We’ve all heard of the classic “Dear John” letter. Well, this is a pri-celess “Dear Cyrus” missive that has tur-ned corporate India upside down. There are theories and then there are more theories. But, first, a look at the “underdog”: Cyrus Mistry — the ignominiously sacked chairman of the great and mighty Tata empire. Four years ago, hardly anybody knew of the existence of a person called Cyrus Mistry (except Supriya Sule and friends from the multi-billion-dollar real estate industry, which runs a parallel empire). Mr Mistry’s low profile suited everybody — particularly Mr Mistry himself. Big ticket players work best when they remain below the radar. In India, it’s difficult to get bigger than the reticent Shapoorji Pallonji family. I am not going to trace the family tree to show how exactly the main protagonists in this messy sacking are related — through marriage and otherwise. Even for someone like myself, living in South Mumbai, and not too far from where these billionaires reside, I can tell you confidently, most people wouldn’t recognise anybody from the Pallonji family besides Cyrus Mistry’s bête noire — the larger-than-life, living legend Ratan Tata. Here’s an intricate and complex saga waiting for a television series — so many intriguing players playing such complex games! The mind boggles.
Okay, here’s why I think Cyrus Mistry is the underdog. For one, he is virtually unknown outside business circles. For another, he is pitted against a man most citizens would like to see as the President of India. Now that’s huge, right? Ratan Tata, the reticent, classy “chairman for life” (regardless of his official position) is the ultimate corporate leader. Admired, almost worshipped, by juniors, he has dominated the business scene here and internationally, as the face of clean, transparent, progressive practices, in a country notorious for nurturing corruption and protecting crooks. Ratan Tata was held up as a shining example of a man leading from the front... a visionary, not afraid to make those big leaps, an outspoken critic of government failings. Ratan Tata was India’s most flaunted and flogged face of global success. He had virtually zero competition, mainly because the entire package was so compelling — there was legacy, inheritance, personality, charisma. And there was sycophancy.
A lot of it! Nobody minded so long as the pristine image of the House of Tatas stayed pristine — untainted by scandal, untouched by turbulence. If something unsavoury did surface in the media, it was quickly snuffed out by an expert and experienced team of firefighters. A vast business empire with staggering advertising budgets does have its own way of sending out the right message to media barons — the canny maaliks who look at ad revenues far more closely than editorial authenticity. Then... along comes this scandal! And the old guard sniffs in disdain! This is how arrivistes and buccaneers behave. Not the Tatas. They have loftier ways to deal with their own internal matters — sacking of the chairman, included. Why, they are wondering, couldn’t Cyrus Mistry have just gone his way quietly? Why this distasteful washing of dirty linen in public? Why not, indeed! But hey, Cyrus Mistry is clearly made of sterner stuff. And he is angry — very angry. He decided to dig in his heels and fight back. It’s going to be a long and dirty war. Now, with so many secrets spilling out, with so much dirt flying around, there is no way to push the genie back into the bottle, or pretend the elephant has vanished from the room. The gloves are finally off, and corporate India is secretly chortling!
There is blood all over the boardroom floor and rivals are waiting to see how this epic mess pans out. After all, with share prices tumbling, Cyrus Mistry as a primary stakeholder has a lot to lose — the loss of face comes with a hefty price tag. Hard to believe a canny, shrewd, ruthless businessman like Mistry is willing to forgo millions to “fix” Tata. Equally, it’s not in Ratan Tata’s interests to allow further exposure. There are wheels within wheels spinning overtime to contain what is by far the biggest split up in the history of corporate India, since Mukesh and Anil Ambani waltzed off in opposite directions. It is as murky, too. Insiders claim Mistry is sitting on enough ammo to blow up several, carefully built up reputations and myths — even if that involves axing his own toes. The Ratan Tata camp is not wasting a “nano” second either, and is working overtime to produce evidence justifying the abrupt, unprecedented sacking of the top dog. Nobody had anticipated Diwali fireworks of this magnitude to light up Mumbai’s skyline.
Now that it has happened, any more “patakhas” exploding in Bombay House, will be seen as sideshows. Unless, of course, Cyrus Mistry pulls out a big bazooka that will leave India open mouthed. If that does happen, at least one jealous fat cat will be rejoicing at the unexpected turn of events. For too long Ratan Tata has been treated like the God of Indian Business. If God does indeed turn out to have feet of clay, guess who will be laughing all the way to the bank? For all anyone knows, Cyrus Mistry may already be in talks with Ratan Tata’s rivals to collaborate and engage in future endeavours... even if such a deal requires trading those precious shares. Meanwhile, lawyers from both sides are rubbing their hands in glee — their Diwali Dhamaka bonus just got bigger!