he knows the role of Suresh Neotia in Gujarat.
Relationships Matter: It’s the Heart
Each of these persons had another shared characteristic. They nurtured their relationships. They believed in long-term friendship. They prioritized this aspect in their lives.
When you come across people who served in Levers, there is a chorus of respect, affection and admiration for Ashok Ganguly. Straight, physically and metaphorically speaking, he was known to be firm, to be fair, to be open, to be a man who was running a marathon, not a 100- meter sprint. And, this sentiment about him extended far beyond the Lever family. Ashok Ganguly has been a legend in his lifetime and a corporate leader of exceptional quality. But, what strikes one repeatedly is how he touched people’s lives. He has a big heart.
Suresh Neotia likewise. There are countless people who turn up, each year, at his 8 September birthday cultural program, organized by his nephew, Harsh, whose lives were touched by Suresh. It is amazing to see the sharing of memories, the outpouring of gratitude to Suresh, who helped a very wide variety of people in many many ways. Its all about heart and caring.
The civil service is not known for sentimentality but NK has an army of civil servants, and their families, with “Thank you” written on their hearts. He has, over many years, been ever-ready to listen, to understand, to support, to help. The fund of goodwill towards him is just unbelievable. In every corner of the country, but, especially, Bihar, his home State, there are serving and retired civil servants who owe him “big time”. NK’s reach is unique, his heart is big and the army of followers immense.
Nandan, too, is in class of his own. He has been generous to support Institutions and people, especially those who want to become entrepreneurs. And, the family Foundation has been liberal and forthcoming to help, support and, even, mentor. National Institutions have received enormous support from Nandan, far beyond their expectations.
India has more than its share of persons of great quality. These four are only illustrative of the talent India enjoys. Given the right opportunities, the potential for India is limitless.