Dr F.A. Mehta, Freddie to friends, got his PhD in economics from LSE and was the first recruit to the now famous Tata Administrative Service. The year was 1956.
They kept the candle lit
Remembering the generation that built industry despite every disincentive
Jaithirth Rao It’s about two months since Freddie Mehta went “gently into the night”. It is difficult for me at least to think of Bombay without Freddie. I first met him in 1974 when I was a spring chicken bank trainee and he was an exalted member of our Country Advisory Board. For some inexplicable reason he took a liking to me. I became a sort of protege. Every time we met we caught up not only on economics but on history, public life and so on.
Dr F.A. Mehta, Freddie to friends, got his PhD in economics from LSE and was the first recruit to the now famous Tata Administrative Service. The year was 1956. This was one year after the infamous Avadi Congress and in the same year as the tragic “Industrial Licensing Policy”, the document that suffocated Indian industry for more than three decades. But all this would only be apparent in the future. The TAS was a new prestigious band of brothers that was put together with the direct supervision of Bombay House, headquarters of the Tata Group. These were days before anyone had heard of Pohang or Acer. Outside Japan, the Tatas were the leading conglomerate in Asia. As he moved from assignment to assignment till he became chief economic advisor for the Tatas and eventually a director of Tata Sons, Freddie was a concerned, articulate, vocal witness to the inexorable conversion of India into a beacon of dirigiste statism.
The Tatas suffered. Not so much in absolute terms but relative to the new businesses that grew in the Far East where there was a nurturing ecology, not a hostile one. Freddie continued to speak and write in various forums about the unnecessary asphyxiation of India’s entrepreneurial and managerial talents. I remember one of his talks where he mentioned that based on the advice of his leftist friends, Nehru was convinced in the early fifties that Japan would never recover from its pre-war imperial overstretch as the island country lacked natural resources. Freddie was grieved that even the elementary fact that free trade can make commodities available everywhere was not acknowledged for years.
He once said to me that the mandarins in Delhi needed a course in understanding elasticity! Even if it was revenues that they wanted, a 150 per cent import duty results in lower collections as against the application of a lower, less punitive duty rate.
We discussed Japan often. We concurred that too many people forget that Japan was a country rich in human capital even before the war. Mitsubishi fighters almost won the war for Japan. The physical destruction meant little. The talented educated citizens could easily rebuild their country. Discussions on human capital got him excited. He had facts and figures on his fingertips. The Tatas had in so many years nurtured 33,500 engineers (he would remember the exact number!) across umpteen specific disciplines and if only this talent could be un-bottled, where could India not go, and so on.
History was a passion. What if the Surat congress had taken a different turn? What if Gokhale had lived longer? When did Bihar lose its creativity? After all, it was the cradle of Indian civilisation. Why has it sunk into lassitude? The conversations were always a joy. Freddie’s face would light up. He would wave his right hand in a gesture of elegant grace. He would introduce a witty aside. He had all the attributes of a master raconteur. And most important of all, he was never patronising. He was an eminent person, but he listened to you as if you were an equal extending to you courtesy, attention and respect.
Freddie started his career in the first year of industrial licensing and his active professional career ended around the time Narasimha Rao liberated our country. The fact that the enormous talent and energy of his generation were spent fighting shackles and arguing against controls and building business and industry despite every disincentive needs to be acknowledged. They kept the faith. They kept the candle lit.
It was certainly a happy fact that God granted him at least more than a decade to witness the startling changes in India. He had never doubted the capacity of Indian engineers. And now their abilities in steel or software or autos were finally getting the oxygen they needed. Whenever he fondly inquired about my company, his favourite question was about how many jobs had been created, how human capital was being deployed, what were my plans to upgrade them and help individuals grow and develop — “don’t worry; profits will follow” was his simple message to me. He took a fond and touching pride in my achievements praising them with greater passion than they deserved and I reminded him that his going out of the way to encourage a hesitant trainee thirty years ago had something to do with it.
Till the end, his mind was active, he found time to read and analyse and write. One day, out of the blue, I got a note from him on the WTO and the dangers of protectionist revival in the world. The note was full of ideas as to how India should leverage its position to strengthen its service sector offerings. He was, though, an economist who believed in balance. India needed a strong manufacturing sector and could not ignore its agriculture ever. He was a hawk on foreign policy. If India let herself get pushed around, it was almost as if there was a direct hurt to his proud patriotic frame. On current affairs, his insights were uncanny. “Watch it Jerry, nothing will come out of Bofors except years of national self-flagellation and one more lost decade” he said with remarkable prescience.
Freddie had a unique achievement to his credit. He started life as a J.N. Tata Endowment Scholar. He went on to become a trustee of the J.N. Tata Endowment Fund. It was truly a remarkable tribute to a remarkable man and an outstanding civic institution of our country.
The writer is chairman & CEO Mphasis. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org