Telecom was the only Mission where I truly considered myself an expert. But the telecom sector was experiencing a roadblock despite C-DOT’s success. The telecommunications department was the customer for telephone equipment, but they had a long history of buying foreign products, which meant they were enmeshed in a web of personal contacts and monetary relationships with overseas equipment-makers. As a result, they had embarked on a series of manoeuvres that were disrupting the broad-scale manufacturing, acquisition and installation of the Indian-made C-DOT products. They were delaying testing, demanding the addition of unnecessary features and otherwise doing their best to create problems. This had been a challenge with many other ministries including defence. Indigenous development was paid lip service while foreign products were preferred and purchased regularly to favour import lobbies and vested interests. Government policies were designed to encourage indigenous development but not indigenous production or purchase.
When I was unable to resolve these issues with the ministries, I went to Rajiv Gandhi with a proposal to set up a separate Telecom Commission. The commission, as I envisioned it, would include the telecommunications ministry, the finance ministry, the Planning Commission, the Cabinet Secretariat and the representatives from other relevant ministries. High-level decisions regarding telephone equipment, manufacturing and service would be made by the commission, then implemented by the telecommunications department. In this way we could carve a path through these roadblocks.
The prime minister agreed, and we organized a major national conference to help develop consensus. Over 500 people participated in the deliberations, including the prime minister, and various ministers, officers, industry leaders, labour leaders, and others. Then we started preparing the necessary documents. But as this moved forward the ministry went into defensive mode. They delayed processes. They sent the papers back for revision repeatedly. Then they sent back something different that they had purportedly drafted themselves. It was one delaying tactic after another. This went on for seven or eight months until it was crystal clear that they simply were not going to set up the Telecom Commission, whatever the prime minister’s office desires.
Finally, I told Rajiv that it was pretty certain that the ministry would not allow us to form a new Telecom Commission. ‘What’s the solution then?’ he asked.
The answer to this conundrum was that I would take on the role of the department’s chief executive officer. It seemed to be the only way to move forward. Taking on that job would be a stretch. I was still adviser to C-DOT, even though I had stepped away from any involvement in the operations. I was also, of course, adviser to the prime minister on the Technology Missions. But here too I felt that the projects were well-established enough, so I could move on. As I told Rajiv, I was prepared to take on the secretary’s job for two or three years. I could institute new policies, programmes and procedures, train people, and develop an executive management team to move forward.
But when the matter went to the principal secretary to the prime minister, Mr Deshmukh, so that my appointment could be processed, there was seemingly a hiccup.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘this cannot be done.’
‘What do mean “It cannot be done”?’
‘There’s a serious issue.’
‘What’s the serious issue?’
‘You are already a minister of state according to your role as adviser to the prime minister on Technology Missions. This new job, secretary of the telecommunications department, is one level below. The procedure is that the same person cannot hold positions at two levels at the same time,’ said Mr Deshmukh.
‘That shouldn’t be a problem. Just downgrade me on my adviser role,’ I replied.
‘I’m sorry. What do you mean?’ asked Mr Deshmukh with surprise.
‘All you have to do is downgrade me; I won’t have a problem with that. I don’t need two grades. Just downgrade me,’ I said.
For me, any kind of ranking in these things was an irrelevancy and didn’t serve any practical purpose. But in India’s hierarchical system, holding two ranks at a time was deemed a violation. Having a lower rank might not have meant anything to me—I would be doing the same work, regardless. But it was clear that my request was an unusual one. Mr Deshmukh was bewildered and seemed unsure about what to do when faced with this situation. So he called the prime minister, and the prime minister promptly dispatched Mr Dhawan from his office to resolve the matter.
So it happened. I became secretary of the telecommunications Department and founding-chairman of the Telecom Commission. I replaced Mr Satypal, who became secretary of services at the commission. As a result, I was now able to move ahead and operationalize the commission that had previously met with such dogged opposition.
Telecommunications was a giant department, with 550,000 employees represented by twenty-seven unions. The headquarters occupied a huge multistorey office building near Parliament in New Delhi. The department had around 4 million telephone lines with various state-level telephone operating companies known as ‘circles’. It was also home to the international telephone operation facet known as VSNL; wireless service; and manufacturing operations with Indian telephone industries, notably, Hindustan Teleprinters Ltd. However, the department was debilitated by a lack of planning and management discipline, complicated purchasing procedures, manual accounting and a serious shortage of equipment. The challenge was to expand production, substantially improve availability and access, and privatize production and then operations.
Most people who rise to the level of secretary have a lifetime’s worth of experience in large bureaucracies. They know the landscape, they’re comfortable with it. I, on the other hand, was forty-seven—younger than all the upper-level department officers. I had never in my life been part of such an organization. Now I was going to run one with four other government secretaries in the telecom department reporting directly to me with full profit-and-loss responsibilities.
