Baron Swraj Paul of Marylebone, Westminster engages in a tell-all interaction about his life as an industrialist, a politician and Labour Peer in the British House of Lords, his faith in God and Indian elections 2014 …with WCRC Leaders Asia’s Tulika Singh
How would you self-assess “Lord Swraj Paul” as a business leader?
I have never considered myself as a business leader or, for that matter, any kind of a leader. I enjoy running a business and that means always working hard with a lot of other people. I have enjoyed working all my life. Hard work and integrity are most important to me. Long time ago when I was at MIT, I learnt that one should always aspire for excellence and that is what should drive you. And also, your integrity must always be intact. In my view, a leader is someone who can understand the ideas coming from the people he is leading, put them into practice and distribute the credit to those people whom the ideas came from in the first place. We are quick to take credit in case of success and otherwise, we jump to find the escape routes. That’s what differentiates a bad leader from a good leader. I am just someone who carries his team with him, someone who is proud of his team.
How different has been your experience as a political leader?
I am even less of a political leader than a business leader. I am involved with politics because I have always been interested in the political processes. But I have always been on the periphery. I got into active politics in an indirect way when I was appointed to the House of Lords in 1996. As you perhaps know, appointments to the House of Lords are not necessarily made for political reasons but on the basis of your contribution to the country and society.
When and how did you start Caparo? What made you decide on the name Caparo?
Caparo was started way back in 1968. When I mustered courage to start a firm, I called a lawyer. He was taking down the details for registering a company when he told me that I needed a minimum of two directors. He suggested to me that I could bring in my wife or any other family member like many do. But I didn’t want to bring family into this. It was then that a very dear friend of mine walked in – Tony Cavendish – and I asked him if he could become a director. He agreed. After this, we had to decide a name for the company. So, ‘ca’ came from ‘Cavendish’; ‘pa’ from ‘Paul’ and ‘ro’ from the lawyer who was registering our company. His name was Rothman.
What were the key challenges you faced while establishing a brand in a foreign land?
The main challenge of working in a foreign country is that you have to put in 125 per cent effort for it to be counted as 100 per cent. Fortunately, I have always enjoyed working hard. When I started Caparo, I didn’t even know what I was getting into. I didn’t even go to London for work. I had gone for my daughter’s treatment. The reason I stayed back in London was because I wanted to stay where she died. I stay in the same flat even today where she breathed her last. Though I have a house in an area of about 200 acres just half an hour away from London, I hardly go there even over weekends.
After my daughter’s death, I just took a break, a spiritual one, and decided not to work at all. A year passed and I thought I was not going to spend my life like this. After thinking, meditation and reading philosophy, you start making peace with yourself. You tell yourself that it does not make sense for a 36 year old to waste his life. That’s how it started. This is why I say I had no plans because I didn’t know where I was going. But God has been kind. You may claim that you have worked hard and that you are marvellous. But at the end of the day, you do need a bit of luck.
What were the core philosophies on which Caparo was established? With Caparo’s reins with the next generation now, what are the changes you have observed in the way the company is presently run?
The Caparo code of ethics, on which the company was founded, drew strength from multiple sources. First, from my father who said that there was dignity in all work and one should always work hard, and with integrity. Secondly, from my time at MIT where I graduated from which taught me to always strive for excellence. Thirdly, my daughter Ambika always taught me to have courage in the face of adversity. The fourth pillar came from Mrs Indira Gandhi: never to abandon hope.
As far as the next generation is concerned, they are doing a good job and my son Angad, who is the chief executive of Caparo, is proving to be a great leader. One of my philosophies, which my children share with me, is that “you can’t always choose what you have to do but you can enjoy what you need to do.” In plain words, just get on with the job and don’t complain. I am not just proud of him because he is my son but because he is doing a marvellous job. At the end, we all make mistakes. I always tell him that we learn more from our mistakes. The danger is when you try finding escape routes.
You were once quite aggressive about acquisitions but things appeared to have slowed down over the past decade. Any particular reason?
We continue to make some acquisitions in this part of the world though as you know for the past six years, the western economies have gone through great upheavals because of the global financial crisis and naturally, one has no choice but to be more cautious.
When and how did you enter politics?
