Netcore’s Business – Part 3

The third business in Netcore is mobility. In this, the primary focus has been around SMS, but in recent times, we have been working to widen the portfolio of services on offer to businesses.

We had started with a consumer-centric SMS content service (MyToday SMS) about five years ago. We hoped to monetise the free SMS sent out through ads tagged on at the end. That did not quite work out as we had thought. We then leveraged the same platform for enterprise SMS services.

Businesses sent out three kinds of messages: transactional (alerts, primarily), updates to their existing customer base, and promotional and marketing messages to a mobile number database for leads and new customer acquisition. In common parlance, we are an “SMS Aggregator” – buying capacity in bulk from mobile operators and value-adding in the sale to enterprises.

Over the past couple months, the changes initiated by TRAI to curb telemarketing have impacted this business. While SMS remains the primary way to reach consumers in India on their mobile, we are exploring additional options in the mobile space to get growth back to this business line. The acquisition of Ravience was a step in this direction.

Continued tomorrow.

Netcore’s Business – Part 2

Netcore’s second business which is also linked with email is Email Marketing. We have two offerings: Emergic Mass Mail (EMM) and Affiliate Email Marketing.

EMM is about providing a hosted platform for companies to send out and track emails at scale. The email lists are owned by the company – what Netcore offers is a technology solution. We started this a few years ago as an offshoot from the email infrastructure business, and over time, this has grown to be a substantial  business in its own right.

This business is similar to what companies like Constant Contact, Mail Chimp, Exact Target and Responsys offer worldwide. In India, we would be the largest player, with plenty of room for growth.

The second offering is somewhat like an email ad network; we connect publishers who have lists with advertisers. This is a unique offering, and one that has seen rapid growth in recent times. Again, the massive investments we have made through the years in email technology and the platform have helped get this business going fast.

Continued tomorrow.

Netcore’s Business – Part 1

Once every couple years or so, I provide an overview of what Netcore, the company which I founded more than a decade ago and I run as Managing Director, does. With changing times, some elements of our business mix have changed. Much of what Netcore does has stayed as B2B (business-to-business). We have experimented with some consumer services and solutions in the past, but these haven’t quite worked out.

Our oldest business is now christened  “Email Infrastructure.” This has been there since late 1998, when Netcore was started. We provide email services for companies. The various solutions include Emergic MailServ (no christened e-Interact), which is sort-of like Microsoft Exchange, but on Linux. We also have Emergic CleanMail (cloud-based anti-virus and anti-spam screening) and Emergic Mail Array (email archiving). We also offer cloud-based hosted web mail.

This business has seen steady growth through the 13+ years that it has been there.  There are over 2,000 companies in India for whom we provide email infrastructure services. In recent months, we have added multiple collaboration features into the core product (including audio and video conferencing, for example).

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: Corruption Stories

From a series written a year ago:

Corruption is a cancer that eats away at the fabric of a society. That has what has happened in India through the years since Independence. We let our standards drop. It must have started slowly – like a frog being boiled.  Those in power condoned the first actions of the corrupt, thus lowering the bar and sending a signal that it was okay to be a little corrupt. Over time, the bar kept dropping and we kept doing nothing about it. In fact, we voted the folks back into power. That helped legitimise corruption. Re-election is like salvation — it helps make right all the wrongs one did in the previous term.

Through the years, this corruption has spread from government (politicians and the bureaucracy) to even some large organisations who have people with the power to influence.

A friend remarked to me that Corruption in India has  now become a non-issue because everyone is corrupt. So, it has become socially acceptable. And people in Middle India sit by and watch their hard earnings looted away. We think we are alone and we cannot do anything.

But one person did manage to change things in his state – without being corrupt.

**

Narendra Modi’s Gujarat is a shining example of a state that has put integrity and development above everything else. And this is not just me saying it. During my travels in recent times, when I speak to people, they all unanimously hail what he has done for the state. “If only we could get Modi to run the country for 5 years….” is the common refrain.

There are probably many honest politicians, MPs, Ministers and Chief Ministers. But none symbolises honesty and results on the ground more than Modi. He has won a resounding victory recently across elections at the municipal and panchayat elections – the numbers are a revelation in the bipolar politics of the state.

