The major difference between Rajiv Gandhi and Rahul is their era: Sam Pitroda

Richa Mishra | Updated on April 26, 2019

Project to project: Sam Pitroda’s relationship with the Gandhis goes back to 1984, when he worked with Rajiv Gandhi to establish the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT)   -  KAMAL NARANG

Old and the new: Hailed as the man who revolutionised India’s telecom sector, Pitroda is now a mentor to Congress president Rahul Gandhi   -  PTI/NAND KUMAR

Technocrat Sam Pitroda on the Congress, BJP, fiscal math and the idea of India

Satyan Gangaram Pitroda — better known as Sam Pitroda — has often been referred to as India’s PCO man. He is the one, after all, who gave shape to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s planfor dotting the country with PCOs or Public Call Offices. Credited with revolutionising the telecom sector — anyone who still remembers having to book trunk calls, will doff their cap to him — Pitroda believes that political parties need to have a vision that sets their agenda for the next 20 years.

In 1984, Pitroda worked for Gandhi to establish the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT). It helped develop the technology required for the Indian telecom network. The focus was clear: To create a young talent pool, improve accessibility, rural telecom, digital networks, indigenous development and local manufacturing. “We worked quietly without any PR,” he says, taking a dig at the BJP-led government at the Centre.

BLink caught up with the man who is also said to have worked on the new (and improved) image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. But Pitroda, 77, plays down his role. “We have good chemistry,” he says.

Excerpts from the interview:

You are widely seen as the one behind Rahul Gandhi’s new avatar...

I have a bond with Rahul Gandhi. I had established one with his father, Rajiv Gandhi. He gave meaning to my life — otherwise I would have been just an engineer. He gave me the political backing that was needed to bring in change. His political will and my domain knowledge came together. Each in a silo wouldn’t have achieved what we did. I did my job sincerely; I had no vested interests. I got a huge canvas to paint on.

With Rahul Gandhi, yes, I was with him in the US and we travelled to other destinations [meeting people]. People want to hear him. He has grown more confident. His message is well received. Yes, he is ready to interact (with the people) and he is ready to be himself.

We all have our styles — right or wrong. I think it is good to be honest.

I won’t say I am guiding him; rather, I have conversations with him — like the one I am having with you. We have good chemistry. I can talk openly with him.

What’s similar — and different — between Rajiv and Rahul Gandhi?

They are very similar in many ways and different in other ways. They come from the same genetic pool — they have had similar upbringings — so their value systems are similar and intact.

The major difference between Rajiv Gandhi and Rahul is their era. Rajiv belonged to an era when people were not used to privatisation and liberalisation. Those days we had two million phones; now over a billion are connected. Today everyone has seen privatisation, liberalisation and aspirations are very high. So the demand on Rahul Gandhi is much higher than that on his father.

Besides, Rahul has a much younger population to deal with — especially below the age of 25. How do you feed them, clothe them, educate them, skill them and provide them with jobs? It is a huge challenge. To meet the challenge one has to be much more creative, be a visionary — and aggressive. It cannot be done by talking about temples. Temples will not create jobs.

You cannot have your eyes in the back of your head. You have to see what is going to happen when self-driven cars come in. Today, we import large volumes of edible oil and ketchup from China. Why — when we can do that ourselves and create jobs?

What would you say if you were to do a five-year performance audit of the BJP-led government?

Let me start at the beginning. We are a nation of 1.32 billion who believe in democracy, freedom, inclusion, diversity. These are very important for business, as well. If you don’t have the freedom of thought, reporting, moving and speech, you create a different kind of a business ecosystem. So, the idea of India — which our founding fathers had envisaged — is being questioned today.

People fear: If I do something, somebody will come and attack my home, get tax records, somebody will file a suit against me, threaten me. If I report something I will get a call from the government saying don’t do this or that. I think the idea of India is at stake.

When I look at the performance of the government I start from here, and then I look at the promises that the government had made and exactly what happened on the ground.

You mean jobs, smart cities, new businesses?

