NEW DELHI — To understand India's economic rise, look to its cars.
The iconic Indian automobile of a generation ago was the Ambassador, a noisy, boxy clunker that was ubiquitous despite its ungainly 1950s style.
Compare that to the newest Indian-owned line of cars, the famously sophisticated Jaguar, which Tata Motors, India's biggest auto company, bought with Land Rover from Ford Motor Co. in a landmark $2.3-billion deal.
The vehicle upgrade could be a metaphor for the transformation the country has gone through, as the so-called "License Raj" — the stifling state-run socialist system widely blamed for shackling India's economy — came to an end, giving rise to a new middle-class whose appetite for consumption has reshaped India and spurred an economic boom.
Now, Indian companies are taking that money and shopping overseas for acquisitions as part of a strategy meant to announce India's arrival on the global stage, break into new markets and keep the profits rolling in.
"It's a matter of survival," said Ashutosh Goel, an analyst with the brokerage firm Edelweiss Capital. "To succeed and thrive you have to be a serious global player and not only focused on the domestic market. You can't remain a purely Indian player."
Nearly all the leading corporations here — including Reliance Industries Ltd. and outsourcing company Wipro Ltd. — are looking overseas, and news of Indian acquisitions of brands from Europe, the United States, Asia and Africa has become common.
Many see the newfound assertiveness as a reflection of the general feeling in India that the once-stagnant underachiever belongs among the international elite.
"Indian companies have been in the mood for overseas purchases for a few years now and that coincides with the boom in the economy and the general feel-good factor here," said Anjana Menon, an editor at Mint, a leading Indian business newspaper.
At the same time, the robust economy and looser regulations have attracted widespread foreign investment, increasing competition here and forcing Indian companies to expand overseas to seek sales, analysts said.
Beyond Tata Motors, the crowded car market includes the Maruti Suzuki Ltd. — majority owned by Japan's Suzuki Motors Corp. — South Korea's Hyundai Motor Ltd., Japan's Honda Motor Co. and U.S. automakers General Motors Corp. and Ford.
International companies are interested in more than selling just cars, however. Coca-Cola Co., which was booted out of India in the 1970s to make way for the local brand Thums-Up, came back in 1993 after the economy opened to foreign investment, and now owns the former rival.
Tata Group, the country's oldest and largest conglomerate, is the most striking example of a company on an acquisition spree. It emerged from its own economic doldrums with purchases of British steelmaker Corus Group for $13-billion, as well as tea, hotel and automobile companies.