Tata Spat Adds To Angst Of India’s Dwindling Parsis

MUMBAI: Tata has long swelled the pride of India’s small Parsi community but recent infighting and fears the conglomerate’s next chief will be an outsider is unnerving the rapidly dwindling group.

Mumbai’s famous but notoriously private Parsis are unhappy at the daily mudslinging between company patriarch Ratan Tata and his Parsi counterpart, former chairman Cyrus Mistry, following the latter’s unceremonious sacking last month.

“Parsis are upset because the battle between Mr Mistry and Mr Tata went public instead of staying as boardroom negotiations. We hope it is over soon,” said Jehangir Patel, editor of community magazine Parsiana.

Parsis are followers of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions. Zoroastrians believe in one god and worship in fire temples, believing fire to be a symbol of their god’s purity.

They first arrived in India more than 1,000 years ago after fleeing persecution in Persia.

They became one of India’s wealthiest communities, boasting a number of famed industrialists, including the internationally-renowned Tata family synonymous with the financial rise of India’s commercial capital Mumbai.

The community has also produced acclaimed Indian scientists and musicians and its influence far exceeds its size.

However, late marriages and falling birth rates have sparked a demographic crisis that is threatening the group’s survival with the number of Zoroastrians in India more than halving since 1940.

There are now fewer than 60,000 in India, where most Zoroastrians live, and infighting between reformists and traditionalists about how to preserve the traditionally-closed group is commonplace.

Mr Tata and Mr Mistry are pillars of Mumbai’s Parsi set and their spat appears to be adding to the angst that many Parsi-Zoroastrians feel about the community’s uncertain future.

“The feud is a letdown for the Parsi community as its number of role models and people in position of power reduces,” Patel told AFP.

Tata Group is a sprawling $103 billion steel-to-salt conglomerate founded under British colonial rule in 1868.

It operates in more than 100 countries and owns high-profile companies such as Britain’s Jaguar Land Rover and Anglo-Dutch steel firm Corus.

Mr Mistry, 48, was sacked as chairman of Tata Sons, the holding company of Tata Group, on October 24, just four years after succeeding Ratan Tata to become its first chief who was not a member of the immediate Tata family.

Mr Tata is said to have become increasingly frustrated by Mr Mistry’s focus on divestments as he sought to reduce the sprawling group’s $30 billion debt level.

– Non-Parsi for Tata? –

Mr Tata, 78, took interim charge and for over a week the two camps have been trading bitter accusations that are threatening the conglomerate’s global reputation but are also out of tune with the Parsi ethos of quiet respect and loyalty.

The feud risks being compounded by the fact that Mr Mistry is heir to the multi-billion-dollar construction giant the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, which is the largest single shareholder in Tata Sons, owning 18.4 percent.

Dinshaw Mehta, a former chairman of Mumbai’s leading Parsi organisation the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, described Mr Mistry’s removal as “ungraceful” and worries the subsequent conflict will be “self-destructive” for the company.

He has a bigger concern though – a non-Parsi leading India’s most famous family conglomerate.

“Tata is a Parsi legacy business and we are hopeful that a Parsi takes over the chairman’s post. We don’t want candidates from any other communities taking over,” he said.

While Ratan Tata’s half-brother Noel Tata – who incidentally is married to Mistry’s sister – is believed to be in the running, Mr Mehta’s fears are real with the other favourites coming from outside the community.

Tata Consultancy Services chief N. Chandrasekaran, from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, has been tipped by many commentators while Jaguar Land Rover head Ralf Speth, a German, has also been mentioned.

The pair were promoted to the Tata Sons board following Mr Mistry’s dismissal and many analysts took it as a sign that they were being prepared for the top job.

Some Parsis say the community’s shrinking talent pool means Tata will have to look elsewhere.

“Outside or within the Tata group, there are no Parsis with the accomplishments and profile fit enough to take on the chairman’s role,” said magazine editor Patel.

Others are more worried about the community’s battle for survival than the fight to lead Tata.

“There are bigger issues for the community to bother about than egos and worthless legacies of Parsi billionaires,” wrote a reader on Parsi newspaper Jam-e-Jamshed’s Facebook page.