India needs people like Modi to make it to the top, and then start the process of cleansing the system. It has to start at the top. Manmohan Singh could have done it, but he chose to look the other way. We cannot let another generation of politicians eat away at our society. The money that is looted away can fast-track every development project in India and deliver results in five years – bringing about the change we want and need between two elections.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Top 10 emerging enterprise technologies for 2012: from InfoWorld.
  • Best Business Books of 2011: from strategy+business. Also: some recos from Knowledge@Wharton.
  • India’s imperfect liberalisation: by Swapan Dasgupta. “Even two decades after liberalization transformed India and heralded far wider levels of prosperity, India has not yet turned its back on the belief structures of the bad old days. Economic reforms, it would seem, become meaningful only when accompanied by an intellectual revolution.” (via Vijay)
  • How China can defeat America: by Yan Xuetong. “China’s quest to enhance its world leadership status and America’s effort to maintain its present position is a zero-sum game. It is the battle for people’s hearts and minds that will determine who eventually prevails. And, as China’s ancient philosophers predicted, the country that displays more humane authority will win.”
  • The Two Moons: by David Brooks. Some similarities with the Indian political situation. “In normal circumstances, minority parties suffer a series of electoral defeats and then they modernize. But in the era of the two moons, the parties enjoy periodic election victories they don’t deserve, which only re-enforce their worst habits.”

When Gujarat Met China: Part 5

The Debrief

On the flight back, Mr. Narendra Modi called all of us to the front of the aircraft and asked us our views on the visit, and what could have been done better. We were told that this was something he does on every trip. The novelty of this exercise was as surprising as it was instructive.

The debrief lasted about two hours, as each one of us, by turn, went through our points. Mr. Modi and his A-team of Mr. Maheshwar Sahu, Mr. A. K. Sharma and Mr. Bharat Lal noted all our points. Most of the feedback covered the specific actions that needed to be done as follow-ups, and some bigger measures that had to be done for closer ties between Gujarat and China.

One of the comments made by a colleague who had travelled with Prime Ministers and senior ministers was telling. He said that never before had the business delegation been accorded so much respect as this one. In general, business delegations are treated as ‘second-class citizens’ left to fend for themselves.  In this visit, they were treated the same way as the government members and Mr. Modi – and that made a big difference in how the Chinese perceived them. Mr. Modi had involved each one of the delegation members in every aspect of the trip – from the political to the business to the cultural meetings. There had been no hierarchy. This had never been seen or done before in official government and business delegations.

Memories

As we made our way to the baggage area, there was a sense of loss with the realisation that our visit and togetherness was drawing to a close. I had formed many new bonds during this visit.  When I boarded the flight, the only person I knew to some extent was Mr. Narendra Modi. Now, as we landed, it was like we had all become one large, happy family!

It was the thoughtfulness of the organisers that also made a difference. While all the food everywhere was vegetarian, they also ensured Jain food for me on the flights. Travel and all the other co-ordination was perfect, thanks to the efforts of the Indian consulate members across the cities.

Our late-night walks and conversations, the chat rooms that our buses became, taking in some of the sights of China, driving through without having to worry about traffic signals (there was a police car to clear the way for us everywhere we went), the conversation with Mr. Narendra Modi, the connections with the other members of the delegation – the memories will endure. .

This was my fifth visit to China in the past decade. Each visit has been special in its own way. This one was no different. We have a lot to learn from China. At the same time, we have a lot going for us in India – if we can combine the richness of our civilization with the youthful energy that permeates our population, we can transform India into a developed nation within a generation. But for that, we will have to come together to give ourselves something we have never done – a real leader.

A Real Leader like Mr. Modi

As I watched Mr. Narendra Modi listen patiently to each one of us during the debriefing session on the flight back from Chengdu to Ahmedabad, I started thinking again of the attributes of the leadership that India really needs. A real leader always listens and never stops learning. Those two hours were embodiment of what our country needs, and is unfortunately not getting enough of.

In this context, a quote I read in an article by Thomas Friedman recently is so apt: “At the end of the day — whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street — someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them. Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply.”

My biggest takeaway from this visit was the business-like approach of Mr. Modi to everything he said and did. This was leadership in word and action. In a country where we have been singularly unfortunate in our political leadership through the decades since Independence, we have a shining example in our midst. Unfortunately, many of us, blinded by the one-sided drivel that we have been fed by the media about Mr. Modi in the past decade, refuse to see it. Once again, the Chinese have seen the future. This time around, I hope we will too.

When Gujarat Met China: Part 4

Chengdu

We arrived in Chendgu in the late afternoon on Friday. Chengdu is in Sichuan province in central China. By now, I knew almost everyone on the entourage, so the conversations became varied and lively.

While half of the group accompanied Mr. Modi to the political-business meeting, I was in the other half that had the evening free. We took a cab down to the shopping street, and walked around. I was trying to search for a toy shop to pick up something for my six-and-a-half-year-old son, Abhishek. It was then that I realized how big the language barrier is. Even as China is home to manufacturing most toys in the world, I could not explain to various people on the street that I was looking for a toy shop!

The next morning, our last day in China, there was a business event similar to the one we had in Beijing. This was followed by a Business-to-Business interaction, and from what I gathered from other members in the group, it was an extremely productive one. There was a lot of interest in joint ventures in India’s energy and infrastructure sectors.

