In all of this I was hands-on, designing, managing and cheerleading throughout the way. But as we went along I was also absorbing lessons and drawing conclusions. Telecom for India was in its infancy, but I was convinced that the exchange of information enabled by telecom and IT would eventually have the same kind of effects in India as it had had in the US. Connectivity would be the basis for openness, accessibility, networking, economic development decentralization and democratization and, as a result, fundamental social transformation.
I was convinced that the lack of information exchanges was directly connected with poverty. In India, as in many other parts of the world, poverty has a lot to do with the poverty of information and knowledge. However, knowledge is power, and not many people like to share their power. If people can get information and knowledge, in whatever form they need—be it agriculture, business, soil, water or health—it adds to their prosperity, directly and indirectly. I had seen, first-hand, the effect that telecom and IT was having on economic life in America. I was sure that India could move in the same direction too. All it needed was political will.
Telecom would be an economic and social driver. You could already notice the beginnings of that in the villages as the public phones made their appearance and became a part of village life. I could see that they would empower people politically as well. If you can pick up the phone and call your elected officials yourself, it gives you a certain perceived power. You can reach out to them. You can question them. You can ask them for information and explanations. You can make your presence felt. With phones you can organize things quickly across great distances.
India, I thought, was ripe for what I conceived of as generational change. Telecom was a big idea. Looking to the future, it had the potential to catalyse a pervasive, society-wide transformation.
As I immersed myself more and more deeply in the Indian environment I continued to think about the fact that there were two ways to go about creating this social transformation. The first was to create a big private business in telecom. The country needed digital switching coupled with local production. You could build a large company to do these things; you could ‘entrepreneurize’ it. This was a path to great wealth.
Assuming you wanted telecom to have a nation-building impact, the prerequisite was political will. Without political will and visible ongoing support from the government leadership, it is difficult to execute big ideas. I would have been nowhere without Mrs Gandhi’s approval and Rajiv Gandhi’s political will, support and enthusiasm.
And along with political will, you need domain expertise to get things done. In India, with its bureaucratic habits and stultifying procedures, you absolutely need young, fresh talent. But managing young talent is an art in itself. It requires an unconventional approach, with a focus on collaboration. It translates to egalitarian management methods and selfless commitment on the part of the leadership.
Young people need clear and simple goals. Not ‘simple’ in terms of how the goals might be achieved—there are few human enterprises more complex and challenging than building digital telecom systems—but simple in terms of being well defined, single-minded, explicit and clearly articulated. Youngsters need to be guided every step of the way. They need new work culture, work norms, work ethics, work habits.
At times, all this felt like an immensely frustrating uphill battle. So it was important to me to have my own guide—just as I was a guide to the young engineers. I needed to have an internal compass to find and preserve my moral and psychological balance. In my case I looked to Mahatma Gandhi for help.
Gandhi was embedded in my brain—his moral power, the way he never turned away from what he had set out to do, but also the fact that he arrived in South Africa as a lawyer, looking to make some kind of a career for himself. Yet, he found something completely different, a social mission. He became a new person, a person who devoted his life to what he called ‘public work’.
I did everything I could to keep our young people excited. We had parties, cultural programmes, performances and camps. With all the cheerleading and motivational talks, the drama training from my university days came in very handy. These were morale-building activities. But I also needed our people to feel like they were a part of something larger, that their work was essential to the growth and health of their country. I wanted them to feel proud. They weren’t just holding a job, they were vital cogs in an endeavour that contributed to India’s well-being.
Finally, I understood early on that even though our young engineers were so engrossed in creating C-DOT, it could not possibly be the farthest point on their horizons in terms of career and life goals. They were going to seek their own mobility, their own paths upwards—aspiration and ambition were part of their youthful natures too. I wanted them to see C-DOT as a rich environment that would help them progress in their lives. Doing their best at C-DOT would help them open avenues to their futures. At C-DOT they would build their skill sets and their résumés; doing their best with us would contribute to wherever they would be going over the next twenty or thirty years.
I tried hard to get that message across. It was part and parcel of envisioning C-DOT, not just as a telecommunications project, but as a springboard for Indian engineering talent. And after a year or so of operations a chance came along for me to make my point. Two of our managers came to me and said, ‘Sir, we have a problem—bad news. We have seven people who want to go to the US for further studies. We’re angry, sir. We want to fire them immediately.’
‘Fire them?’ I said. ‘Let’s throw a party for them.’
‘What do you mean? They’re taking advantage of us. They’re ungrateful. We trained them and now they want to leave us.’