I don’t think I can say I entered politics. All I will say is that I enjoy politics. Incidentally, I am not an MP. Members of British Parliament are elected and sit in the House of Commons. I am a Peer. I was appointed to the Peerage and sit in the House of Lords.
How important are ethics according to you? It would be good if you could reflect a bit on Indian politics in light of the same.
Oh, they are very important, especially in today’s world. The Indian elections which are going on at the moment are all about greed, corruption, etc. No party has talked about education; no party has talked about how to treat its people. I don’t think that it is the spirit of leadership that is diminishing; rather it’s the values that are diminishing. I have watched elections here in India right from the first one. Never in the history of India has this much stress been given on fighting and abusing each other which is very sad. I think India has a marvellous democracy. It is also the largest democracy in the world. All these efforts in using money to buy votes is of no use. Everybody votes for whom they find right. You can give people money but they will still vote for their choice. This is the great thing about India and I think all of us can be proud of this. I even say this in my speeches. In a true democracy, the voter is the true winner, not the parties. Parties are a result of what the voters decide. Money makes no difference, your wealth won’t make any difference and even the kind of speech you give won’t make any difference. All that matters is what you are going to do. Corruption is not unique to India or any particular country. It is everywhere. And unfortunately, it’s getting worse. I gave a speech in the House of Lords where I said that we keep talking about corruption in the world while we already have too much of it in Britain. So, I think no Indian should feel that it is their unique vice. If you make a few rules, people abuse them. If you make many, people want to bypass them by hook or by crook.
All I will say is that we are fortunate in India to have one of the strongest and most vibrant democracies in the world. Of course, it is also a very stable democracy (look at the countries around us) and also the world’s largest. We should all be very proud of that.
You were a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher at one point of time. What caused the change of heart that you became a Labour MP in the House of Lords?
Just to clarify this point, I have been a Labour supporter and a Labour man all my life. I admired Mrs Thatcher during the 1980s because she was a great Prime Minister who did a lot for this country. To me, there is no conflict of interest in admiring someone for their positive qualities even if you don’t agree with their ideology.
During Mrs Gandhi’s regime, you were offered a position to become India’s ambassador to the US. Some people say that if you had accepted the offer you might have even become the next Prime Minister of India. Why did you decline this opportunity?
I am grateful to those who think I might have become the Prime Minister of India but I have never had the ambition to be in that kind of a position. I have always enjoyed what I do and God has been very kind to me.
Is it at times difficult to have loyalties divided between the UK and India?
I have never had a conflict of loyalties between the UK and India. In an interview with the BBC some years back, I was asked how much I considered myself to be British and how much Indian. I replied that I am 100 per cent Indian and 100 per cent British and I am equally proud of both the countries.
You are, even today, highly active in your political and business life. How do you juggle them?
I enjoy them both. Enjoying what you do is the key to not getting stressed.
Do you have any unfulfilled desires in your life?
I am Chancellor of two universities in the UK – the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Westminster – and with them, I work hard to improve educational opportunities for young people in the UK, India and other countries with which we are associated. My late elder brother, Dr Stya Paul, founded the Apeejay Education Society many years back. I visited some of the colleges and schools just last month and am immensely proud of the contribution that the society is making to the field of education. Our young people are exceptionally bright and I would like to see all of them benefit from good education. Education, accessible to all, is the only way we can change the country and the world.
Had you not visited the UK, how would you have shaped your career back in India?
I would have worked hard with integrity in our family business in India.
What’s your advice for the current breed of new-age tech entrepreneurs in India? What should be the one thing that you feel an entrepreneur should never compromise on?
Be proud of yourself and your achievements. Do not compromise on your integrity. You are the world’s leaders of tomorrow. You must shape and change your world. With that comes great power and great responsibility. But we look up to you to use your education, the skills and knowledge that you have developed, to make a difference.
Who has been your inspiration in life?
My inspiration comes from the poor people of India who have suffered so long but still complain very little and carry on with their lives.
Have you ever been drawn to spiritualism?
I am a God-fearing man. I believe I have also been very lucky. I have been very fortunate in that I had wonderful parents (sadly I did not know them for long as they both died when I was quite young), wonderful brothers and sisters, an amazing wife, amazing children, their spouses, and wonderful grandchildren. Last but not the least, I have marvellous people in Caparo to work with.