A Visit to Huawei

One of the aspects of the visit that had been much publicisied prior to the trip was the meeting with Huawei, one of the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturers, to get them to consider setting up a manufacturing hub in Gujarat. After the presentations were done, Mr. Narendra Modi asked me (as the IT/telecom expert) on my suggestions on how Huawei could work together with the government of Gujarat. I mentioned six opportunities:

  • Setting up telepresence centres across the state. The telepresence demo that we got was absolutely impressive. The realism was incredible – it was like we were all in the same room. This is definitely one technology to watch out for.
  • Setting up data centre hubs in India, given that land and power are both easily available in Gujarat
  • Creating a “Digital Ahmedabad” – starting with a WiFi envelope across the city and then extending to creating a ‘smart’ city
  • Creating the foundation for Government in the cloud – with e-governance and m-governance solutions for all citizen-centric services
  • Fostering skills development in the state by creating linkages with educational institutions and setting up a university and research for e-Governance, given Gujarat’s leadership in the space
  • Showcasing advanced technology solutions through a lab in Gandhinagar to open up minds to future possibilities

The points made were well received, and would be considered by both Huawei and the Gujarat government going ahead.

Two More Visits

The afternoon of our last day saw our longest road journey. We drove to see the earthquake rehabilitation work done about an hour away from Chengdu. The Sichuan region was struck by a huge earthquake in May 2008. Thousands of lives were lost. We visited a village that was near the epicenter, and saw how it has been completely rebuilt.

What was also nice to see was the digital display of the rescue work, housed in a separate building. It paid tribute to the army, youth and citizens who came forward to help in the relief operations.

After that, we visited a Buddhist temple, on what was our last official engagement. Buddhism was a cultural export from India, and the irony is that even as we in India forgot it, many of the East Asian countries adopted it. Gujarat is planning to build the biggest-ever Buddhist temple, and that could help give a good fillip to closer ties at multiple levels between India and China.

We then returned back to the Sheraton Hotel, and prepared to leave for the airport. Our flight took off at 9 pm and reached Ahmedabad at midnight local time.

Continued tomorrow.

When Gujarat Met China: Part 3

Side talks

One of the advantages of international trips is the conversations with fellow travellers. After dinner at the Indian ambassador’s residence, when we returned to the hotel, a couple of colleagues invited me for a stroll in the nearby Wangfujing Street. I readily agreed.

That walk brought back memories of my first visit to Beijing almost 8 years ago with my wife, Bhavana, when we had stayed at the Holiday Inn nearby and spent many hours walking down this street, and then onward to Tianamen Square and visiting the Forbidden City. This time around, it was late at night and most shops were closed.  It is in these walks and talks that friendships are formed.

These late night conversations happened daily and I gradually got to know most of the people in the delegation. We would talk about politics, India, China – and a variety of other things. For a person like me who is not given to much socialising, this was quite a new experience.

One general point across conversations that stood out was the leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi and the wonders that he had worked in Gujarat. Hearing the stories first hand from business people about the speed and transparency of decision-making and the clean administration gave me hope that one day, perhaps the same can be replicated across India and the gap between India and China in infrastructure and development will actually start narrowing.

A Conversation with Mr. Modi

The next day morning (Thursday, Nov 10), we left Beijing for Shanghai.  On the flight, Mr. Narendra Modi invited me for a chat. I was pleasantly surprised but ready. I had made a list of points that I wanted to discuss if I got the opportunity to spend time with him.

I spoke about the need for using technology much more in e-governance, with some very specific ideas on what needed to be done. Many of these were drawn from my experience in the state over the past year. Mr. Modi listened attentively, and asked me for a detailed note on the couple of the ideas that could then be discussed with the appropriate officers.

What struck me in the conversation was how attentive he was. He listened carefully, and never once interrupted me. He gave appropriate suggestions which advanced the ideas I was suggesting, and concluded by detailing out what needed to be done next.

For me, this conversation was a revelation. There was such a different between the image of Mr. Modi created by the media and the person I sat next to and talked on the flight. I have met many Indian leaders from both the BJP and Congress in the past years. As I tell friends, with most of them, one can barely speak for a few minutes before they take over the conversation. It is almost as if they have attained supreme wisdom – and their only purpose is to preach, not listen.

That conversation with Mr. Modi will remain etched in my memory. I have written often about the leadership and decisiveness that India needs at the top. As I sat interacting with him, the realisation came that this was the type of person India needed to transform the nation. Of course, successful politicians are known to be charming and charismatic. Combine that with an earthiness and an ability to execute, and you have the winning combination that a country so desperately needs but so rarely gets.

Shanghai

We arrived in Shanghai and went straight to the Shangri-La in Pudong. I skipped the afternoon visit to the deepwater sea port since I had a business meeting of my own. In the evening, there was an interaction with the Indian Association of Shanghai. Mr. Modi spoke in Hindi about Gujarat and how he addressed some of the challenges the state faced.