The government said it would create 20 million jobs every year for five years. But it has not created any jobs; in fact, the number of jobs has reduced, thanks to demonetisation. So on the jobs front, their performance is very bad. The government said it would build 100 smart cities, but we have zero smart cities. You really haven’t had any success in creating smart cities, but you created a lot of noise.

So you failed on jobs, you failed on smart cities, you failed on creating new companies. And demonetisation destroyed the confidence of the people because you sucked a lot of money out that created unemployment and distress.

GST was introduced soon after demonetisation. But that was the Congress’s baby...

GST implementation was bad.

How is India being perceived internationally? In terms of ‘ease of doing business’, for instance?

You just ask 1,000 top business people and they will tell you not enough investments have come in. The construction industry is at a halt. The impact is much deeper than what people thought. Just look at Jet Airways. It is a classic example (of things going wrong). Where was that airline and where is it today? Look at Air India, BSNL. How can you say the economy is doing well when BSNL employees are not being paid their salaries? Everything is in a mess, but you are creating this PR exercise by lying and the media gives all the space to this lie.

You headed a committee that gave its report on BSNL restructuring. Do you think the recommendations still hold true?

Absolutely, it should have been implemented. It is in a mess, but it is a jewel which needs to be recovered — a big company with a lot of assets.

Air India can also be recovered. Thousands and thousands of trained people are working in these companies — they are your cousin and my cousin. You cannot just throw people out on the street. It may make business sense, but it doesn’t make it right.

I firmly believe that the government also needs a government-owned company. I think you need that base. You cannot turn everything into the private sector. I would like to revive BSNL — by not forcing but suggesting to government companies that they give a lot of their communication business to BSNL. It will be a reliable network. You could give some business to private players, but also some to a government company. More so because of all the families involved. Think more in terms of our human obligation than the balance sheet.

It’s election time, but the manifestos of political parties only seem to have paid lip service to issues such as the future of PSUs, strategic disinvestment, infrastructure and the environment. There are no roadmaps.

I agree with you. If I had to prioritise I would first address the environment. I think we have eight of the 10 most polluted cities in the world. You need to focus on the environment as an industry. I would rather create jobs related to the environment. It can be a huge industry — with jobs relating to cleaning up the tannery industry, the polluted Ganga or steel plants or cities such as Delhi.

They don’t see the big picture. There is no big vision. In Rajiv Gandhi’s time, we had this vision, a clear idea that we would change the face of India by focusing on telecom and IT, we would eradicate polio by producing vaccines — today we are among the largest producers of vaccines. You need that kind of a blueprint again.

The seeds that were planted then took 30 years to give fruit. We need to plant new seeds in Rahul Gandhi’s time to see the fruit in the next 20 years.

Can knowledge networks, telecom reforms, digitisation be used for distributing social benefits? Can the Congress’s NYAY programme (a minimum income guarantee scheme) be implemented without disturbing the fiscal math?

We started it. We built the base. We have the technology and platforms — Aadhaar, digital payment. NYAY will get done and, no, it will not disturb the fiscal math. We are a $ 3-trillion economy and we will grow.

When you were a part of the team taking policy decisions, you were apprehensive about China being keen to work with us...

I would have done the same thing even today because my idea was to build human capacity. We are where we are because we focused on building human capacity, not just products. When you are focused on products, you take whatever you get from wherever. But you don’t build talent. We are known because we built talent and did not focus on building boxes.

You wanted DOT to be divided into separate PSUs. You also recommended that Prasar Bharati be given autonomy. Do you think there is a political will to do all this?

We did do (it) for DOT. We created PSUs. It was the right thing to do. There was a centralised telecom commission, while the entities had their autonomy.

Yes, autonomy for Prasar Bharati is a must. It would create a powerful public broadcast system. It should be done, but governments don’t have the political will to do so. They won’t let go of the control.

What would be your advice to the younger generation and Rahul Gandhi — if the late 40s is still young, that is?

I think the best age of your professional life is 48-60. At least that was the best for me.

I tell the young to read two books — Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India and Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography. Read, understand, digest and internalise. Your life will change.

Published on April 19, 2019

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