Manager’s musings

Print edition : August 22, 2014

President Giani Zail Singh conferring the Padma Bhushan on V. Krishnamurthy in New Delhi on March 31, 1986. Photo: N. SRINIVASAN

A detailed account of V. Krishnamurthy’s role in turning around several public sector behemoths.

THE memoirs of one of India’s most remarkable chief executive officers comes out at a time when the political dispensation has unapologetically aligned itself with a vision of disinvestment of public sector enterprises.

V. Krishnamurthy’s memoirs, aptly tiled At the Helm, dispels the notion propagated by large sections of the financial media about public sector enterprises being unproductive dens of corruption run by incompetent bureaucrats. The book provides glimpses into the manufacturing sector in pre-liberalisation India and illustrates the creative potential that existed in Indian industry even before the floodgates were opened for the entry of foreign capital.

The author, in his long and illustrious career in the public sector, revived a number of companies through enhanced productivity and improved focus on customers. The book captures the changing fortunes of public sector companies with changes in the political dispensation at the Centre. The author’s negotiations with politicians of diverse ideologies to bring about substantial changes in the companies he headed and the descriptive account of his able management of these units make a fascinating read. The book also reveals the idiosyncrasies and character traits of the author in his varied interactions with politicians, employees and executives of other companies. The stellar achievements of Krishnamurthy include building up the power equipment manufacturer Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), giving the moribund car company Maruti Udyog Limited a new lease of life, and turning around the steel giant Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL).

His book is also a testimony to the politics of the times as he recounts the ways in which he countered and dealt with political interference in the running of public sector units. He gives us detailed accounts of his interactions with a number of important politicians—including former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Morarji Desai, and President Pranab Mukherjee when he was Finance Minister.

The author provides a balanced account of the politicians he had occasions to interact with in his capacity as a manager. While he quotes instances pointing to their occasional interference and distrust, he also gives credit where it is due. His portrayal never looks biased towards any particular dispensation as he charts the friction and occasional skirmishes that arise out of technocrats and politicians coming into conflict while running a public sector company. He recalls the doubts expressed by Indira Gandhi about the ability of Indian managers to run BHEL successfully and says he proved to her that Indian managers were capable of running behemoths, even in the public sector. He also recounts his differences with Morarji Desai with regard to the industrial policy. He says that Morarji Desai was critical of the Nehruvian model of development through heavy industries and was in favour of a larger emphasis on small and medium enterprises. The author pins this down to Desai’s ideological and political battle with the Nehruvian ideal and says that subsequently his assumption about Indian industry was proved wrong.

Krishnamurthy says though he was not harassed during the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi never trusted him. He recounts his turbulent relationship with the then Industry Minister Charanjit Channa, who was considered close to Sanjay Gandhi. The author’s glimpses into the machinations of the political bosses illustrate how competing ideologies and perceptions about Indian industry shaped public sector in successive dispensations. He also illustrates how political interference had occasionally paved the way for corruption in the running of public sector units. He remembers how Channa once complained to him that one of the Joint Secretaries was not following his (Channa’s) orders. The author found out that the Minister had wanted him to change a formula to give a higher allocation to a particular business house. He recalls that he reiterated the Joint Secretary’s stance to the Minister.

The author’s detailed descriptions of how he turned around several public sector units dispel the widely held perception of privatisation and disinvestment as the only hope for loss-making public sector units. The author acknowledges that the negative perceptions about the public sector were because of a lack of communication with the public about the role and achievements of the sector. He recounts how he took the challenges head on and worked towards achieving the goals despite resistance and adverse criticism from various quarters. He also spent considerable time and energy trying to transform the ethos and work culture of government institutions, which he was set to transform. At BHEL, apart from increasing productivity, he also focussed attention on developing in-house research and technology.

In reviving Maruti, he successfully dispelled any doubts of the political establishment about the capacity of an Indian firm to produce a quality car and that too in such huge quantities. He also made considerable efforts to make manufacturing units more customer-oriented so that they could cater to the needs of customers and not just expect special benefits as public sector entities. The author’s attitude towards the trade unions in the organisations that he sought to reform, however, is problematic. Despite his innate sympathy for the cause of the employees and his humane approach towards a number of problems they faced, he does not come across as entirely supportive of the functioning of trade unions. He describes at length how he faced and dealt with the “challenges of trade unionism” in the BHEL plant at Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu. One of his pronouncements about a strike called by the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in the factory is revealing: “Though I supported the workers in their demand for bonus, I refused to tolerate indiscipline even if it was for a legitimate cause. The man suspected of instigating the agitation was identified and suspended.” There are instances of compassion towards individual employees, too. But the conception of the trade union movement is framed in terms of a malady which needs to be cured and got rid of. There is no serious engagement with the movement as a legitimate form of collective bargaining for legitimate demands.

The book is filled with anecdotes and incidents that provide a glimpse of the man beyond his professional pursuits and highlight his idiosyncrasies. The author perceives himself as a “victim” of the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu during his youth. Speaking of his pursuit for higher education, he says, “In any case, getting into a good college was not easy. The anti-Brahmin movement had started, and I had the double handicap of being a Brahmin boy with a rural background.” This perceived sense of hurt, which surfaces on other occasions in the memoirs too, is an upper-class reactionary approach to a larger sociopolitical movement. The author approaches the anti-Brahmin movement from the vantage point of his own perceived sense of victimhood without acknowledging the deeply entrenched socio-economic inequalities that exacerbated the movement.

The author’s belief in a “divine dispensation” gets reinforced after the sudden change in his family’s fortunes after the completion of a temple project in Karuveli. His religious beliefs surface later in life, too, when he announces that the first car manufactured at the Maruti plant after the revival of the company is to be offered for the service of the presiding deity of the Tirumala-Tirupati Venkateswara temple in Andhra Pradesh. The glimpses into the author’s personal traits enliven the portraiture of his illustrious career.

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