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An interview with Rama Prasad Goenka

August 16, 2008 12:35 IST

After retiring from active life, the founder of RPG Enterprises reflects on various prime ministers the country's had and the highlights of his relations with them.

Rama Prasad Goenka, founder of the Rs 13,000-crore (Rs 130-billion) RPG Enterprises, lives a life of a retired family patriarch in Kolkata today.

"My life has been  full of interesting people", he tells Business Standard when asked about memories of an era when the open Indian economy was converted into a closed one based on the licence raj by the person whom he openly idolises, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

"I can't speak too much -- my sons are in business and they will get into trouble because of me", he quips in a free-wheeling interview.

You have run through several prime ministers -- who do you remember most vividly?

The most exceptional leader I have met is without doubt Indira Gandhi. I saw her the first time in 1962, when I accompanied my father to a meeting with her. Later, thanks to Ashok Mehta, the Congress party member who also served on the Planning Commission, I came to know her a little better.

My father, I think, was close to Pandit Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, but this may have been a generation thing.

Indira Gandhi was an amazingly strong personality -- fearless and ready to face any challenge, straightforward to the extent of being rough, and intelligent beyond measure and expectation.

What about her son?

Rajiv was a wonderful person -- extremely trusting, and kind, and this at times worked to his disadvantage.

It was kind of Indira Gandhi to give me free access to the Prime Minister's office when she was in power and to her residence when she was out of power.

This situation changed under Rajiv because a coterie of two persons around him worked overtime to turn him against some persons they identified as being close to his mother, and therefore by some strange logic, as being against him. People like Pranab Mukherjee were on this list, and so was I.

About a year after he came to power, Rajiv saw me by accident at a public place and asked me why I never came to see him.

I said in reply, "You should ask the circle of people around you". It had the desired effect in the sense that the people abusing their power were put in their place and the relationship with the Gandhi family was restored, as was the direct access to the PMO.

Rajiv's simplicity was in stark contrast to the shrewdness of Narsimha Rao, with whom I had little contact.

What about V P Singh?

Our relations were far from perfect. He never forgave me for an incident. When VP was finance minister, he was in Kolkata and met the business community in the Raj Bhavan. Everybody sat around quietly listening to his lecture but I could not hold myself back.

I told him on his face, 'You have unleashed a raid-raj in this country and every businessman is upset'. There was a stunned silence and then the meeting ended. VP became defence minister some time later but I think he never forgot my remark.

Did you proximity to Indira Gandhi ever become a problem?

Of course. First, I was put in jail for some time.

Then the Janata government came to power, and my proximity to Indira Gandhi cost me Remington Rand — I had acquired the shares of the company but the transaction was rejected by the government on some frivolous grounds.

Similarly, I acquired Assam Frontier and the deal was passed by the commerce minister, and the commerce secretary P C Alexander, but the finance minister rejected it.

What exactly happened at Bombay Dyeing, between you and the Wadia family?

It's a rather delicate subject and the details are known only to a few. Neville Wadia sold the company to me for a fixed consideration, with Shapoorji Pallonji, another Bombay Dyeing director, as the witness, in a deal brokered by N Pettigrew on behalf of Wadia and J P Thakkar for me.

Then Neville told me, "my family will break up if I go through with the deal so please do not proceed -- I will compensate you for the loss". If I was materialistic, I would have pushed through with the transaction but I did not -- in fact I did not accept any damages either.

Several people were upset, none more so that Pallonji, who said he would stand as witness in my favour if I were to take the matter to court.  But Neville was a man whom I liked and I stepped back.

The signed document still exists in the vaults of the solicitors' firm of Mullah in Mumbai as an example of my folly.

What were the lessons from the deal?

There were certainly lessons for me.

My grandfather, Sir Badridas Goenka, taught me an old Marwari value: word of mouth is much more sacrosanct and important than any legal document. If you have a verbal agreement, never step back. A written agreement can be renegotiated but not a verbal agreement, a word of mouth.

The second lesson is nothing should be hidden from the three most important persons in your business sphere —  your lawyer, banker and your doctor.

Your relationship with Manohar Rajaram Chhabria ended in grief too.

MRC was introduced to me by National Grindlays Bank as it was known then, and we were partners for some time, but I will not speak about him as he is dead. I don't have very strong feelings because if you attempt seven to eight ventures all at once, like I did, some are bound to fail and if it fails because you are let down, it is acceptable. I am willing to forget the money never returned, or unpaid sums -- it's all over.

Of Kolkata's old Marwari businessmen, who do you remember as the most remarkable?

Without doubt B M Birla. He had unbelievable charisma, and we used to call him the 'raja' or king. He had a large heart and never quibbled over small things.

He rarely lost his temper and behaved mildly with everyone around him but commanded respect because of incredible judgement.

I worked closely with him, though I was many years his junior, as a fellow arbitrator for four years during the unbelievably complex partition of the Surajmall Nagarmall empire among the many extremely bitter family factions. We came out shining because of BMB.

Pradeep Gooptu in New Delhi
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