It was then that Mr. Modi spoke of the model that has helped China and what he has also focused on in Gujarat. He called it the 3S model: Scale, Speed and Skills.

A thought then struck me: development is in the details. The attention Mr. Modi and the state focused on getting every aspect of the value chain right was what made all the difference.

The next day (Friday, November 11), we had two meetings – at the Shanghai Municipal Corporation, followed by a visit to the Shanghai Motors-General Motors auto factory. Gujarat is emerging as a huge auto hub – it will produce 5 million vehicles in the next few years.

As we drove around Shanghai and then to the airport, the sheer scale of development amazed me. . As I told a colleague, India seems a miniature model to what we see in China. A comment made in a discussion has stayed with me: thirty years ago, China was 20 years behind India. Now, India is 20 years behind China.

China has shown that change can be done in a single generation. Our generation in India has to take up the challenge of building the New India – while we still can.

Continued tomorrow.

When Gujarat Met China: Part 2

Showcasing Gujarat

The first business event kicked off with almost 200 Chinese companies in attendance. They were in-depth presentations on Gujarat and the industry and investment opportunities. Special focus was on the Dholera special investment region that was coming up as part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.

Mr. Modi, on his fourth visit to China, spoke in English (with real-time translation in Chinese on the headphones) about Gujarat’s development model and how it had taken a different path from the rest of India. By combining social and economic growth, by focusing on both rural and urban areas, by providing for stability in both politics and policies, Gujarat had created a paradigm shift in good governance and development in India.

One of the interesting elements of the presentations was the extent of localisation the team from Gujarat had done. The presentations had Chinese text, the videos were in Chinese. Business cards handed out by the government team (including Mr. Narendra Modi) were in red, and in Mandarin. These may appear trivial, but as someone said to me, it shows a real seriousness of intent of doing business.


 

Listening Post

As I talked to some of the locals during breaks, it become clear that they saw in Gujarat and Mr. Modi was a level of seriousness that few Indian politicians had ever demonstrated. This no-nonsense approach was what business wanted.

The focused presentations and the professional approach were very well received. . The programme (as also the entire trip) ran absolutely on time, which was a refreshing change from what I usually encounter in most seminars I have attended in India. To Gujarat’s credit, even the Vibrant Gujarat seminar I had attended in Mumbai a year ago at the Taj started and ended absolutely on time.

As a colleague from the business delegation put it, the tone is set top-down. He had been with Mr. Modi on previous delegations, and every one of them was focused and packed.  This is what made the state tick – a marked contrast to many other parts of India. He said that Mr. Modi had done the magic in the same Indian context – the same bureaucrats and government administration, the same laws, and the same processes. It all goes to show, he said, that change is possible in India if the leader  is committed  – and has the support of the people, of course.

Talking Politics

In the afternoon, Mr. Narendra Modi had meetings with people from different levels of the government. I was not part of these meetings. The anecdotal accounts that I got were glowing – of the reception received and the engagement shown. The respect accorded to Mr. Modi was something usually reserved for heads of nations.

For his part, Mr. Modi did not hesitate in bringing up the difficult issues amidst the business talk – China’s role in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, the stapled visas, the maps, and also the detention of 22 diamond traders from Surat in Shenzhen.

Listening to the accounts and talking to some of the more knowledgeable people, it was clear that China was using the meetings with Mr. Modi to send multiple messages – that it viewed Mr. Modi as a leader who may have a bigger national role to play in the future and to the US, that even if Mr. Modi was not welcome there, he was most welcome in China. And at the end of the day, politics and business are intertwined, and it is American businesses that would end up being the losers.

Continued tomorrow.

When Gujarat Met China

The Invitation

I was invited to be part of the business delegation to China of the Government of Gujarat, led by the state Chief Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, from November 8-12. What follows is a first-person account of some of the sights, sounds and learnings from what was for me personally an extraordinary experience.

My involvement with Gujarat over the past 16 months or so has been as a Director on the Board of Gujarat Informatics Ltd (GIL), which is a nodal company for IT procurement and e-governance implementation in the state.  During this period, I have got a good overview on some of the IT initiatives in the state. As is known, Gujarat is a pioneer and leader in e-governance in India and has won numerous awards over the years.

While I was delighted to receive the invitation to be part of the delegation, it was also a great honour to be travelling with Mr. Modi and 20 prominent business leaders from Gujarat, along with some senior government officers. This was my first-ever visit as part of an official delegation. I had travelled to China many times before, but I could sense that this one would be unlike before.

The Flight to Beijing

The delegation of 26 assembled at Ahmedabad on Tuesday, Nov 8, and left in a chartered aircraft for Beijing.  I spent the time on ground and in the air getting to know people.  While travelling, everyone is relaxed and so much more open to talk. A normally reticent me also started conversations with many on the flight.

