Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why Indians Are So Thrilled by Tata's Nano

For his first meeting with the object of his desire, Rajesh Murthy, 32, clean-cut and handsome, gets a haircut, a new shirt, and a wad of cash. The resident of Ghaziabad, a low-income suburb of New Delhi, wakes up early, calls his boss at the restaurant where he runs the cash register to say he's taking a sick day, and then drives a half-hour on his motorcycle to a dealership in South Delhi. There, he stands in line with hundreds of fans, pushing through the crowd at every opportunity, eagerly craning his neck for a glimpse. "I can't wait," he says, his eyes darting around to look for an opening in the throngs of people. "I saw it once two years ago, and since then I have been dreaming of bringing it home, surprising my parents. Oh, my wife, she will be so happy."

Suddenly, the doors open and he is ushered into another crowded room. There, in the corner, just as he remembered it, is a pristine, white Tata Nano. Brand-new, the factory paint still shiny, a bright red ribbon crisscrossing its hood, its doors invitingly open, the car seems to beckon to Murthy. In the two and a half years since Murthy first saw pictures of a Nano prototype, the car has become an obsession for him and countless other Indians. He dreams about the $2,000 "People's Car," he tells me sheepishly, running his hand through his hair. "Quickly," he says, grabbing my hand, and together we half-run to the car.

Like 350,000 other people all across India, Murthy puts down an $80 deposit to enter a lottery. Only a lucky 100,000 winners will get to buy a Nano in the next 12 months. They have to take their chances, because Tata Motors (TTM), which dreamed up, designed, and then produced the cheapest car in the world, has a problem that General Motors (GM), Ford (F), and Chrysler only wish they had: far too many customers. Pressure from local politicians angry about Tata using farmers' land for its proposed factory in West Bengal forced the company last year to give up and start again in Gujarat, a state in India's west with a pro-business government. The new factory there won't be complete until late 2009, so for now Tata has to ration access to the Nano.

It is difficult for many Westerners to imagine what cars mean for Indians. For decades, Indians chafed under a controlled economy, choosing from two cars—the tank-like Ambassador, unchanged since the 1950s, with its sofa seats and lumbering engine, and the ladylike Fiat, modeled on the 1957 1200D, short and petite, with an awkward gearbox attached to the steering wheel. Few people could afford new cars, and secondhand, thirdhand, and even fourthhand cars were coveted.

Car Blessings

In the early '90s, the economy opened up, and suddenly there were choices, some affordable, most not. New cars, almost always the Maruti 800, designed by Japan's Suzuki (7269.T) and built by the Indian government, would be delivered to houses, their gleaming, factory-fresh bodies festooned with ribbons and flowers. With envious neighbors glaring, the new owner would gingerly drive the car to a temple, where a priest would crack open a coconut and say a prayer, blessing both the car and its occupants.

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