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Buccaneer rallies for home-grown control

There is almost a nostalgia about H.P. Nanda - Har Parshad is his full name, but he prefers H.P. - when he discusses his family company. He describes Escorts' every nuance without documentation or notes and calculates share loses without a pencil or pen. He remembers the first tractor he assembled. India then had so few roads that he had to send British and Polish pilots, whom he instructed in the fine points of tractors, to the remote countryside to teach farmers not to put water in the petrol tank.

Today he is the man in the middle - an old-school buccaneer who arrived from Lahore at the time of partition with $500 in his pocket, sharing with his brother a 1947 Buick and Chevrolet. He sold the cars to create his basic capital. Now, with a turnover of $260 million, he is one of India's 10 richest men.

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At 65 he is India's automotive king, in a tradition of old industrial houses where family control, ownership, and management fuse. His generation are good professional managers. Critics charge that their sons are not.

Sitting in his wood-paneled office, Mr. Nanda bristles at the name of Swraj Paul. They are old friends, distant relatives, in fact. They last met in London last July when the patriarchs of India's old family houses sat down with the expatriate Indian community to forge a stand on the best ways to attract Indian investment from abroad.

''We had no idea that these incentives would be so abused,'' Mr. Nanda said in an interview. ''And, if the politicians and the financial institutions give men like Mr. Paul their support, they will permit India's industry to be run by remote control.''

His office is awash with paper. Nearly 1 million of Escorts' 14 million shares have changed hands since the stock market raid first began. He himself has bought 300,000; minimally 463,000 are now in the hands of Mr. Paul. All transfers are being screened and will not be immediately registered, which is permissible for two months under Indian law.

''I don't have the capacity to compete with Paul in a price war,'' Mr. Nanda said. ''But I built this company. And when the wolf is at my throat, I will fight with every available resource that I've got.''

The resources have proved formidable, and in only one month's time Mr. Nanda has launched what is, by any measure, an extraordinary campaign. He has all the Indian press behind him and has rallied the country's top industrial groups. The parliamentary opposition, some members of the ruling Congress Party (I), and even the son of the prime minister have come out squarely on the beleaguered industrialist's side.

But the spunky Mr. Nanda doesn't see the battle as being won. He remains concerned over the potential of the financial institutions, which hold 54 percent of Escorts' stock.

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''One of the many ironies,'' Mr. Nanda said, ''is that had it not been for the financial institutions, I never would have made it here. I would have been swallowed up by one of the large houses.''

But he refused to comment on what role he believes the prime minister has played. And Indira Gandhi controls the financial institutions, as the financial institutions control the country's private sector base.

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