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"We have never had a single default; we have never closed anything we have started. People believe and trust us.."

Their business interests engage them in innumerable countries. Heads of government have turned to them in times of crisis. But the Hinduja brothers have been famously taciturn when it comes to media interviews. In their first-ever television conversation, with Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, on NDTV 24X7’s Walk The Talk, they talk about decades of intermediation for the Indian government.

Excerpts:

With me today are two brothers who have been on the front pages of the newspapers of India and Britain for almost 20 years and yet this is their first-ever television interview. Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja, the two oldest of the Hinduja brothers. SP and GP, as you are known in London, welcome to Walk the Talk...You are India’s most globalised business family, isn’t it?

GP: At least, I can say, we are the first in globalisation. Now we can feel proud that while many others are still coming in, I think, in spread, in the number of countries, we would rank the highest.

But this is also a city where a lot of Indian businessmen land up and buy apartments when they have already vacuum-cleaned their bankers and their shareholders...

GP: I totally agree with you. We haven’t done something of that sort because we are totally non-borrowers; we have never learned to operate on leverage.

SP: It is our track record. We have never had a single default; we have never closed anything we have started. People believe and trust us, the small investors. So much so, a few years back, when the market had taken a dip, we were the first ones on Bond Street or anywhere in the world to refund what they had given us.

You’ve been away from the media; the media’s not been away from you, but you have not spoken to the media. I even read an article by a Spectator correspondent who came and chatted with you and then you followed it up with a legal notice. We’ll not go into the details of that, but it is a point that you’ve been shy of the media. You’ve never spoken on television before. Why now and why to me? I know I’m very charming and very persuasive but not that much; don’t give me so much credit...

SP: Let me tell you, we have never been shy. It’s the Vedic philosophy we have been following of our founder, of our father, who said that when you are working for the cause, never blow your trumpet. The minute you blow your trumpet, instead of focusing and concentrating on the cause, you focus and concentrate on yourself. Even in the Gita it is said the minute you say “I”, you are defeated.

So what has happened now that persuades you to defy the Gita’s injunctions?

SP: See, I’ll tell you; the first time we had a press conference in Delhi we were forced, compelled, to it because people had started misunderstanding. As far as television is concerned, we were just sitting on the fence to see when would be the appropriate time to come out and have a frank interview. We found you to be a very open, frank person...

GP, do you agree with your brother, as always?

GP: Let me tell you, we have not been as shy as you have been thinking. In 1972, we had our first interview, to The New York Times, which carried us on the front page. We have been talking whenever there is a need. We found the right person to talk to.

Well, thank you very much. But why the moment?

SP: I can give you a clarification. When we had our first press conference in Delhi, all the journalists said, SP, we never thought you were such a humble person. We thought you had done several such interviews and press conferences in the western world. The way you have held this press conference is surprising; although it is the first one for you, it doesn’t seem so.

You know, much as I am tempted to cut right to the present and the future, I can’t help going back in time. Let’s go back to the beginning, 1919, when your father went to Iran. 1919, the year of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Why Iran at that time?

SP: Well, there was a financial crisis. He was a textile merchant and he had a large commitment. He believed in one thing, that “my word is my bond.” Practically, most people all over the world defaulted. He was the one who said: “Even if I have to sell my shirt, I will honour it.”

So it was to cover a default that he went to Iran?

SP: To make new stocks. Fortunately, out of that he learned and established a principle for us. That wherever there is supply, there has to be demand somewhere. There is no time that you will find supply and no demand. But you have to identify the place. So he identified Iran...

Sometimes the British media call you the new governors-general, the new viceroys; the Empire striking back...

SP: Empire striking back, therefore, we feel now as if we were in our own country. London has given that feel to Indians, to minority communities.

You mean, for ethnic minorities, people who come from various countries? You don’t feel foreign here? And that’s why you get so much attention from the media here?

SP: Well, I don’t think the western media is focusing on any one particular group or family.

Let’s get back to Iran. GP, you are the Iran specialist in the family, I know. So 1919, Iran. Tell us a little about what happened; how did the family business grow in Iran?

GP: Our late father was a very courageous person. In those days, you didn’t have vessels or aircraft. He had to travel on ponies and he landed in the south of Iran, in Bushehr, then Bandar Abbas. He had to face the Jewish community which had a real monopoly there; with his courage and work, he was able to conquer the market there. He made his first million dollars in 1921.

My God, a million dollars in 1921? SP, even before you were born, your father had made his first million?

SP: He married actually in 1921-22. His birth was in 1901. But let me tell you, our forefathers were already dealing, and their purchase, what you would call slips, were honoured as far as Moscow.

Just on word of mouth, on reputation?

SP: Our family had been investors, traders, bankers; this was there from our ancestors.

And when did the government of India discover that you had these roots in Iran and you could be useful?

SP: Well, even when Dr Radhakrishnan visited, he was a vegetarian and the Shah (of Iran), being the host, was very concerned about what to serve him. He could think of only one family to help him and that was Hinduja. So, they laid down one table for my elder brother, the Shah and Dr Radhakrishnan and all other community members had another table where they had non-vegetarian food. They were all saying, oh, if only we had been vegetarians.

