In a conversation with Tathagata Bhattacharya, telecom engineer, innovator and entrepreneur Sam Pitroda, also chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress and one of the harbingers of the telecom revolution in India in the 1980’s, says the country’s political condition is not conducive to the flourishing of science, technology and entrepreneurship
You visit India six times a year for the last several years. Do you see a visible change in public perception about the government and, specifically, about the PM?
On April 20, I interacted with over 400 students and teachers at Delhi University. Everyone talked about the lack of freedom at universities, lack of support, cuts in budgets, courses being centralised, history being rewritten and facts being twisted. Education budget has been reduced in the last five years, budget for science and technology has also taken a hit. Innovation is not happening. During former PM Manmohan Singh’s tenure, there was the National Innovation Council which was abolished by this government as soon as they assumed power.
Let’s talk about telecom specifically.Today, we have 1.2 billion phones in this country. Overall, it has done extremely well, thanks to Indian entrepreneurs, industries, young talent. The seeds that we planted in the 1980’s backed by the political will of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi have grown into mature plants.
But today, the quality of service is pretty bad, business very competitive, nobody is making money. Look at airlines. What happened to Jet Airways? About 20,000 people there do not know about their future. Look at Air India, look at BSNL, MTNL.
So, I think the impact of this government can be seen in the big industries, infrastructure, services. I will give you a prime example. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a flagship project in Gujarat called the Gujarat International Finance and Technology (GIFT) City.
They acquired 300 acres of land to build the most modern smart city for global players to come in and invest for financial technology. This was conceived 12 years back. IL&FS was the partner and every year, there used to be a big promotional event. Today, it is a disaster. There are two buildings with hardly anyone there, certainly no major international player. IL&FS is broke and bankrupt. No one talks about it any more.
This myth was created about the Gujarat model of development, about Modi’s ability to attract investments.Infrastructure projects are in a mess, solar power project is not going well.Meaningful investments from abroad are not coming in. Whatever is coming in is to buy our existing assets at cheap prices so that they will massage it,structure it and resell it.
The summary of all this is that we have not created jobs. It is the singular real challenge today. This government promised to create 100 million jobs in five years. Not only they failed to generate new jobs, they actually reduced the existing number of jobs by Demonetisation and hasty implementation of the GST regime.
It promised to create 100 smart cities which is nowhere in their 2019 manifesto. Not one has been built. The Namami Gange project, Swachh Bharat have little to show for themselves. Everything is basically a PR exercise. It is all about propagating lies through spending public money in the form of advertisements and promotions. And, of course,self-promotion. You are inaugurating projects which have been already inaugurated, you are taking credit for things that other people did.
All these worry me. It bothers me because while growing up, and I am 1942-born, Gandhian values were important to us, values such as truth, trust, love, democracy, freedom, inclusion, diversity,discipline. These were not words. You lived them. Today, I see a 180 degrees shift. It has become a system of lies, mistrust, hate, exclusion, uniformity,one-man rule. It is about “me, me and me” and not “us”
In the early days, this government captured the imagination of the people through a lot of false promises and by telling people that “the Congress did not do anything for 70 years and we will solve all your problems”. So, people were taken for a ride. But now they realise that nothing has happened. So now they are saying “enough is enough”. People see that basically two men call all the shots today. That’s not good for democracy.
How important a role will money play in this election, given that one party has got 90 per cent of the funds and the rest is spread among all others?
Just the other day, someone was telling me that the Congress is not that good with social media. That is true because they spend more than 20 times the money that we do. With money,you can buy talent, buy space, advertisements, add manpower. Look at the amount of government advertisements in the newspapers. You turn on ten channels and all of them are discussing the greatness of Mr Modi. But, ultimately, people will decide what is best for them.
How do you see big data, analytics and artificial intelligence impacting elections?
Big data analytics have given us more details at micro-level that helps us in better messaging as we can reach specific target groups based on a variety of parameters. For example, we won’t put up a poster on NYAY in Khan Market, New Delhi but one on our proposed GST plan. Similarly, we will put up posters on NYAY where the poor people live. So a little more intelligence guesswork has been made possible by introduction of these technologies.
There has been a normalisation of calling people anti-national whenever someone criticises the government and the Prime Minister…
Yes, I read a report on The New York Times, saying no one was killed in Balakot. Hence, I asked the government to clarify which is within my rights. But I was immediately branded as pro-Pakistani and an anti-national. The BJP president called a press conference and the Prime Minister tweeted on it. Who are they to call me “anti-national”? My daughter called me to enquire about my safety and well-being. I met a reporter the other day whose mother gets threat calls for her son criticising the government. The old lady can’t sleep at night.
NYAY is of course the centre piece of the Congress’ poll promises in 2019. Do you think the party has been able to reach out to people in every nook and corner of the country?
It is an on-going process. We are a little bit late in our campaign. I must say that. But the campaign is very solid. NYAY is a big idea. About 25 crore people will be able to live a life of minimum dignity with the Rs 6000 monthly support to five crore families. But nyay is not just about the NYAY scheme in this election. It is a platform, a holistic idea that talks about ‘nyay’ for young people in the form of jobs; nyay for women in terms of respect, safety and security. Nyay is for farmers for getting the right price for their produce; nyay is for medium and small industries for getting easier credit and market access.
Is NYAY resonating with the target audience?
I think it is but I wish it could reach a lot more people because the BJP is a master at confusing people by twisting and turning the facts.
You, along with Rajiv Gandhi, were the men behind the telecom revolution in India. How does it feel, at a personal level, to see someone arrive at the scene several decades down and start taking all the credit for something that you started…
It does not feel anything. You do not do something for credit. You do it because it needs to be done. In the process, if ten people get credit, well and good. But the real credit, according to me, goes to Rajiv Gandhi’s political will, lots and lots of Indian talents who worked really hard and, partly, to my domain expertise, to Indian entrepreneurs, policy makers. To do what we did requires support from everybody. No one man can do it.
When we started, the country had 2 million phones in 1984. It used to take 10 years to get a telephone connection. Today, 25 years down, we have 1.2 billion phones, we export software to the tune of $150 billion every year. We have come a long way. The point is where we go from here.