I also learnt about China from many of my co-passengers. China had now embarked on a 20-year programme to develop the country’s western regions. The past three decades saw development mostly along with the eastern parts. China typically comes out with bold, long-term plans and then stops at nothing to achieve them.

Another interesting conversation was around whether democracy is an enabler or hindrance for development. In this, there were the two contrasts – China with its authoritarian regime, and Gujarat as a democratic set-up within India. My conclusion was that more than anything else, it was the vision and the will of the leadership that made the biggest difference.

We reached Beijing at 8:15 pm local time, and were then escorted to our hotel, Beijing Raffles.

China and Business

Wednesday (Nov 9) started off with a breakfast interaction with the Indian ambassador and the diplomatic team in China. The focus was primarily around business. India’s bilateral trade with China is at about $70 billion, but India imports twice as much as it exports to China, leading to a significant trade deficit.

China had capital and capacity to export to the world, and India needed both. China’s foreign investments were $60 billion last year, and only a small fraction of that were in India.  China is also keen to become the ‘cleantech’ king in the world, and is making huge investments in the sector. It is committed to controlling emissions, and had even started rolling blackouts for that purpose. (Contrast that with India – blackouts happen regularly across the country, but that is because we don’t have adequate power generation.)

China believes that Indian media does not portray it fairly, and as such Indian perception of China is not quite right. This is something that could hinder Chinese investment in India.

It’s interesting to note that in China, government officials regularly visit businesses – and ask what their problems were, so they could be fixed. Again, the unstated contrast with India was stark – visits happen in India also, but more often than not, they would be to ask for money.

Showcasing Gujarat

The first business event kicked off with almost 200 Chinese companies in attendance. They were in-depth presentations on Gujarat and the industry and investment opportunities. Special focus was on the Dholera special investment region that was coming up as part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.

Mr. Modi, on his fourth visit to China, spoke in English (with real-time translation in Chinese on the headphones) about Gujarat’s development model and how it had taken a different path from the rest of India. By combining social and economic growth, by focusing on both rural and urban areas, by providing for stability in both politics and policies, Gujarat had created a paradigm shift in good governance and development in India.

One of the interesting elements of the presentations was the extent of localisation the team from Gujarat had done. The presentations had Chinese text, the videos were in Chinese. Business cards handed out by the government team (including Mr. Narendra Modi) were in red, and in Mandarin. These may appear trivial, but as someone said to me, it shows a real seriousness of intent of doing business.

Listening Post

As I talked to some of the locals during breaks, it become clear that they saw in Gujarat and Mr. Modi was a level of seriousness that few Indian politicians had ever demonstrated. This no-nonsense approach was what business wanted.

The focused presentations and the professional approach were very well received. . The programme (as also the entire trip) ran absolutely on time, which was a refreshing change from what I usually encounter in most seminars I have attended in India. To Gujarat’s credit, even the Vibrant Gujarat seminar I had attended in Mumbai a year ago at the Taj started and ended absolutely on time.

As a colleague from the business delegation put it, the tone is set top-down. He had been with Mr. Modi on previous delegations, and every one of them was focused and packed.  This is what made the state tick – a marked contrast to many other parts of India. He said that Mr. Modi had done the magic in the same Indian context – the same bureaucrats and government administration, the same laws, and the same processes. It all goes to show, he said, that change is possible in India if the leader  is committed  – and has the support of the people, of course.

Talking Politics

In the afternoon, Mr. Narendra Modi had meetings with people from different levels of the government. I was not part of these meetings. The anecdotal accounts that I got were glowing – of the reception received and the engagement shown. The respect accorded to Mr. Modi was something usually reserved for heads of nations.

For his part, Mr. Modi did not hesitate in bringing up the difficult issues amidst the business talk – China’s role in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, the stapled visas, the maps, and also the detention of 22 diamond traders from Surat in Shenzhen.

Listening to the accounts and talking to some of the more knowledgeable people, it was clear that China was using the meetings with Mr. Modi to send multiple messages – that it viewed Mr. Modi as a leader who may have a bigger national role to play in the future and to the US, that even if Mr. Modi was not welcome there, he was most welcome in China. And at the end of the day, politics and business are intertwined, and it is American businesses that would end up being the losers.

Side talks

One of the advantages of international trips is the conversations with fellow travellers. After dinner at the Indian ambassador’s residence, when we returned to the hotel, a couple of colleagues invited me for a stroll in the nearby Wangfujing Street. I readily agreed.

That walk brought back memories of my first visit to Beijing almost 8 years ago with my wife, Bhavana, when we had stayed at the Holiday Inn nearby and spent many hours walking down this street, and then onward to Tianamen Square and visiting the Forbidden City. This time around, it was late at night and most shops were closed.  It is in these walks and talks that friendships are formed.

These late night conversations happened daily and I gradually got to know most of the people in the delegation. We would talk about politics, India, China – and a variety of other things. For a person like me who is not given to much socialising, this was quite a new experience.

