Caught in the trade winds: Khadi and the Ambassador

The Khadi and Village Industries Commission sent a notice to FabIndia, directing to cease its khadi sales since only the KVIC has the right to sell the fabric. FabIndia, upon receipt of the notice, is reported to have taken the khadi range off its online shopping options.

Caught in the trade winds: Khadi and the Ambassador

This is about two brands, two Indian brands. There’s no getting away from their Indian-ness even if one has a complicated origin.

One is khadi. Khadi, as we all know, is symbolic of the poor weaver in India who spins cotton thread on a charkha, the spinning wheel, low-cost and easy to repair, and weaves it together. Khadi is the produce of toil and sweat and a brainchild of none less than Mahatma Gandhi. Though his idea of khadi was in opposition to the machine-made textile of Manchester (but later Ahmedabad, Coimbatore and sundry other towns), khadi has moved on since then. The government was meant to promote khadi, which it did in typical absentee landlord style by having handloom ministers and assorted departments that did some bureaucratic work which had nothing to do with either the garments’ look and feel or its popularity. Despite its street cred for warriors of the left kind and for Congress netas, the buyer didn’t have choice, and khadi stayed coarse and in bleak colours which would wash away. Total licence-permit-raj feel.


In come entrepreneurs, including FabIndia, which see opportunity and procure the fabric in new colours and using designs that can sell. Over some decades, khadi is hip and happening that it becomes part of the zeitgeist. In 2017, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) published its calendar with none less than Prime Minister Modi in a Gandhi pose with the charkha. It didn’t obviously go down well with some people. But khadi is now a popular item, very much so because of private players and not just the moribund government outfit meant to promote it.

But governments and government departments are pretty finicky about these things. The KVIC sent a notice to FabIndia, directing to cease its khadi sales since only the KVIC has the right to sell the fabric. FabIndia, upon receipt of the notice, is reported to have taken the khadi range off its online shopping options. But, no, the government insists that some small labels in the garment itself claim to be khadi and are thus misrepresenting themselves. FabIndia is likely to wisen up and drop any khadi reference from its garments. But if this government is going to be so fanatic in trade issues, how is it going to encourage trade and investment in India? Has the government thought of a term for private players to use to indicate that their garments are made of cotton, spun and woven like khadi? It looks like it has not. Free trade apparently can wait.

The other brand is the Ambassador, originally the Morris Oxford Mark 3. The ship, the vessel, the tank that glided over the potholes and haphazard trenches that were called roads before proper macadamised thoroughfares became a reality in post-liberalisation India. In satellite towns and villages, the Ambassador was the original Multi-Passenger Vehicle. I have seen and been driven in an Ambassador that travelled some 22 kilometres from Mangalore to Bantwal in Karnataka with frequent stops, alightings and boardings, all for a measly five bucks. The number of passengers, including the driver, would at all times have been a minimum 13 in that drive. Comfort was not the point, getting there was.

Now, 25 years or more after Manmohan Singh slowly undid the locks in state machinery as part of liberalisation, the roads are there, the Ambassadors are not, or at least not in as many numbers as before. Some ply in government service, some in Delhi taxi stands with CNG-powered hearts, some stand inside residential colonies with a brown film of fine dust on them.

Peugeot of France has bought the brand and the plant in West Bengal for Rs 80 crore. Many took to twitter and facebook to shed a tear for the icon, many of those who shed tears were the ones who plumped for the Maruti when it first rolled in. The agony of the Ambassador is that no Indian firm took it over, cried some. The Tatas or the Mahindras could have resuscitated the brand and kept it in India, said a few more.  The Tatas or the Mahindras didn’t want anything to do with the labour disputes and dues in the Bengal factory. Cars are not made for social service, they are made to make money for the car maker.

Some say the Birlas should have re-engineered the car to suit modern times like the Eichers did the Enfield, which now sells at a premium after it swapped gear and brake pedals, despite its having forsaken the much-romanticised engine throb of the old models.

Peugeot may well use the brand to dent the market it has not been able to make an entry in. The previous entry was a non-starter, or as good as, with Premier. But partnering with Premier may have taught the French automaker a lesson. Hope it serves the Ambassador well.