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How Sam Pitroda aligned himself with the Gandhis

I contacted this person close to Mrs Gandhi’s son and was asked to come to his residence. But when I did, Rajiv wasn’t available, said Sam Pitroda.

Updated: Oct 18, 2015, 05.43 AM IST
An edited extract from Dreaming Big, in which Pitroda describes his first interaction with Rajiv and Indira Gandhi.Dreaming Big is published by Penguin Books India; Rs 525 hardcover.
An edited extract from Dreaming Big, in which Pitroda describes his first interaction with Rajiv and Indira Gandhi.Dreaming Big is published by Penguin Books India; Rs 525 hardcover.
An edited extract from Dreaming Big, in which Sam Pitroda describes his first interaction with Rajiv and Indira Gandhi. Dreaming Big is published by Penguin Books India; Rs 525 hardcover.

I contacted this person close to Mrs Gandhi’s son and was asked to come to his residence. But when I did, Rajiv wasn’t available.

‘Sahib’s in a meeting,’ I was told. He can’t see you now.’ I came again the next day. ‘No, Sahib is taking a shower.

This is not a good time.’ It was a little humiliating, but I didn’t care. Sahib could be taking a shower every day, but I wanted him to know that I was not going to go away. If Rajiv Gandhi was the path to his mother, and this person was the path to Rajiv Gandhi, then I was just going to keep at it until he agreed to see me.

While this was going on, by some serendipitous change the Chicago Tribune came out with a big story about me and some of the things I had done as a telecom innovator and businessman. And, somehow, somebody in Mrs Gandhi’s office had got hold of the story. I was, it seemed, a known person in the US, at least in the telecom industry. I didn’t know they had read the article, but the consequence was that I got a call one day from the prime minister’s office. ‘Mrs Gandhi will give you an hour.’ She wouldn’t be able to see me immediately, but she would give me an hour of her time.

We set up the meeting for a date several weeks later. Back in Chicago I worked on my presentation and gathered my physical slides — there was no Power-Point then. I procured an extra bulb in case the projector bulb burned out. After almost two years of back and forth, this was my one opportunity. I couldn’t risk anything going wrong...

My meeting with Mrs Gandhi was scheduled for 6 pm at her home office. I arrived an hour early to make sure everything was in order. I had to find the best spot to set up the projector. I checked the plugs in the walls to make sure they were working. In India, the electricity had a habit of going out. I told the staff that once the meeting began I didn’t want anyone coming in with tea or coffee or food...

By six I had everything set up and ready to go. I had checked the slides to make sure they were in the right sequence. I had checked the projector to make sure it was working. I was checking it again when a member of the staff came in and said that Mrs Gandhi would be half an hour late. Her previous meeting had spilled over into my time.

In the meantime all the other people were arriving. Mrs Gandhi had invited her entire circle of advisers. The whole Cabinet. The finance minister, the minister of technology, all the other ministers, the who’s who of Indian politics and also her son, Rajiv, whom I had been trying to get a meeting with.

Rajiv and I were about the same age. I introduced myself to him and got the immediate impression that this was someone I could talk to. There was something welcoming in his manner. Something clicked.

With half an hour to go before his mother arrived, Rajiv and I fell into a discussion. I explained to him that I had this idea — to bring telecom development to India in an Indian way. I told him I was convinced that telecom would change the face of India. A good telecom system would connect people in a way they had never been connected before. It would help tie the separate regions and states together. It would spur economic development, especially in the rural sector. It would create educational opportunities. It would help strengthen Indian democracy.

‘But we have to do it differently than they do elsewhere — in developed countries. We have to start with rural exchanges. Smaller exchanges that we design ourselves, for our own conditions. We have to look at it in terms of access instead of destiny. We have to train our own people so they’ll become experts in software.

We need to establish a manufacturing base for it. If we do this, it won’t generate indigenous development, it will create exports.

I squeezed in all the material I could, but he picked up on it instantly. Rajiv Gandhi was a quick study. He just got it. When Indira Gandhi came in, Rajiv sat next to her. I could half hear him saying. ‘Mom, listen to this. This guy has ideas.’

I went through the presentation, one slide after another. The developed world had 800 million people and 400 million telephones, one for every two people. India had almost 800 million people and 2.5 million telephones, one for every 280 people, many of which did not work. We were even further behind other developing nations like Mexico and Brazil. Our system operated on a patchwork of outmoded exchanges provided by different companies originating from different foreign countries. Our technical resources to maintain this crazy quilt of a system were vastly inadequate.

We had virtually no ability to expand service in a way that would meet continually growing demand.

I laid out the particulars of what we needed to do to transform this system – build it out with the best modern digital technology and make it accessible not just in the cities but also in the villages, where 70-plus per cent of India’s population lived. My strategy for India’s telecom development was based on indigenous development, accessibility, local production, ancillary industries, and the digitization of networks, rural telecom and young local talent. I explained that the existing telecommunications agencies could not be expected to accomplish this.

We needed instead to create a core research and development group that would design equipment meeting uniform standards, especially exchanges, focusing on the countryside first and then the cities.

This core group would require government support, but it needed to be independent of the existing bureaucracy. Building indigenous equipment would require us to establish local manufacturing. In the process we would modernize our phone systems, provide access for the bulk of our population, and develop our own technology, entrepreneurs, human resources and industrial base.

To make this happen I essentially wanted to create a bypass – something to circumvent the existing system. I was concerned that the existing organizations and vested interests would kill any new initiative. By now I had learned that the Indian systems worked on perks, privilege, patronage and personalities – not on performance and productivity.

I don’t think Mrs Gandhi or the others in the room understood everything I was saying in the presentation, especially regarding the specifics of the technology. But what Mrs. Gandhi did understand very well was the core of my vision. When I finished, she looked at me and said, ‘Good.’ And then she smiled.
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