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The Oberoi and Subrata Roy legacies: A study in contrasting trends

At its zenith, the Sahara empire was second only to the Indian government in terms of employment

The Oberoi and Subrata Roy legacies: A study in contrasting trends

In a span of two days, the country lost two big-time entrepreneurs, each of whom has left legacies of the unmatched kind. If PRS Oberoi, the grand old man of Indian hotel industry, has made a huge mark in his field with his unflinching commitment to put Indian hospitality industry atop the global canvas, Subrata Roy, founder and life and soul of the Sahara empire, floundered in his twilight years despite starting off with a bang.

As friends and employees of Subrata Roy mourn the death of their leader, the business world reflects on the legacy of a man, who started with just Rs 2,000 and built an empire that, at its zenith, was second only to the Indian government in terms of employment.

“Saharashree was a towering figure and an undisputed institution builder. He was a man with a heart of gold,” recalls eminent author and astrologer Dr. JP Sharma ‘Trikha’, who knew Saharashree for decades.

“I, like thousands in Lucknow, was in tears while attending the funeral of my friend and well-wisher. I vividly remember when I told him in the late 1990s that he had to take care of his health after reaching the age of 75. I had studied his Janampatri(horoscope),” Dr. Sharma said. Born in Bihar’s Araria in 1948, Roy began his journey as a businessman in 1976 with Sahara Finance, a chit fund company. He took over and revamped the company's financial model in 1978, drawing inspiration from the more established Peerless Group. “Under his leadership, Sahara India Pariwar grew into one of India's largest conglomerates, employing around 1.2 million people and claiming to have more than nine crore investors, which is about 13% of all households in the country. That speaks volumes about his leadership qualities,” he said.

Sahara group became a household name with ambitious projects like Aamby Valley City and acquisitions such as the iconic Grosvenor House Hotel in London and the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Meanwhile, Roy’s death brings into focus the slew of litigations surrounding the Sahara group, and in particular the Rs. 25,000 crore lying with the capital markets regulator for distribution to its investors. In 2011, Sebi ordered two Sahara group firms—Sahara India Real Estate Corp. Ltd (SIREL) and Sahara Housing Investment Corp. Ltd (SHICL)—to refund the money raised from nearly 30 million investors via bonds known as optionally fully convertible bonds (OFCDs).

As regards PRS, Oberoi, also called as ‘Biki’, he will be remembered for changing the face of Indian hospitality industry. The high point of his tryst with hospitality industry was when he convinced his father Sardar Mohan Singh Oberoi (M.S. Oberoi) to assign architect and politician PilooMody to design Oberoi Intercontinental in the capital. That was early 1960s and many acclaimed architects of the country were keen to grab the lifetime opportunity to design the luxury hotel. Those were the days when the capital had just three class hotels- Ashok, The Imperial and Oberoi Maidens Hotel. Then known as Wesley Road, a stone’s throw from Delhi Golf Course, the Oberois got the land to build their hotel in a very deserted area there. Well, the Oberoi Maidens Hotel at ShamnathMarg in Delhi was good but they wanted to build a bigger and better property in Delhi. The Oberoi family was emotionally attached to Maidens Hotel too as the senior Oberoiused to live in Civil Lines area from the 1940s to 1960s. He even contested the first Delhi Assembly poll from the Civil Lines seat as an independent candidate, which he lost.

Biki had a playboy-like image. Rai Bahadur MS Oberoi very reluctantly inducted him in Oberoi management when he started planning to build a hotel in Delhi. After his father’s death, Biki diversified his group in a big way.Once PilooMody, a childhood friend of Pakistan Prime MinisterZulfikar Ali Bhutto, had designed Oberoi Intercontinental hotel, the construction was started in a big way under the watchful eyes of Biki. And immediately after it started operations, Oberoi Intercontinental became the last word in luxury and class. The Chinese, Skylark and Mughal restaurants’ of Oberoi became a rage.

“Their service was a class apart. I had seen Biki both in Delhi and in Trident in Mumbai talking to burly guards at the gates and telling them in chaste Punjabi how to say ‘Namaste’ to guests. He was truly a father-figure of the Indian hotel industry,” says Rajan Dhawan, a noted Delhi-based tax consultant. Those who are lucky enough to stay in the Oberoi properties say they are ethereal and unmatched. They give you - an experience of a lifetime. Every corner has a story to tell. The architecture of their hotels or resorts is extraordinarily glorious.

It is said that Biki’s mother Ishran Devi laid the Oberoi Intercontinental foundation stone but before doing so, she placed five gold coins in the pit for good luck. She was the life and soul of Oberoi clan.

Biki often used to narrate the story of his childhood in Gujranwala (now in Pakistan). His parents had to flee from their native village Bhaun in the early 1920s to safeguard their kids from the outbreak of the deadly plague. They moved to the cool climes of Muree, (a hill station near Rawalpindi), where MS Oberoi lived for some time doing odd jobs before moving to Shimla to work.

And luxury hotels and resorts apart, PRS Oberoi was a very devout and proud Sikh. He often visitedGurudwara Bangla sahib for prayers.Biki Oberoi lived a full life. He was an icon, no doubt and a role model for all those keen to make their presence felt in the business world. Alas, thesame cannot be said for Roy. Had he devoted more time on his business rather than hosting lavish parties, Subrata Roy would have left behind a great institution and a profound legacy.

(The author is Delhi-based senior journalist and writer. He is author of Gandhi's Delhi which has brought to the forth many hidden facts about Mahatma Gandhi)

Vivek Shukla
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