GP: The advantage of being vegetarian.

And you met Mrs Gandhi for the first time in Iran?

GP: No, we met her for the first time in New Delhi.

And then in Iran when she came there. What was she like when you met her in Iran? Was she already heavily into politics? Did she give you signs of becoming the person that she did?

SP: There we noticed one thing when meeting the royal family; she was nowhere less than a queen.

Which year was this?

GP: This was 1978.

I’m talking of when she came before she was PM, when she was I&B minister...

GP: At that time she was very simple, quiet and shy.

Did you have any premonition that she could grow into such a towering figure?

SP: We had one thing very clear, that the Nehru family, the dynasty, will continue. Looking at her and the way she was being trained.

When did she realise that you could be useful from India’s point of view in Iran?

SP: This was in the 70s, during the oil boom.

The oil shortage was there; the price boom after the 1973 war?

SP: India had practically no foreign exchange; it was a very difficult time. It was not that she summoned us, but we happened to come with an article which was anti-Shah.

An article in the Indian press? Do you remember which newspaper?

SP: I think The Times of India, Blitz and The Indian Express were carrying articles which were anti-Shah. They were pro-Nasser. India was pro-Nasser at that point. And India and Nasser had this rivalry in that part of the world. Because the Shah was pro-West and Nasser was pro-Soviet. India, too, was pro-Soviet.

So these were critical articles that you brought to Mrs Gandhi. Why? Did the Shah complain to you about these attacks in the Indian media?

SP: He said: ‘‘Do you believe this? Are Iran and the Shah what they are writing in these articles?’’ We said we didn’t agree. He said: ‘‘Then why don’t you tell your people to come and visit, meet the Shah and decide for yourself? ’’

So you came to Mrs Gandhi with those articles?

SP: First we came to PN Haksar and he took us to Mrs Gandhi.

And what happened? What was the meeting like?

SP: Well, fortunately or unfortunately, we have always been concerned about India. Wherever we travelled, when they saw our Indian passports, they frowned on us. There used to be a fire in my belly that I should shoot the guy for the way he looked at us. We were always concerned by the way people used to talk about corruption in India. I used to tell them that India is better than the West. I used to give them an example to convince them. When you go in a taxi in India, the driver never looks at you for a tip. When you go to a restaurant, he doesn’t look at you for a tip before giving you a table. Whereas in the western world, even in London, if a taxi driver is not given enough tip, he throws the money.

What kind of a relationship did you have with the Shah?

GP: He liked the family, he respected us and whatever we committed, we were able to honour. He tried us in many cases. When there was a shortage of onions and potatoes, the price had jumped from 20 riyals to 200 riyals. Who on earth could have supplied him with onions when all the ports in Iran had a waiting time of three months? He gave us a challenge, that in 14 days I want each and every province in Iran to have potatoes and onions; I want to bring the prices down, he said, because it was the common man’s food. We were successful; we did it miraculously... I remember SP was not well, he was lying in bed in Bombay. I phoned him and the idea just struck him; he found that in Jalandhar and other places there was crop getting spoiled. We said, okay, but how will we take it to Iran? Finally, we used the good offices of Prime Minister Bhutto, and, I will tell you, we were the first ones to use the land route — it is in history that after Partition nothing has been transported from India through Pakistan.

You bought your potatoes and onions here and took them by truck? And you had Sardarji truck drivers...?

GP: No, they didn’t allow. We had to fly in Korean truck drivers.

In 1973? You could do all that? No wonder you are known to be enterprising.

GP: Not only that, we went one step further. There was a shortage of cement, there was a shortage of sugar. You see, we are entrepreneurs. We immediately said: India needs crude oil. We were able to convince the Indian government to supply cement and sugar; the Shah was really amazed at how we did it. Anytime he had problems, he would tell his commerce minister: Contact the Hindujas, they’ll find a way. So this is how we proved ourselves. Even when the oil prices shot up from $2.40 per barrel to $11, each and every contract in Iran was reviewed again and the higher prices were given. We were the only ones with long-term contracts who didn’t go for price renewal....

It’s very interesting with Iran having become so relevant. What was the Shah like?

GP: In my view, he was a very good person at heart, but the reason for his fall, the way I would analyse it, is that people surrounding him never gave him the real (picture of what) happening. The rural and urban areas, there was a big difference between the rich and the poor. Moreover, when President Carter came, he wanted immediately to have freedom of speech, freedom of the press and democracy. Now, for so many years, it was going in a different style and to change all this overnight, well, all this happened. And it had to happen because there was a great difference between the villages and the cities. The cities had been upgraded; they were much better than Paris.

SP, when you got into it at that point, there was no love lost between Indira Gandhi and the Shah of Iran. They hated each other.

SP: Actually, the Shah called her a bitch and she called him a rascal. After we intervened and brought a better understanding, in just four months they started writing love letters to each other.

They got along like a house on fire, as they say. Then all these joint projects came up, so many sweetheart deals.

