On Apr. 16 voters in the world's largest democracy started going to the polls, and in the coming weeks, more than 700 million Indian voters will be able to have their say on who should form their next government. In 2004, when Indians last voted in national elections, the country was in the midst of an economic boom. In the years following the victory of the Congress Party, India's stock market soared, its IT outsourcing and drug companies further established themselves as global leaders, and Indian conglomerates such as the Tata Group made big acquisitions around the world.
When BusinessWeek ran its first list of the 50 Most Powerful People in India, in 2007, many of the top names in business, finance, technology, politics, and entertainment were basking in the glow of the Indian miracle. Now recessions in the U.S., Europe, and Japan have slammed the brakes on India's miracle economy, at least temporarily. Indians are also living with the memory of the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai. And the Satyam (SAY) scandal has cast a cloud over one of the country's largest outsourcing companies.
The latest edition of BusinessWeek's India Top 50, chosen by the magazine's reporters and editors, reflects the change in climate. As in 2007, we have tried to identify the movers and shakers who are the most powerful forces for change in the country. This year the Satyam scandal and the financial crisis have put the spotlight on India's regulators—and Chandrasekhar Bhaskar Bhave, chairman of the Securities & Exchange Board of India, has taken the lead role in promoting more transparency among India's top companies. To restore confidence in the wake of the Satyam revelations, for instance, he helped push through new rules forcing companies to divulge details of the shares they had pledged to lenders.
With the country gripped by election fever, we've named politicians likely to have the most impact in determining the next government. They include Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the former International Monetary Fund economist who surprised many people by successfully pushing through Parliament the controversial nuclear agreement with the U.S. last year. The list also includes Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, who is now preparing the ground for her son and heir to the Nehru dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, to play a larger role in politics.
Among the other politicians on this year's list, probably no one is more controversial than the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. For many people in India and around the world, Modi will forever be tied to the communal riots in his state in 2002 that left thousands of Muslims dead. His many critics blame Modi for allowing the killings to take place, a charge he denies. The controversy has spread to the U.S., where activists organized last year to lobby the State Dept. to deny Modi a visa, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician is well-regarded by many in the business community. Last year, when Tata Motors (TTM) encountered protests at the site of a factory in West Bengal and needed a new location, the company found a welcome reception from Modi's Gujarat government.
As that episode demonstrated, Ratan Tata, one of the business leaders on this year's list, has had a bit of a bumpy ride of late. The head of the Tata Group orchestrated one of the most high-profile new product launches in Indian history: the Nano, at less than $2,500 the world's cheapest car. But before the Nano's launch last month, he had to cope with extensive protests from farmers and others in West Bengal angry about the way Tata Motors had acquired land for the factory to make the car. Also weighing down the company: the costs of its 2008 acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford (F), completed just months before the auto market sank.
Big Names in Bollywood
In the world of entertainment, 2008 was the year of Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar winner filmed in India. A.R. Rahman, who won two Academy Awards for Slumdog's music, has long been a Bollywood power, composing the soundtracks to many of the country's most popular pictures. This year's list also features several behind-the-scenes players. At a time when everyone from Steven Spielberg and Julia Roberts to Will Smith and the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) are looking to tie up with producers from India, would-be movie moguls Anil Ambani and Ronnie Screwvala are playing an important role cementing ties between Bollywood and Hollywood.
Other business leaders include Dilip Shanghvi, who has turned Sun Pharmaceuticals (SUN.BO) into one of India's top makers of generic and branded drugs. Despite the global economic crisis, he is expanding onto the global stage and is now trying to acquire Israeli generics drugmaker Taro Pharmaceuticals (TAROF). In the world of information technology, the Satyam scandal hasn't slowed down other Indian companies such as Azim Premji's Wipro (WIT) and N.R. Narayana Murthy's Infosys (INFY), but the recession in the U.S. is hurting them. IT companies are also facing tough competition from foreign rivals such as IBM (IBM), though, and Shanker Annaswamy, IBM India's managing director, makes our list this year for his role turning Big Blue into a powerful player in India.
A returnee to the BusinessWeek list is cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, the superstar whom companies want to endorse their products. We also feature an inspiring newcomer. One of the brightest moments last year for Indian sports fans was the victory at the Beijing Olympic Games of Abhinav Bindra. Competing in the obscure event of 10-meter air rifle, he won a gold medal last August, becoming the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics. Before he became a hero in India, Bindra received valuable support from a foundation backed by another name on our list, steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal's Mittal Champions Trust.