One general point across conversations that stood out was the leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi and the wonders that he had worked in Gujarat. Hearing the stories first hand from business people about the speed and transparency of decision-making and the clean administration gave me hope that one day, perhaps the same can be replicated across India and the gap between India and China in infrastructure and development will actually start narrowing.

A Conversation with Mr. Modi

The next day morning (Thursday, Nov 10), we left Beijing for Shanghai.  On the flight, Mr. Narendra Modi invited me for a chat. I was pleasantly surprised but ready. I had made a list of points that I wanted to discuss if I got the opportunity to spend time with him.

I spoke about the need for using technology much more in e-governance, with some very specific ideas on what needed to be done. Many of these were drawn from my experience in the state over the past year. Mr. Modi listened attentively, and asked me for a detailed note on the couple of the ideas that could then be discussed with the appropriate officers.

What struck me in the conversation was how attentive he was. He listened carefully, and never once interrupted me. He gave appropriate suggestions which advanced the ideas I was suggesting, and concluded by detailing out what needed to be done next.

For me, this conversation was a revelation. There was such a different between the image of Mr. Modi created by the media and the person I sat next to and talked on the flight. I have met many Indian leaders from both the BJP and Congress in the past years. As I tell friends, with most of them, one can barely speak for a few minutes before they take over the conversation. It is almost as if they have attained supreme wisdom – and their only purpose is to preach, not listen.

That conversation with Mr. Modi will remain etched in my memory. I have written often about the leadership and decisiveness that India needs at the top. As I sat interacting with him, the realisation came that this was the type of person India needed to transform the nation. Of course, successful politicians are known to be charming and charismatic. Combine that with an earthiness and an ability to execute, and you have the winning combination that a country so desperately needs but so rarely gets.

Shanghai

We arrived in Shanghai and went straight to the Shangri-La in Pudong. I skipped the afternoon visit to the deepwater sea port since I had a business meeting of my own. In the evening, there was an interaction with the Indian Association of Shanghai. Mr. Modi spoke in Hindi about Gujarat and how he addressed some of the challenges the state faced.

It was then that Mr. Modi spoke of the model that has helped China and what he has also focused on in Gujarat. He called it the 3S model: Scale, Speed and Skills.

A thought then struck me: development is in the details. The attention Mr. Modi and the state focused on getting every aspect of the value chain right was what made all the difference.

The next day (Friday, November 11), we had two meetings – at the Shanghai Municipal Corporation, followed by a visit to the Shanghai Motors-General Motors auto factory. Gujarat is emerging as a huge auto hub – it will produce 5 million vehicles in the next few years.

As we drove around Shanghai and then to the airport, the sheer scale of development amazed me. . As I told a colleague, India seems a miniature model to what we see in China. A comment made in a discussion has stayed with me: thirty years ago, China was 20 years behind India. Now, India is 20 years behind China.

China has shown that change can be done in a single generation. Our generation in India has to take up the challenge of building the New India – while we still can.

Chengdu

We arrived in Chendgu in the late afternoon on Friday. Chengdu is in Sichuan province in central China. By now, I knew almost everyone on the entourage, so the conversations became varied and lively.

While half of the group accompanied Mr. Modi to the political-business meeting, I was in the other half that had the evening free. We took a cab down to the shopping street, and walked around. I was trying to search for a toy shop to pick up something for my six-and-a-half-year-old son, Abhishek. It was then that I realized how big the language barrier is. Even as China is home to manufacturing most toys in the world, I could not explain to various people on the street that I was looking for a toy shop!

The next morning, our last day in China, there was a business event similar to the one we had in Beijing. This was followed by a Business-to-Business interaction, and from what I gathered from other members in the group, it was an extremely productive one. There was a lot of interest in joint ventures in India’s energy and infrastructure sectors.

A Visit to Huawei

One of the aspects of the visit that had been much publicisied prior to the trip was the meeting with Huawei, one of the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturers, to get them to consider setting up a manufacturing hub in Gujarat. After the presentations were done, Mr. Narendra Modi asked me (as the IT/telecom expert) on my suggestions on how Huawei could work together with the government of Gujarat. I mentioned six opportunities:

  • Setting up telepresence centres across the state. The telepresence demo that we got was absolutely impressive. The realism was incredible – it was like we were all in the same room. This is definitely one technology to watch out for.
  • Setting up data centre hubs in India, given that land and power are both easily available in Gujarat
  • Creating a “Digital Ahmedabad” – starting with a WiFi envelope across the city and then extending to creating a ‘smart’ city
  • Creating the foundation for Government in the cloud – with e-governance and m-governance solutions for all citizen-centric services
  • Fostering skills development in the state by creating linkages with educational institutions and setting up a university and research for e-Governance, given Gujarat’s leadership in the space
  • Showcasing advanced technology solutions through a lab in Gandhinagar to open up minds to future possibilities

The points made were well received, and would be considered by both Huawei and the Gujarat government going ahead.

