End of the 'licence Raj': India goes shopping in the West

As the Delhi government cuts red tape, Indian companies are turning into multinationals
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Indian companies are snapping up their rivals in the West at an unprecendented rate.

The £4.3bn offer from India's Tata Steel accepted earlier this month by the British steelmaker Corus is just one of many deals taking place. According to research by Accenture, the consulting group, on behalf of The Independent on Sunday, Indian companies will make more than 180 acquisitions in Europe and the US this year - up from 130 last year.

Accenture estimates that Indian companies could be buying nearly 370 companies a year in the West by the end of the decade.

Mark Spelman, the strategy leader at Accenture, said: "As India and China become more powerful they will flex their economic muscles internationally. They will look outward rather than inward."

One result will be more Indian entrants sitting beside the Microsofts and BPs in the Fortune Global 500 index of the largest companies in the world. Currently, six Indian companies are in the listing, mostof them in oil. Accenture expects that number to grow to 12 by 2010.

This is quite a transformation for a country that until a couple of decades ago exported only tea and cotton.

In Calcutta, businessmen talk with no apparent boastfulness of the coming age of "Indian multinationals". This is the hometown of another Indian with a reputation for buying Western businesses, Lakshmi Mittal - and others are already following him. Shishir Bajoria recently bought a steel firm in Doncaster. He celebrated by dressing in traditional garb for an hour-long Hindu ceremony where religious songs were sung around a fire.

Behind the improved climate for multinational business has been a big change in the attitude of the Indian government. Businesses used to complain about the "licence Raj", a combination of red tape and semi-official slothfulness that acted as a kind of corporate bromide, deterring many companies from making any sort of move.

Until two years ago, any Indian business looking to expand abroad was tightly fettered by national law. The regulations have been relaxed - so much so that when Mr Bajoria asked advisers what kind of bureaucratic formalities his UK purchase would have to undergo, instead of the traditional steeplechase of hurdles he got a one-word answer: "None."

"Today it's as easy as a British company buying another British company - or an Indian company doing a domestic takeover," he says. "Now, any Indian able to do so can spread his wings."

Even small businesses are going multinational. Manoj Mohanka thinks his firm, which has 130 employees, may be the first of its size to buy abroad. He recently took over a defence-electronics firm in Cambridge and is already talking of taking on the likes of Motorola and "creating a global brand in this niche".

Having a UK address allows Mr Mohanka to reach markets an Indian headquarters can't - including Pakistan.

"Previously, it was inconceivable that an Indian-owned business of my size would have global ambitions," he says.

And for many companies venturing out of India, the UK is a natural destination. Thanks to colonialism, Indian accounting and legal systems are close to those in the UK, while English remains the language of the business and political class.

There is also a cultural affinity. Asked about acclimatising to Cambridge, Mr Mohanka describes himself as "your typical anglicised Indian".

Accenture's Mr Spelman says: "Employees in the UK should start asking themselves what it will be like to work for an Indian employer."