Sucheta Dalal :Of Permanent fr<x>ames And Instant Celebrities (28 Dec 2003)
Sucheta Dalal

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Of Permanent Frames And Instant Celebrities (28 Dec 2003)  

2004 will have its share of achievements, failures and unpredictable events that will create 15-minute celebrities

THE Financial Express On Sunday decided to dig out its crystal ball and gaze into 2004 to check who will hold the attention of business and industry next year. We didn’t get all the answers, but here are the contours of the coming 12 months.

2004 will have its share of achievements, breakthroughs, successes, failures, scams and heartbreaks. It will also have the usual quota of unpredictable events that will leave a lasting impact and the little blips that create instant celebrities, who will hold the nations attention during their 15 minutes of fame.

What we see clearly is that the Ambani brothers will remain firmly in the headlines. Reliance will seek to duplicate its dominance over the petrochemical chain in electricity generation and distribution, telecom, biotech, hospitals, education, art, real estate and films. It will also seek new territories to pitch its entrepreneurial flag like water distribution (do we see a mega desalination plant?), food (Mukesh Ambani has told us a few years ago that the green belt in Jamnagar will be focussed on high value horticulture) and infrastructure development (remember they had bid for the Mumbai-Pune Expressway?).

The Ambani duo will pursue an image change by getting on to socially relevant international institutions and collect more awards for good governance and social responsibility. But their brand of business dominance, demonstrated in telecom and in the deposit collection drive by Reliance Energy, will ensure that we don’t lose touch with the more familiar and controversial aspects of their business. The brothers will always appear separately in public, accompanied by their glamorous wives.

Ratan Tata and Kumarmangalam Birla will remain shy and low key as usual. Mr Birla will welcome a new addition to the clan while focussing on his commodities businesses, which will continue their upturn.

Having silenced his critics, by turning around Tisco and Telco, Ratan Tata will try to break the Rs 1 lakh price barrier for small cars. This will force the entire industry to re-orient its strategy and will give jitters to Maruti Suzuki. After its successful stock market listing, Maruti has tripped up with a J.D. Powers survey finding over 100 technical faults in its Wagon R and Zen and will have to really buck up to face the Tata onslaught. Will Tata Engineering become the Number 1 car company in India in 2004? The crystal is foggy on that question.

One man who will be watched most carefully by industrialists and the capital market is M Damodaran. The FES crystal ball indicates that the FM may finally find a replacement for him at Unit Trust of India. But he will make waves at IDBI. On the cards is a mega merger with a nationalised bank, major fund raising abroad and a UTI-style recovery drive. It is safe to bet that IDBI will hog the headlines. In fact the famous corporate rivalry between HDFC and ICICI will become history. The new race will be between IDBI and ICICI and will provide the media with some juicy material.

The trend started by the teen-deviyan chief ministers surely cannot leave Indian industry untouched. So Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, who was dubbed “India’s Mother of Invention” by the New York Times, will truly symbolise womanpower in business. Her company, Biocon India, which is the undisputed market leader for industrial and food enzymes, will be listed next year and catapult her into a bigger league.

Vijay Mallya will continue to battle Kishore Chhabria for control over Herbertsons. The two may soon go out to celebrate a decade of working and fighting together. Other than that, Mr Mallya will continue to provide photo opportunities by posing in swimming gear and fancy dress with fabulous horses, diamonds, yachts, aircraft and cars as accessories. What he won’t do, in 2004, says our crystal ball, is to take senior columnists along on his eccentric yatras.

Rahul Bajaj will sort out all the family problems with brother Shishir, complete the restructuring of Mukand and grapple with Maharashtra Scooters. Other than that he will keep hitting the headlines at CII meets, ticking off regulators, bureaucrats, politicians and government policy.

Deepak Parekh will remain one of the most popular persons to head committees that have nothing to do with housing. Having already submitted his opinion on power, telecom, aviation and capital markets, government will discover other sectors that cannot do without his expertise. His only competitor will be Naresh Chandra. N Narayana Murthy will remain India’s icon of corporate ethics and the favourite speaker at seminars, but he is unlikely to head anymore committees on good governance.

The advertising industry will continue to produce a medley of crass and classy commercials. Advertising will continue to be dominated by Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Piyush Pandey, Prahalad Kakkar and Amir Khan, with only the pug of Orange giving them a run for mindshare.

The two Commodities Exchanges, which made their debut in the dying days of 2003, will gain momentum and compete furiously in 2004, but NCDEX, which has the National Stock Exchange as one of its promoters will have the edge. Gold and silver futures will attract investor interest and even weather derivatives may find a place among the trading options. Despite the finance ministers brave assurance about pushing ahead with reform, the last year of the BJP-term will spell tough times for public sector disinvestment. The process may be largely limited to stock market listing and sale of residual government holding. The crystal ball shows the glimmer of a book on the politics of disinvestment by Arun Shourie.

Business and industry will be forced to show more sensitivity to issues of sexual harassment and whistleblowers.

In fact, the shadow of Satyendra Dubey, the whistleblower who was brutally murdered, will continue to loom over 2004. And unless the BJP reacts quickly and firmly, any attempt to cash in on the Prime Ministers Golden Quadrilateral project will always be marred by memories of Dubey’s sacrifice. A Whistleblowers Act may be passed.

And finally, Jaswant Singh will decide the fortunes of business and industry next year at the end of February. Unfortunately, the FES crystal ball is not yet programmed to anticipate his budget

-- Sucheta Dalal