An insider’s account of Indian telecom

Sam Pitroda's biography, Dreaming Big, provides much needed perspective from the inside into how Indian telecom came out of the boondocks to be a force to reckon with

Charles Assisi

[Photograph: Sam Pitroda at the 2009 Innovation Summit by vincelaconte under Creative Commons]

That Sam Pitroda is a powerful man with powerful connections was on full display at his book launch in Mumbai. Nothing else explains why Mukesh Ambani, the reclusive chairman of Reliance Industries, made a rare public appearance. Ambani spoke with much fondness of their relationship and how Pitroda altered the Indian telecom landscape.

When it was Pitroda’s turn to speak, he made it abundantly clear to the packed room at The Trident in Mumbai that it wasn’t him, but Rajiv Gandhi who ought to be credited. “The loss of Rajiv Gandhi to this nation was huge,” he said. And when questioned on current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortations to transform India into a modern day super power, you could see Pitroda practically froth at the mouth. “When he (Modi) says nothing was done for 50 years, I feel insulted,” he thundered. He described Sonia Gandhi as a “strong-willed, gracious and determined woman.”

The ensuing silence at the Regal Room where the high and mighty had assembled to hear him speak pretty much said it all. Nobody wanted to be seen asking any questions. Some inane ones followed, which he took with aplomb. I kept raising my hand a few times because I wanted to ask him what did he think of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. But the mike didn’t come my way.

His speech done with, Pitroda was mobbed by pretty much everybody in the room trying to take selfies that they may post on their social media accounts. When I pressed with my question even as I asked him to sign my copy of his book, a raucous audience trying to grab their two minutes of fame with him crowded it out. I gave up and joined the other journalists digging into dinner.

I’m sure he has an informed opinion on the inheritors of the Gandhi name. If he has, he didn’t speak of it at the Mumbai launch and it has gone unreported so far. Save that a day before the Mumbai launch of his book, Rahul Gandhi unveiled it to a packed audience in Delhi.

The book itself is unputdownable. I guess much of the credit for that must go to his co-author David Chanoff.

That said, I thought the book starts on a rather slow note and follows a linear narrative that I dislike. The early parts of the book are around Pitroda’s impoverished growing up years as Satyanaryan Gangadhar Pitroda. But if you stay with it, the book begins to wrap itself around you until you stay up into the early hours of the morning in a desperate attempt to complete all of it.

I don’t want to give too much of it away. But the story begins to pick momentum a few chapters down the line as it traces the journey of Satyanarayan born in Titilagarh, Orissa to Sam in the United States where he acquires the status of a millionaire and finally a technocrat embedded in Lutyens’ Delhi where he is looked upon with awe.

Indians who were witnesses to events as they unfolded in the mid-eighties and early nineties will empathize with the narrative. There was this time when access to basic telephony was anywhere between non-existent to rare. Pitroda’s story has it that Rajiv Gandhi was committed to challenge this inequity. A sequence of happy coincidences led to the both of them coming together, and Pitroda walking out with a carte blanche in hand to do whatever it takes.

It was this carte blanche that saw a mushrooming of the ubiquitous STD/PCO booths in bright yellow dotted across the Indian landscape and made accessibility to telephony real for millions. That it provided a business model as well for those who would otherwise remain unemployed is described in much detail here.

Pitroda makes it clear in no uncertain terms that the foundations of a “cell phone nation” that India is now was laid during this time. He takes pride in that he was at the forefront, leading the charge on what technologies to adopt and how to deploy it effectively. Had it not been for those decisions with unstinted support from Rajiv Gandhi, Pitroda argues India wouldn’t find itself where it is now.

Sure, there were huge obstacles in the way. Like that fact that Pitroda had made his mark and money in the US. Coming back to India, first at Indira Gandhi’s behest and then staying back at Rajiv Gandhi’s insistence, and eventually trying to work his way around the bureaucracy seemed mind numbing. But all thanks to his stint in the US, personal funds to back him, and Rajiv Gandhi’s backing to ride over the bureaucracy, he could well afford to be the bull in a China shop.

As much as he made friends, he made enemies as well who’d give an arm and a leg for a piece of his scalp. That they did finally after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, how he found his personal finances in the red and what he had to do to pull himself out of the mess, is described in much detail.

For instance, in his next avatar, he set up WorldTel out of the UK. The book disappoints in that Pitroda doesn’t share any detail on what came out of this venture. He stops at saying it helped get his finances in order. What we do know from news reports is that there is more to the story than that. Mukesh Ambani acquired it as a vehicle to expand Reliance Industries’ ambitions in telecom. What really transpired after that between Pitroda and Ambani has many theories and few people are privy to it. This was as good an opportunity as any for Pitroda to tell it as it happened. He doesn’t. And that disappoints.

That said, the book is an incredibly compelling read. I think it a must read, whichever side of the political fence you are on, to understand from the inside a slice of contemporary India.

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is currently co-founder and director at Founding Fuel. He writes a weekly column as well under the slug Life Hacks in Mint, India's most influential business newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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