That first day, a telecom department car picked me up from my home. At the department headquarters, people were lined up in front of the entrance, waiting for me with garlands of flowers. One after another they bowed, their palms together in a namaste. People expected these ceremonies—they were all normal protocol, the customary way of welcoming someone and showing respect. But it was also a reminder for me that I was entering a traditional, formalized culture—one I was going to do everything in my power to change.
Once everyone had greeted me I was escorted to my office by an impressive entourage. There I was met by a person who handed me a key. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘this is the key to your bathroom.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t need a bathroom key.’
‘Yes, this is the key to the secretary’s bathroom.’
‘It’s all right. I don’t need it. I’ll use the regular bathroom.’
‘No, sir, you don’t have to do that.’
‘Why not? I don’t need the key.’
The attendant backed away, puzzled. The secretary’s bathroom wasn’t only private, it was clean. He knew the public bathroom was a different story. When I entered the public bathroom I realized why I had been offered a private key. Based on what I saw, I was convinced that I needed to meet with the janitors and cleaners to improve the building’s basic hygiene and maintenance situation.
This was a start. I would go about things the way I did—making the same kind of demonstration I used to make back at C-DOT to dramatize that what I wanted was different from what people expected, that I was not going to be doing things the old way. Of course, at C-DOT I was building from the ground up. The telecommunications department was a colossus with its own deeply ingrained customs and procedures. This place wasn’t likely to change easily, secretary or no secretary.
It wasn’t just the public bathroom that wasn’t clean, the entire building was dirty. I told my office, ‘I want to meet with the janitors in the boardroom.’
When I walked into the boardroom there were forty janitors lined up, their backs pressing into the wall, obviously scared to death that I was going to fire them. ‘Please sit down,’ I said. They didn’t sit down. It just wasn’t the way things were done. Not only were they janitors, they were at the bottom of the economic pyramid and thus were not treated with respect.
‘Please, do sit.’ I gestured towards the chairs. They moved towards them tentatively and perched on the edge of their seats.
As soon as they sat the tea arrived, with cashews and biscuits. What was going on now? They thought this man was going to fire them and now they were sitting down and being served tea.
I said, ‘Look, we’re all spending a lot of time in this place. Can you please clean it better? I don’t want to see any garbage on the floor, or have stinking bathrooms, floating papers, cobwebs, falling drapes, dusty files, broken windows or broken chairs around. I don’t want to see any paint peeling off the walls. The tiles are falling. I don’t want all that. Let’s fix this place. This is our home.’
‘I’ll tell you what I want,’ I continued. ‘I want you to select two teams. I want to send one team to the Taj hotel and the other to the Sheraton. These are five-star hotels. Go there. See how they clean there, learn what they do. When you come back, tell me what equipment you need. We will get it for you. But I want you to keep this place clean. Tell me what complaints you have. You don’t have enough supplies? It’s my job to get them for you. You need something else? It’s my job to procure it. This is what I want, and I need your support. I’ll give you two weeks. If you don’t get this place clean, I’ll tell you what will happen—I’ll come in every morning at eight o’clock and start cleaning myself.’
‘Oh, sir,’ they said. ‘You cannot do that. We are here to do that.’
Their morale shot straight up. They started meeting, discussing who would go to each hotel and how they were going to improve things. The janitors were charged up.
Then I started a little nursery for the janitors and construction workers in the building. We had almost a thousand people, quite a few of them women. I talked to them. ‘Whoever wants to bring their kids to work should please bring them. Whoever has toys at home, bring them too. We’ll take care of the kids during the day. That’s going to be our policy from here on now.’
This was a little thing to do, nothing more than a small gesture. These were poor people, their lives were a struggle. You couldn’t notsee that in their faces. And no one was paying attention to their needs. Get them some help,I thought. How difficult is that?
I wanted to send a message, a kind of a warning shot across the bows, to the department that there was going to be a shake-up and that I was going to change the way things were done. My real test would be if I could institute organizational changes and begin to rework the culture in a more egalitarian, production-oriented way. The more effectively I could communicate my vision, the better chance I’d have at execution and retooling.
I have found that, many times, in a hierarchical system of work, the people at the top do not engage in the details and articulate vision and commitment that affect the well-being of the people at the lower rungs of the organization. This is very evident at construction sites of big government or office buildings in major urban areas, where women can be seen carrying bricks on their heads. Hardly anyone provides better tools to improve the quality of life for the poor workers. Matters are even more grim for sanitation workers in India. My training in the US, especially in the high-tech field, was undertaken in flat organizational structures that required the top-level management to keep their ears to the ground and listen to the voices of the people at the bottom. To me, this was a Gandhian approach to management.
