The Man Who Would Be Queen

The East India Company was officially dissolved in 1874 by the Queen of England. Ages later, it was resurrected at the hands of the Indian-born Sanjiv Mehta.

Sanjiv Mehta believes he has realised the ‘average Indian’s dream’. But there are probably too many miles, literal and metamorphic, between the London-based entrepreneur and the ‘average Indian’ and its debatable that any of his dreams revolve around getting one up on the British. Not that the Average Indian is insensitive about his history. It’s just that he has moved on.

And is the fleeting sense of redress this particular news would have evoked in the collective Indian bosom worth the $15 million that has so far been sunk into the company? “Being an Indian, obviously this issue goes straight to the heart,” Mehta said, “But I also had to part with a considerable amount of money and that is definitely a matter of the mind.” Though he admits that at the time of acquisition, he was emotional about the whole thing, he is unflinchingly certain about the tremendous commercial potential of the brand.

This is how Mehta defended the brand value of The East India Company: “Kabul, Auckland, Mauritius, Vancouver, East Africa…The East India Company had a far reaching impact across the length and breadth of the world. More than three and a half billion people are subconsciously bound to this brand, to this common thread of history. The company was the world wide web of its times. And I believe that this subliminal experience can be connected with a commercial purpose.” Given the scale and magnitude of EIC’s reach, the brand they established 200 years ago moved history’s needle.

But what kind of emotion would this brand evoke? And to whom? Surely, brand recall would be remarkably different to both sides of the political divide – Indian and Brit.

Far from connecting with its erstwhile colonial victims, the new right-leaning EIC would maybe be more effective in stroking upper class British egos.

There are suggestions that in Mehta ticks an imperial heart. (Salil Tripathi writes in Caravan, “Mehta has also made discreet moves to become part of the British aristocracy… and he recently landed the prize deal of producing commemorative coins with the Royal Mint of the Queen’s silhouette on one side and the East India Company stamp on the other…”)

Mehta asserted his patriotism. He offered that an Indian being at the helm of the East India Company would redeem its image. “I think that alters one’s feeling towards the company.”

Commercially, it probably matters little to him about how the brand is perceived by the majority, as the merchandise he retails has a niche audience. The Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Tea is priced at £75 (`6500) a pop and the Queen Victoria Empire Trunk at £2000. It would seem that these prices are not designed to include the middle-class Indian patriot.

The company is set to expand across Europe, launching duty-free outlets in four German and Austrian airports this year. “We expect to have a presence in most of the major airports in Europe in the near future,” said Mehta. And soon after that, India will bear witness to the second coming of the EIC with luxury stores in Bombay and Delhi.

Clearly, history sits heavily on Mehta. He said, “A thousand years from now, the period between 1874 and 2012 would just be an aberration of history. It should seem as if the East India Company never stopped trading since 1600.”

The cheesy paan masala TV commercial comes to mind. Remember the one where a decidedly ethnic tycoon acquires the East India Company and then, in a master-stroke of Indianess, offers paan masala to the company’s British managers?

Seemingly not the vibe Mehta would want to rock.

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