Two More Visits

The afternoon of our last day saw our longest road journey. We drove to see the earthquake rehabilitation work done about an hour away from Chengdu. The Sichuan region was struck by a huge earthquake in May 2008. Thousands of lives were lost. We visited a village that was near the epicenter, and saw how it has been completely rebuilt.

What was also nice to see was the digital display of the rescue work, housed in a separate building. It paid tribute to the army, youth and citizens who came forward to help in the relief operations.

After that, we visited a Buddhist temple, on what was our last official engagement. Buddhism was a cultural export from India, and the irony is that even as we in India forgot it, many of the East Asian countries adopted it. Gujarat is planning to build the biggest-ever Buddhist temple, and that could help give a good fillip to closer ties at multiple levels between India and China.

We then returned back to the Sheraton Hotel, and prepared to leave for the airport. Our flight took off at 9 pm and reached Ahmedabad at midnight local time.

The Debrief

On the flight back, Mr. Narendra Modi called all of us to the front of the aircraft and asked us our views on the visit, and what could have been done better. We were told that this was something he does on every trip. The novelty of this exercise was as surprising as it was instructive.

The debrief lasted about two hours, as each one of us, by turn, went through our points. Mr. Modi and his A-team of Mr. Maheshwar Sahu, Mr. A. K. Sharma and Mr. Bharat Lal noted all our points. Most of the feedback covered the specific actions that needed to be done as follow-ups, and some bigger measures that had to be done for closer ties between Gujarat and China.

One of the comments made by a colleague who had travelled with Prime Ministers and senior ministers was telling. He said that never before had the business delegation been accorded so much respect as this one. In general, business delegations are treated as ‘second-class citizens’ left to fend for themselves.  In this visit, they were treated the same way as the government members and Mr. Modi – and that made a big difference in how the Chinese perceived them. Mr. Modi had involved each one of the delegation members in every aspect of the trip – from the political to the business to the cultural meetings. There had been no hierarchy. This had never been seen or done before in official government and business delegations.

Memories

As we made our way to the baggage area, there was a sense of loss with the realisation that our visit and togetherness was drawing to a close. I had formed many new bonds during this visit.  When I boarded the flight, the only person I knew to some extent was Mr. Narendra Modi. Now, as we landed, it was like we had all become one large, happy family!

It was the thoughtfulness of the organisers that also made a difference. While all the food everywhere was vegetarian, they also ensured Jain food for me on the flights. Travel and all the other co-ordination was perfect, thanks to the efforts of the Indian consulate members across the cities.

Our late-night walks and conversations, the chat rooms that our buses became, taking in some of the sights of China, driving through without having to worry about traffic signals (there was a police car to clear the way for us everywhere we went), the conversation with Mr. Narendra Modi, the connections with the other members of the delegation – the memories will endure. .

This was my fifth visit to China in the past decade. Each visit has been special in its own way. This one was no different. We have a lot to learn from China. At the same time, we have a lot going for us in India – if we can combine the richness of our civilization with the youthful energy that permeates our population, we can transform India into a developed nation within a generation. But for that, we will have to come together to give ourselves something we have never done – a real leader.

A Real Leader like Mr. Modi

As I watched Mr. Narendra Modi listen patiently to each one of us during the debriefing session on the flight back from Chengdu to Ahmedabad, I started thinking again of the attributes of the leadership that India really needs. A real leader always listens and never stops learning. Those two hours were embodiment of what our country needs, and is unfortunately not getting enough of.

In this context, a quote I read in an article by Thomas Friedman recently is so apt: “At the end of the day — whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street — someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them. Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply.”

My biggest takeaway from this visit was the business-like approach of Mr. Modi to everything he said and did. This was leadership in word and action. In a country where we have been singularly unfortunate in our political leadership through the decades since Independence, we have a shining example in our midst. Unfortunately, many of us, blinded by the one-sided drivel that we have been fed by the media about Mr. Modi in the past decade, refuse to see it. Once again, the Chinese have seen the future. This time around, I hope we will too.

Blog Past: The Uns of India

From a post I wrote a year ago:

We are the People of Middle India. We are the Uns. Unregistered voters, Unconcerned citizens. Undecideds. On election day, we take a day off. So, why should our elected leaders care about us?

Imagine if it could be different. Imagine the Uns coming together to create a Votebank. Just like some of the communities do in India. (Take a look at what is happening in Bihar and who holds the balance of power.) Imagine taking up a mission to get 50 good people into the Lok Sabha next elections. If the DMK and TMC can wield so much power that their 15-20 MPs, imagine what power can be exercised with 50!

Simplistic, Yes. Doable, Yes. For that, the Uns have to become the Uniteds.