These relatively minor demonstrations with the janitors made an impact. Word spread, not just to people in the building but through the whole organization. As secretary, my official car was a bulletproof model, earlier assigned to minister Arjun Singh, very heavy, with doors that took some strength to open. Every time I was picked up or dropped off, my driver, Mugliram, would run around to open the door for me, which wasn’t necessary and was another of those gestures of deference (and perhaps even subservience) that I found irritating. ‘Mugliram,’ I said, ‘don’t do that. The day I lose my hand you can open the door for me. Otherwise you don’t have to.’
When I said that, Mugliram had tears welling up in his eyes. ‘Sir, why do you say such things to me?’
‘No, you sit there. I can open my own door.’
The message went everywhere.
Meanwhile, I was moving ahead with my reorganization plans. My overall objective was to break the department free of its inertia and shift the focus of the entire unwieldy establishment to upgrading telephone service in the country. That meant changing mindsets. It meant creating a goal-oriented culture in place of the frozen-in-time bureaucratic mentality that characterized the department. I was intent on converting the country’s telecom entirely into the digital mode, computerizing services and upgrading maintenance and response efforts to users’ complaints while privatizing elements of the data and telephone industries, along with a dozen other priorities. I knew all of this would be hard to achieve in the three-year timeline I had set for myself, but my intention was to get things off to a strong start.
I’m not sure how many shared my optimism in 1988; the telecommunications department wasn’t going to change easily. There was a great deal of cynical talk surrounding my appointment and the enthusiasm I showed with my direct reports and with the telecom officers. They were brilliant engineers, but were bogged down by old procedures, paper-pushing and a file culture that was designed to block as opposed to initiate change. I had been told that of all the barriers, the most formidable was going to be the labour unions. ‘The unions,’ I heard, ‘are going to eat you alive.’
Of the twenty-seven union leaders who represented department employees, the senior person was one Mr Choudhary, a weathered, old organizer, given to play hardball. ‘He’s very hard to deal with,’ I was told. ‘You have to be careful, he’s always armed.’
This was a person, a tough nut to crack who, along with the other labour leaders, I could see taking an unfavourable view of my efforts. And I knew they were in a belligerent mood already. By then word had spread that the new secretary was from America. The grapevine was buzzing that I was all for private enterprise, that I was going to break up telecom, that that was the whole reason the prime minister had put me there in the first place. According to the buzz, my entire intention, apparently, was to bring in private ownership and finish off the unions.
I knew that was what they had been hearing. But it wasn’t true—not all of it, at least. I wasn’t naive enough to believe I could break the unions, even if that had been my intention—which it wasn’t. I had no choice but to work with them; I wouldn’t be able to get anything done otherwise. Going head-to-head with Mr Choudhary and his friends couldn’t possibly advance my agenda. In some way I had to make them my partners.
But instead of an alliance there was a battle shaping up. As soon as I took over as secretary I held a press conference and announced my goals for the department. India now had 4 million phones, double the number we had when I started C-DOT, but still abysmally small. ‘We have 4 million now,’ I said. ‘By the year 2000 I want that number to be 40 million.’ (This was in 1988, before the advent of cell phones.) The unions had taken those numbers and made their own calculations. If we had 500,000 employees for 4 million phones, for 40 million phones we’d need ten times that number—5 million workers, i.e., 4.5 million more union members. Their whole attention was on hiring and membership. My whole intention was to cut the number of department employees in half to meet global standards and reduce costs.
The big question was how to do that without inflaming Mr Choudhary and the others to boiling point.
My first meeting with the unions was a highly organized, ritualistic kind of affair. The union leaders took their places on one side of the table, and the other department executives and I sat on the other side. As we started talking, I found that I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. It was all acronyms: TaDa, CB, JTO, DOTO. The JTO is this, the CB is that. We won’t move an inch off the TaDa.I sat there thinking, What are they talking about?I didn’t have the foggiest idea.
Superannuation will take place after thirteen years of promotion from level X to level Y, except for those who are at level Z.What did that mean? And they all had big files with them, everyone except me. At the same time, I was the boss. I couldn’t look like a complete idiot. It hadn’t been my intention to make this a working session. At this point I just wanted to meet them and initiate some personal rapport instead of dragging on the animosity that seemed to underline our interactions.
Finally, I told them, ‘I’m not prepared to discuss contract details now. I haven’t been here long enough to completely educate myself on all the issues. I suggest that our next step will be for me to meet with the three senior leaders, Mr Choudhary [the gunman and a strong leader], Mr Gupta [the communist and a great nationalist] and Mr Venkat. Why don’t we schedule that? We can meet in my office.’