GP: Actually, if I remember right, when she lost after the Emergency, TVs in Iran were still showing that she was winning. It was a great challenge: to bring the North and South Pole to think alike. It was not that we did anything. It was a concept that SP explained to both countries. First, that India and Iran are very well-placed geographically. Second, if Iran was close to Pakistan, it did not mean that it could not be friendly to India.

Nowadays, you see Iran in so much trouble. It looks like the whole world is focused on Iran, the changeover, the nuclear issue. Do you think Iran is being handled well?

SP: You see, the western world made one mistake. When they invaded Iraq, they also announced Iran, Syria, North Korea to be on the Axis of Evil. Now that really made the Iranians feel bad. And Iran is an ancient civilisation. You can’t compare Iran with countries that don’t have that. They are very capable and they are very proud....

So, if George Bush Jr called you now, what would your advice to him be?

SP: Well, I did tell his father that invasion is not the solution to Iraq. I said that the best thing would be that as you gave a treat to President Musharraf in the White House, you should give a treat to Saddam and then put him in a cage, send it to Baghdad and leave it to the people to decide.

How should they handle Ahmadinejad now, who’s different from Khatami?

SP: He is. You see, today whatever he has done, or whatever he has pointed out, if this thing had been handled in a better way earlier, it would really have been good for the world. In this situation, India can play the greatest role. India can really mediate in Iran, Iraq and the Middle East. Today, the world respects this Prime Minister.

GP, how would you deal with Ahmadinejad? Your family is unique because very few people who were friendly with the Shah have also been friendly with subsequent revolutionary regimes.

GP: You were talking about President Khatami and President Ahmadinejad. President Khatami was very highly educated and a good tutor. He was not meant to become a politician. He was not allowed to perform the economic reforms that he had in his mind.

Sounds like Dr Manmohan Singh to me.

GP: Good one. Ahmadinejad has come in with votes of 1.6 million; people were behind him and he was elected. Now, we have to understand Iranian culture. Look, we don’t believe that things will ever be resolved by war. The best way is to understand their culture, have a good talk, build up a proper understanding and resolve this matter by dialogue.

But do you see the Iranians being realistic enough to pull back at the right point or do you think they’ll push it?

SP: Well, one thing is clear - whoever has gone into the nuclear sector, how have they started? Here they are saying that if we have any capabilities, we should not be deprived of them. They say that they will only go in for civilian energy.

But it is very odd, a country which has so much oil and gas that the whole world looks to them to solve their problems, what’s the need for nuclear energy now?

SP: Maybe they are not doing it for this purpose. The US and Iranian relationship has not been good since the revolution.

But how much will they push it?

SP: In my view, if the West takes a very rigid stand, they wouldn’t mind even if sanctions come. But if they handle it properly with appropriate dialogue, things can be handled.

But to that extent, India going along with its pipeline would be a risky proposition.

SP: The pipeline at the moment has more or less come to a standstill.

Why do you say so?

SP: Well, you see, today the Americans, I don’t think they will be interested in supporting it. Nor is Europe interested in supporting it. Nor is Iran today in that mood.

I was going to ask about the two interventions — and tell me the truth now, because time has passed. In Geneva, did you swing the Iran vote? Because what swung India’s cause in Geneva, when Mr Vajpayee had led the delegation and Narasimha Rao was PM, was that Iranians voted on our side.

GP: Mr Vajpayee, Farooq Abdullah, Salman Khurshid, they all rang up as soon as they came out of the conference. They said: Hindujaji, aap desh ke lal ho.

Mr Vajpayee said this?

GP: Yes, yes. He clearly said that no one would have been able to get this victory without all of you; he personally accepted the dinner which was hosted in his honour and he said that all of them would like to come and thank us personally in London. We said: Don’t do that, it is sufficient for us that the dinner is on...

And then his government kept on sending you warrants and rogatories...

SP: You see, that is a totally political issue and has nothing to do with us. This political war between the two parties, they have always been trying to see what’s the maximum they can benefit from it.

But you like Mr Vajpayee almost as much as you like the Gandhi family; you have the same equation with him, isn’t it?

SP: We are never pro- or anti-anyone. Including Arun Jaitley, we are not anti-him. Our objectives are very clear: whatever is in the interest of the country, we are always there to provide our services.

But tell me, while this was going on, you met Mr Vajpayee, you helped that government in many things. Did this ever come up in those conversations; did somebody ever say: SP, GP, I'm sorry this is happening to you?

SP: Ek baat bataoon: recently, when Tony Blair visited Delhi, former PMs were called. Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were sitting on the settee. Before I could shake hands with Tony Blair and Manmohan Singhji, I went to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, out of respect that he is not holding the PM’s post today. He looked at me, smiled and said: Srichandji, hamne aap se bahut zyadti ki hai. And I told him: Atalji, aapka kya kasur? Mera bhagya kuch aisa hoga. Again he repeated what he said. Then I said: Can I ask you one question? You are such a great statesman, you are a poet, you are a shayar — what made you believe something and made you from courageous to no courageous?

In the Bofors deal?

SP: He just smiled. But I admire him for having the courage to admit that they have done something which they should not have done.

Courtesy: The Indian Express, January 2006