‘I’m happy they’re doing that,’ I said. ‘What a great thing. Our engineers are going abroad. They’ll take with them all the things they’ve learned here. They’ll be our ambassadors. Of course, they should go.’
So I had a big party for them. I gave a speech. ‘I’m so proud of these seven young people. They’re leaving us. But they’ll take with them great memories of C-DOT, memories of love and affection. Now, if you guys have any problems, you can call them in the US, and they’ll give you answers. Look at them as your extension over there.’
The speech was a hit. I meant every word I said. And, in fact, it has played out very much like I thought and hoped it would. Today, there are several hundred C-DOT engineers in Silicon Valley. In 2011, I had lunch with forty or fifty of them. ‘Sir, I was there in 1987.’ ‘Sir, I was there in 1991.’ It was like an alumni reunion. C-DOTians are everywhere in key leadership positions in companies in the US, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. They are well-accomplished, well-connected, well-informed people who take pride in themselves.
But C-DOT itself was only a mere part of the larger picture, where we needed a comprehensive strategy. You could not say, I’ll design the product, but I don’t know how to manufacture.Or I don’t know how to set up ancillary industries.Or I don’t know how to create standards.All these needed to be part of an overall plan.
We also needed to be media-savvy. The press was going to carry our message. In India’s political environment, the tenor of that message would be important, perhaps critical. I knew there would be hiccups along the way, but I felt that if C-DOT was running well and doing its job right, the reporting would be positive.
A big part of doing the job right was to have a clear cost–benefit advantage in mind. Whatever we did, it had to be not only better but less expensive and affordable as well. We couldn’t build all this fancy technology and then find out at the end that it could be bought for a cheaper price abroad. So it had to be affordable, scalable and sustainable. But if it wasn’t affordable, the rest would be irrelevant. We were clear on the point that what works in developed countries would not necessarily work in India. We needed an Indian model of development to meet Indian requirements.
I didn’t fully understand all—or maybe even most—of these things when we started out. I distilled their essence as we went along. But I did know one thing clearly that stayed with me daily at C-DOT. That in order to accomplish what I wanted, C-DOT needed to be a part of the government, yet separate from it. In the first two-plus years of C-DOT’s existence I felt I had succeeded in establishing this healthy, functional bypass. C-DOT was organized and productive. Our costs were one-fifth of what it would have cost to import the equivalent equipment. We were scaling up, moving towards our ultimate goal—the 40,000-line urban switch.
But on that switch we were running behind schedule. I had promised a thirty-six-month time frame, and the large urban switch was going to take forty or forty-six months to deliver. But, in fact, a delay of this kind didn’t mean anything. C-DOT’s work was vast—the design, the manufacturers, the ancillary industries, the 6 lakh villages. In the big picture, a six- or twelve-month delay for the large switch was immaterial. But that was my engineering self speaking. I didn’t foresee how an essentially irrelevant thing like this had the potential to come back and bite me with a vengeance. This delay was used later by a few to harass me.
Now that C-DOT was on track, my presence was becoming far less crucial. From here on, the main work would be fine-tuning, which wasn’t an area I wanted to focus my attention on. With Rajiv Gandhi in office, I had a window of opportunity to do other things. If I spent a lot of my time refining C-DOT, the chance would slip away. In 1987 I began thinking seriously about what those other things might be.
Rajiv and I had spent a good deal of time talking about how technology could help address poverty, inequality, inclusion, basic human needs and some more of the country’s most acute problems. These were serious conversations, in the sense that the possibilities excited both of us. But to that point they were no more than discussions between friends. However, the more I spoke to Rajiv, the more I got sucked into dreaming big to modernize India.
But as we talked, and as I scaled down my participation in C-DOT, I began to think about these things more consciously. To enable some coherence on the subject—for myself as much as for anything else—I put together a fifty-page paper outlining the areas where I thought technology could play a critical role: literacy, water, agriculture, transport, energy, health. I entitled the paper: ‘India in 2011’. What kind of an India did we want to build in the 21st century? When I shared that presentation with Rajiv, he asked me to have a conversation with some of his staff in the prime minister’s office. Gopi Arora, his secretary, liked the plan and we collectively agreed with the prime minister to launch this vision document on national television on 14 August for public discussion. However, the government got busy with the Punjab Accord and our plan to start a national conversation on India in the 21st century got derailed. Similarly, I had also done a detailed document on the building of the Congress Party, right after Rajiv Gandhi’s speech at the centennial celebration of the Congress in Mumbai. The plan was to operationalize his vision of the party for the future, a plan we had to also let go of due to our day-to-day firefighting activities.