I might not have known what the TaDa or the JTO were, but I did know that no telecom secretary had invited union leaders into his offices as regularly as I did. It was part of the unspoken protocol governing relations between the two sides. But we set the meeting, and Mr Choudhary, Mr Gupta and Mr Venkat came by.
I understood what kind of preconceived idea they had of me—I was an American businessman who had made a lot of money and was against unions. So the first thing I wanted to do was put those notions to rest. They sat down. I ordered tea. I said, ‘Look, I want to work closely with you. Without you, I can’t do my job. People matter to me. I want to suggest a few things. I have two simple ideas to start with. Then you give me your ideas and we’ll work together. My first idea is that since we’ll need to be in close, regular contact, I’d like to set up an office for you here, right next to my office.’
They looked at me, incredulous. ‘Are you serious?’ Mr Choudhary said.
‘Yes, absolutely. We have space. I’ll get you an office. Second, all union activity concerns department affairs. Since that’s the case, the labour leaders around the country should be allowed to make calls for free.’
‘What?’ said Mr Gupta.
‘Yes. They’re my employees, isn’t that correct? I’m not talking about personal calls, I’m talking about labour business. I’m not doing it for you, I’m doing it for the department, to make it easier for me.’
We talked. I had thrown them off their guard with my ideas for the office space and the free business phone-calls. They were trying hard to scope me out and weren’t sure they could. These weren’t people who were particularly susceptible to charm.
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘if we’re going to be working together, it’s important that we get to know each other a little. Why don’t you come to my house for dinner? My mother is there. [She had come to live with us in Delhi four years earlier after my father had passed away from cancer in Chicago.] She’ll be happy to meet you.’
That made an impression on them. These three were all older than me. In terms of Indian family culture, it meant something for my mother to host them. They agreed to dinner at my home.
In an organization like the telecommunications department, people talked. And the chatter that now abounded was that the secretary was trying to befriend the union leaders in order to trap them. That I had an agenda and that I was going to brainwash them. That I was educated and smart, and they were naive working people. I had given them tea and biscuits, and now they were going to my home for dinner. It was a perilous situation.
The union leaders came home. Anu and my mother greeted them, both of them traditional women. I might come across at first as some kind of overseas sophisticate (despite the fact that I was from Titilagarh), but Anu and my mother did not give off that aura. My mother was every inch a village woman. And in spite of Anu’s years in the US, she had retained her traditional approach to life and her love for the old ways was also intact. They hit it off with Anu and my mother right from the start.
Mr Choudhary, for some reason, especially clicked with my mom. They talked about all things village, about jaggery and the different varieties of rice. ‘In my region,’ he said, ‘we make great jaggery. We grow rice. Next week I’m going to my village. I’ll bring some for you.’
And the next week he didbring it for her—ghee and rice and jaggery. They became friends, Mr Choudhary, my mother and Anu. Now the whole attitude was changing. Now, I was apparently a decent guy, despite being the boss. That I might think differently about some issues, but at heart I meant well.
When we did sit down to talk business, it was on friendly terms.
‘Friends,’ I said, ‘I need your help. We cannot have such an excessive number of people in telecom. We have to cut down. I don’t mean firing people; I don’t want anybody to lose their jobs. But I’m not going to be able to hire additional people either. So let’s agree on that first.
‘Second, I want to make certain that those who have been with the department for a certain number of years will get promotions. The first promotion will come after sixteen years, the second after twenty-six years—regardless of their classification levels or the jobs they are performing.
‘Third, I want to retrain people to elevate their skill levels. I want to start an institution for retraining telecom workers.’
What had happened was that if, for example, cable lines had to be laid and ditches dug, the department would hire labourers to do the digging. But because of union rules those people became permanent employees. Once the job was done, they remained employees, even though there was no further work for them. We had employees all over the country collecting pay but not doing enough.
‘We’re going to put those people to work,’ I said. ‘We’re going to upgrade their skills. Whoever is with us will stay with us. But no more hiring.’
Since the labour bosses weren’t dead set against this proposition, I worked out a plan and went to the Cabinet secretary. Then the labour ministry and the law ministry came into the picture. I told the Cabinet secretary, Mr T.N. Seshan, ‘This is what I want to do. I don’t know all the issues here, you do. Tell me how I need to get it done. Protect me from the legal issues and the inter-agency fights and all that. Please figure it out.’
Mr Seshan was brilliant, sensitive, supportive and willing to go the extra mile. He said, ‘Okay, let’s do this together. Let’s meet with labour together.’
So he called a meeting with labour. He spoke their language—the JTO, the CB, the DOTO. It took eighteen months, but in the end we negotiated an agreement.