Saturday, July 20, 2024

Charanjit Singh: Campa Cola’s forgotten founder who battled Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and India Today

Who knows what Charanjit Singh, industrialist, ex-member of Parliament and the man who gave India its first successful home-bottled cola, might have achieved, had he not passed away at the cusp of liberalization. His untimely death in 1990 left the rapidly growing soft drinks market wide open to his great rival, Ramesh Chauhan of Thums Up fame.

Both men had seized the opportunity thrown open to Indian entrepreneurs after global cola giant Coca Cola was evicted from India in 1977 for refusing to dilute its stake and divulge the secret formula for Coke. Singh’s Pure Drinks family group had been the sole manufacturer and distributor of Coca-Cola in India since 1949. Naturally, its first instinct was to protest the government’s move. But very quickly, entrepreneurial impulse kicked in and Coca Cola became Campa Cola, while emerging from the same bottling plants. 

Even the bottle was suspiciously similar though the taste of the cola inside might have been a tad sweeter, differentiating it from the spicier Thums Up. Coca-Cola would sue Pure Drinks upon its return in the 1990s, forcing the Indian company to redesign its bottle in an out-of-court settlement but by then Singh had passed away and in any case, the Indian brand was in decline.

But in the early 1980s, India couldn’t get enough of the new formula. Soon, Campa launched many other flavors besides cola – orange, lemon, apple and, in a hat tip to its Indianness, jeera as well.

The Great Indian Taste

Singh knew it wasn’t the product that would sell but the spirit it could summon. Armed with the marketing slogan The Great Indian Taste, the new cola now proceeded to use every trick in the book to hook a newly emerging Indian middle class particularly the generation born after independence. To them the newbie’s appeal was straightforward – We are all in it together for the taste of it. Capturing the zeitgeist of the new generation, Campa Cola roped in a young Salman Khan in its 1983 TV commercial, probably the first ad for the 17-year-old who would soon be the heartthrob of the nation.

Salman Rushdie might have dismissed the Indian sodas as “disgusting local imitations”, but the poseurs were flying off the shelves. The two Indian cola giants were so powerful that in 1988 they stalled a proposal by Pepsi to launch its products in the Indian market (as part of a larger fruit and food products venture, in partnership with Voltas and Punjab Agro-Industries Corporation). For Pepsi, this was its second shot at the Indian market. Its first, in 1956, collapsed after it found Indians had little taste for its cola, forcing the US MNC to quit in 1961.

By now Singh and his brother Daljit Singh had built an impressive industrial empire with interests in multiple businesses and a string of franchises across the country’s small towns to whom they sold the Campa brand of concentrates.

But Charanjit Singh’s ambitions were too huge to be bottled in a soft drink brand. In the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, standing on a Congress ticket he had beaten heavyweights like Vijay Kumar Malhotra of the Janata Party and Shashi Bhushan of the Congress (Urs) to win from the prestigious South Delhi constituency.

As reward, he bagged a prized project from New Delhi Municipal Corporation, beating out competition from the likes of East India Hotels Ltd, Indian Hotels and ITC’s Welcomgroup, to build a new hotel overlooking the historic landscape of Lutyens Delhi and surrounded by historic sites like India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhawan. The two towers of his Meridien hotel soon became a capital landmark but they also marked the start of an unusual faceoff which would set a precedent in terms of Indian business’s ability to influence the media.

Campa Cola vs India Today

Against a background of rules related to flouting of floor area ratio (FAR) and zoning regulations in the building of the hotel, India Today magazine had planned a story for which it sent a questionnaire to the company. An incensed Singh, went to court and managed to get an order prohibiting the magazine from publishing the story. The case traveled through various courts before reaching the Supreme Court where Soli Sorabjee defended India Today. A division bench comprising Chief Justice Yeshwant Vishnu Chandrachud (father of present Chief Justice Dhananjay Yeshwant Chandrachud), Justice E.S. Venkataramiah and Justice A.N. Sen categorically rejected the notion of pre-censorship once and for all. Justice Sen in fact made the famous remark: “I cannot believe that a story in a newspaper or magazine can ruin anyone’s business. If it can, the man’s business worthiness cannot be much.”

It was a prophetic statement. Over the next few years, Singh’s soft drink empire would come under pressure from Thums Up and by the time he passed away, Chauhan controlled over 40% of the market, leaving Campa in distant second place, though it did dominate the Delhi market.

With Charanjit Singh’s passing, a bitter family feud broke out that put paid to any chance of growth in either the cola or the hotels business. In 2022, Campa Cola was acquired by Reliance Industries for 22 crores.

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