His ancestors were divans of Udaipur. Grandfather, India’s high commissioner to Pakistan. And father, a foreign secretary. Public service, it seemed, was a legacy handed down to Vikram Singh Mehta. A legacy he almost pursued when he joined Indian Administrative Services, only to quit two years later. Having left several other jobs in quick succession, Mehta was on his way to join the World Bank when a call from Shell executives offered him the prospect of working for the multinational oil and gas company’s divisions in Egypt. “My interest was already in petroleum and I wasn’t too keen on the World Bank job. Shell is a great company, so I took the risk and it worked out,” Mehta once told a leading news daily.
The turning point, however, was the year 1994 when Mehta was asked to head Shell’s India operations. It was an interesting time. Economic reforms meant that the market was more dynamic than ever, and the global energy conglomerate’s entry was widely seen as a game changer, a perception both Shell and Mehta largely lived upto. Though it started as a lubricant business, an LPG company and an LNG business followed soon, and, finally, Shell entered petroleum retailing. As it diversified, the company became one of the biggest international investors in India’s energy sector, and Mehta, one of the most trusted critics of all that ails the sector, chiefly government’s policymaking (particularly gas pricing and energy security). He has been an integral part of the board of Shell Pakistan, and is also chairman of the Hydrocarbon Committee of the Confederation of Indian Industry and a member of its National Council. In recognition of his exemplary leadership, Mehta was awarded Asia House’s Businessman of the Year in 2010.
Having led Shell for nearly two decades, Mehta stepped down last year. Today, as the executive chairman of the Indian division of Brookings, one of the most influential think tanks in the world, he finds himself closer to his calling. He has already made it clear that like its parent body, Brookings India will focus on global as well as domestic economics, foreign policy, energy and infrastructure. The stakes are high, so are the hopes. But Mehta, who has often maintained that he is “not a competitive guy”, is stranger to neither.