Rajiv Gandhi as I knew him

Most Indians don’t have any idea of what we lost in Rajiv Gandhi. People are quick to criticise but slow to grasp impact of Rajiv’s loss to India’s progress. It probably put India back 10-20 years

Rajiv Gandhi as I knew him

Sam Pitroda

On a visit to India in 1980, I could not make a phone call from Delhi to my wife in Chicago. With some amount of arrogance and lots of ignorance I decided to help fix the Indian telephone system. If I had known what I found out in the first three years about Indian systems, I would have perhaps never tried it. At times, ignorance is a great asset. I decided that I would spend 10 years of my life fixing India’s telephones.

I was told that if I really wanted to do that, I would have to meet Mrs Indira Gandhi, because only if the Prime Minister agreed, it could be done. Maharaja of Baria from Gujarat, who was an MP then, helped me connect to Indira Gandhi’s office for an appointment which took eight months of waiting. When she agreed, her entire cabinet (Ramaswamy Venkataraman, Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, Gundu Rao) was there at the meeting.

I had to make a presentation on how indigenous development with focus on digital technology, modern software, advanced micro processors, local young talent, rural access, local production, etc. would change the face of India to Mrs Gandhi.

Rajiv was there at the meeting with his friends and that is when I met him for the first time. He and I are about the same age and we just clicked at the meeting. He understood my message, enthusiasm and energy. He also understood the potential of connecting diverse and vast India with multiple languages.

By the time Mrs Gandhi died in 1984, Rajiv and I had become well-connected. We would talk regularly on technology, telecom, India’s challenges and many other issues. We became professional friends. Later, I officially worked for him as advisor on technology mission with the rank of a minister. Rajiv understood a lot about what India needed and what we had to do. I could see in him a leader who had the political will to build the India of the future with focus on technology, liberalisation, privatisation and public participation. Without his political will, we would not be where we are in software, telecom and technology today.

In India, like everywhere else, political will matters. Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Homi Bhabha could get atomic energy started, Mrs Gandhi and Vikram Sarabhai were instrumental in initiating space research, Mrs Gandhi, MS Swaminathan and a few others could get Green Revolution done. Similarly, Dr Verghese Kurien worked with multiple prime ministers on milk revolution. With Rajiv’s support, we could plant the right seeds for the telecom and IT revolution of today. With his support we launched C-DOT (Center for Development of Telematics) in 1984 to build the technology and human resource needed for the digital products and networks for the future. Political leaders can make promises but to deliver we need the right talent with freedom, autonomy and flexibility.

I had many interesting and invaluable interactions with Rajiv Gandhi. Here are some examples of his generosity, openness, concern for others, focus on details, people skills and lot more.


When Rajiv Gandhi came to Washington DC as the Prime Minister, I thought my wife should meet him before I took the plunge to move back from Chicago to India. In January 1985, Rajiv and I had spoken in Delhi about me coming back to India forever; it was a romantic dream. To meet with Rajiv at Washington DC, I rang up the Indian ambassador to request the meeting. The ambassador informed me that Rajiv’s days were full of meetings. I still requested the ambassador to ask Rajiv if he could meet with me. The ambassador did not know me, but he still checked with Rajiv about my request. Rajiv immediately responded in the affirmative. He asked the ambassador to cut 15 minutes off two meetings to accommodate me.

So, I went there with three of my friends and my wife. When we went in, he made room for all of us and requested my wife Anu to sit beside him. I needed my wife to support my move back to India. He was kind to all my friends and discussed with Anu what mattered to her the most - the schooling and education of my children. Even in the middle of all the political meetings he had the human touch to mention kids’ education to a worried mother. Anu was very impressed that the Prime Minister of the country was concerned about her children’s schooling. Rajiv was so down-to-earth that after the meeting my wife agreed to moving the family to India.

Most Indians do not have any idea of what we lost in Rajiv Gandhi. People are quick to criticise but slow to grasp the impact of the loss of Rajiv to India’s progress. It probably put India back 10 – 20 years. India lost the momentum of 1985. Rajiv had scientific temper, rational thinking, modern mind, love for India, democratic values, international outlook and concern for the poor and rural India.

During Rajiv’s prime-ministership around 1988, President of Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev was coming to Delhi and I wanted to meet him. But the Soviet and Indian bureaucracies were not convinced why the Soviet president had to meet with a junior advisor. So, they refused the meeting. Rajiv called me to let me know that the meeting was difficult. I suggested that we could perhaps have coffee with Gorbachev at PM House after dinner. He agreed. Gorbachev and his wife were over for dinner and Rajiv requested him to have coffee with us to discuss consumer, defence and Information technology potential with India.

We were prepared with a 35 mm slide presentation and spent an hour with Gorbachev over coffee. We wanted the Russians to buy consumer goods from India. When I had gone to Moscow in 1987, I had seen that you could not get soap, shampoos and other consumer goods at corner shops. We wanted to set up an Indian mart for Indian goods in Soviet Union. Within 30 days, Gorbachev sent 20 experts from the Soviet Union to explore potential joint opportunities. The point is that Rajiv was open to new input, new ideas and new frontiers. He was willing to take risk, break barriers and build bridges.

In 1987, we were expecting the United States to provide us with a Cray super-computer. Rajiv Gandhi got a call from President Ronald Reagan that US would not give us super computers because they thought we would use it for nuclear research. That disappointed us, but Rajiv agreed to the recommendation of the Science Advisory Council to build our own.

India immediately set up the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) in Pune for this purpose. In 1990, we showcased a prototype of a super-computer at the Zurich Super-computing Show. It showed the world that India had the second most powerful super-computer in the world after the United States.

In 1989, the chairman of General Electric Jack Welch was coming to India for the first time. He wanted to meet Rajiv Gandhi but as Rajiv was extremely busy, I was asked to meet Jack. I went for the breakfast meeting with Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Jairam Ramesh and Jay Chobey.

The Chairman of GE said he was here to sell engines, but I told him that we wanted to sell him software. The chairman of GE said he was not interested in buying software and I responded saying that then there was nothing much to talk. An uncomfortable silence ensued at the breakfast table. We continued to have breakfast. After a while, the chairman of GE broke the silence. He said he was willing to listen to what we could do.

We made a presentation of our software capabilities and potential. We told him that we wanted a $10 million order. He agreed and sent a team of 10 GE executives to India to visit NIC, TCS, Infosys and Wipro. We got our order from GE. Later we called IBM, TI, Motorola and others to get more software orders. That is how we all helped kick start our software industry in India.

We eradicated guinea worm, built water testing labs, increased literacy, built vaccine plants, focused on eradicating polio, increased production of oilseeds, became number one in milk production, designed superfast computers, built telecom factories, increased pharma production, organised Festivals of India in the USA and Soviet Union, explored collaborations with US ,Germany and others. These are the things that I remember. I am sure there are many other important initiatives launched during that exciting time with the political will from Rajiv Gandhi.

When some people say that nothing got done in the past in India, I feel sorry for their ignorance. I can list many more instances where we planted seeds in the Rajiv Gandhi era, which are now bearing fruits for India to enjoy.

Nation building is a complex process that takes leadership, domain experts, technology, time and resources. Rajiv Gandhi was a nation builder who believed in democracy, freedom, openness, technology, diversity, inclusion, vision, future, scientific temper, rational thinking, logic, entrepreneurship, young talent, and team work.

(As told to Ashlin Mathew)

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Published: 20 Aug 2020, 12:30 PM