In the post-COVID world, it will be the actions of a heroic few — obvious or otherwise — in trying times that will be used as the yardstick for responsible corporate behaviour
War-time brings forth both the obvious heroes and the not-so-obvious heroes, who are born of the circumstances that be. The battle against COVID-19 is nothing short of a 'war' in terms of the potential devastation to the nation. While this deadly battle is fought valiantly by the 'soldiers in white capes', it is the entirety of the medical fraternity – right down to nurses, paramedics, ambulance drivers and all the staff in the hospitals who are tirelessly burning the midnight oil to save humanity from this scourge of a virus. Along with them are the oft-vilified police personnel on the streets trying to ensure the sanctity of lockdown and preventing the spread of this faceless enemy at the risk of their own personal safety. Yet another set of unsung heroes who have thankfully been recognised for their inherently noble task are those who have silently kept a modicum of cleanliness in our environment i.e., ragpickers, garbage collectors, sanitary workers and suchlike service people – but for whom our communities would have faced unprecedented medical diseases and afflictions. Beyond these three obvious domains, there are many more other unobvious individuals and private institutions who in their own humble way are toiling and sacrificing their personal safety so that communities and humanity may still triumph!
The litmus test of character, purpose and values, be it personal or organisational, are not to be found buried in the inanimate phraseology of 'vision statements' but in standing up and getting counted, when the chips are truly down. The corporate world is full of extremely successful corporations that have ruthlessly commercial agendas that are then masked under the thick gloss of PR-driven filters and slick societal 'claims' to afford a more humane face – only to show their smallness-of-spirit in difficult times. Increasingly, there is no correlation between the size of the corporate and the size of its heart, as seemingly the link of an organisation to the communities and to the nation is essentially transactional. Routine optics of some of these perennially 'chosen ones', who are an inevitable part of the group photos with the highest governmental authorities and international delegations, are increasingly finding themselves amongst the rogues' galleries! But beyond the meaningless and ostentatious show of decadence in personal bearing and lifestyle – the nation silently prides itself on the likes of an Aziz Premji, who chooses the less frequented path. It takes personal character to commit Rs 50,000 crore towards charitable causes, in the most humble and unaffected way that is bereft of any accompanying pomp-and-show. Another private institution that has done so since its inception in the most dignified and responsible way has been the house of Tata's, to whom the nation owes its industrial soul and heartbeat.
The Tata's are no longer the biggest, most powerful and certainly not the most influential corporation in the corridors of power, yet they have unfailingly demonstrated a disproportionately large heart to their business size, way beyond the instincts of commerce, growth and even showmanship. Almost old school in restrained-mannerism and unmistakable pedigree, they behove the finest and the noblest corporate instinct and DNA that has been passed down for over 150 years. It is not easy to live up to such exacting moral, philosophical and institutional code of conduct in the twenty-first century and they would surely be paying a 'price', for being Tata but the seeds sowed and nurtured by Jamshetji, JRD, Ratan to the current baton holders, would thankfully know no other way. First off the block to live the quintessential Tata-way and commit Rs 500 crore by its principal trust was not surprising. This is only the usual way of being Tata. Soon Tata Sons committed another Rs 1000 crore and the national social media was agog with the spirit of an industrial house that can seamlessly conjoin commerce with its societal and national responsibility. The organisation repeatedly walks-the-talk of JRD that the Tata's are not driven "merely in the interests of their owners, but equally in those of their employees, of the consumers of their products, of the local community and finally. of the country as a whole". As a prudent business community, they know that the economic world, post-COVID-19, would not be the same and despite the rough road ahead, they willingly chose to put humanity and the nation over transactional logic.
It could only be the Tata's majestic Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, the priceless jewel in the crown of India's hospitality ecosystem that could withstand a '26/11' and unfortunately, has now been sadly mired in a COVID-related incident regarding its staff. What is lesser known is that true to its Tata roots and impulses, the Taj group had been graciously hosting the 'warriors in white capes' i.e., doctors, as a symbol of its unflinching societal support, when odds are stacked against humanity. There is almost a fanatical sense of loyalty, gentle-pride and ownership of task that the Tata employees unswervingly demonstrate and selflessly serving the medical community in these trying times demonstrates just that. These employees seemingly answered their 'larger' call of duty that comes naturally to such an organisation, and the nation can only be proud of them as the unobvious heroes, and in unison, pray for their speedy recovery.
The nation has to turn the economic tide and that requires the highest sensitivity and responsibility from the private sector. In such times a Taj Hotel employee is not just an unobvious hero in the fight against COVID, they are true patriots and inspiring citizens. In the post-COVID world, size may no longer impress the consumer as he/she will recalibrate their choices through another prism – the prism of the memories of how the mighty conducted themselves in the war against this pandemic. Consumers will soon 'adjectify' corporate brands on their demonstrated values, and in that better and more informed world, the unobvious heroes and their behaviour will also make business sense! Very few of our corporate giants have shown a similar proclivity, therein lies the harsh reality and opportunity.
The writer is the former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are strictly personal