Wekeend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos interview: from Wired. “Jeff Bezos owns the Web in more ways than you think.”
  • Steve Jobs’ real genius: by Malcom Gladwell. “Jobs’s sensibility was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay in taking what was in front of him—the tablet with stylus—and ruthlessly refining it.”
  • Who’s the decider? by Thomas Friedman. ” ..Whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street — someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them. Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply.” India needs one desperately.
  • Continuous feedback: by Fred Wilson. A simple but powerful idea. “Every board meeting, as homework after the meeting, they ask each board member to fill out a simple Google Form with two questions; three things we are doing well and three things we need to do better.”
  • The habit of being dishonest: by Atanu Dey. “I have always believed that dishonesty starts at the top. If the top guy is corrupt, the one’s below him become corrupt. Or, corruption at any level points to corruption at the next higher level.”

UPA 2’s Mid-term Blues – Part 10

Let us look at an area where decisive action is urgently needed, where , an alternate agenda and firm leadership is needed.

Some prescient economists and journalists have been warning us that the NREGA scheme has put India on an inflation treadmill. Even as the government tries to blame inflation on  international factors, the reality is that India is one of the very few large economies that persistently high inflation. What gives? Just thinking this through will show us the urgency of the need for change because this same sticky inflation is now constraining growth through interest rate hikes.

Not  only the UPA 2, but we as a people need to do  some mid-term introspection.  And as we do so, perhaps the most important point to think about is that of leadership. Great countries cannot be built with mediocre leaders. We are all united in our belief that we want to see a great country for ourselves and our children.  It is time that we started the debate on who can best lead us to that future.

UPA 2’s Mid-term Blues – Part 9

Much of what I have outlined is  obvious with just a little bit of thinking. But many of us have stopped doing so. In our daily struggles and desires, those among us who have the capability to bring about this transformation by changing people’s minds have cocooned ourselves in our own private gardens behind high  walls.

And that is what allows governments like UPA 2 to get away with all that is happening. We excused UPA 1, and voted them back. If we do not wake up to think about the future we are letting happen, we may end up doing the same mistake once again. Ever so slowly, we are reaching a point where change is going to become harder if we do not start the process soon.

At least, we can create a fair contest. Force  UPA 2 to show what it can do, and tell the BJP to clearly articulate its alternate agenda and show the leadership.

Continued tomorrow.

UPA 2’s Mid-term Blues – Part 8

It could be argued that the Prime Minister was not the real leader but that power was concentrated with the Congress President and the Family. But the PM should have known better. If he saw the 2009 victory as a vindication of himself over the past years, he could have laid out the operating rules for UPA 2.

That of course would have been too much to expect. But what about the Family? They who  treat the country as a fiefdom  to be passed from generation to generation, could have done more. Why has so much time been wasted?  Why did they abdicate their responsibility of governance? And why have we as a people so willingly acquiesced?

History will see this period as the time when India lost its best opportunities for rapid development. With the world economies in trouble, global capital could have come to India and spurred the kind of infrastructure creation that we are astonished to see in China. In just five years, India could have been transformed.

UPA 2 has had its opportunities which it has squandered. Whether we like it or not, we are only half-way to the next general elections. So, we better think hard on what we can do to improve the situation, lest the damage becomes irreversible. After all, we also live here.

Continued tomorrow.

UPA 2’s Mid-term Blues – Part 7

As we look at the present morass, what is clear is that there is a lack of both vision and will in UPA 2. It is almost as if it is a cricket team batting on the third day of a Test Match to play for a draw or avoid a loss.

How did we get into this situation?

Perhaps, it was hubris. Perhaps, it was a feeling that nothing could go wrong. No one expected the scams to break out as they did over the past year. Of course, these were scams done by much of the same crowd in UPA 1. But given India’s past when everyone always got away with  scams,  they came to believe that scams will not become public, or even if they did, they would not cause public outrage. But that’s exactly what happened.

But to my mind, the first 100 days of UPA 2 had told us a lot. A big agenda was talked about, and none of it was really started. It was almost as if winning the 2009 election absolved everyone not just of past sins but also of the responsibility  to deliver. And this is where the leader failed.

Continued tomorrow.

UPA 2’s Mid-term Blues – Part 6

Along with changing the economic model of India and driving a reforms-led agenda,  UPA 2 also need to think big. Two-and-a-half years is  a long time for many such bold ideas to start having an impact.

India needs a hundred new cities. India needs to rethink agriculture productivity. India needs massive investments in alternate sources of energy. Education and healthcare need radical change. (Read Chetan Bhagat’s latest book “Revolution 2020” to get an idea of how messed up the higher education system in India is.) India needs high-speed mass transportation systems between cities and within cities. The list goes on.

Where are the big ideas for India? Why have we stopped dreaming big? Again, if survival and scams dictate the daily discussion agenda in the corridors of power, we are going to face severe constraints going ahead. The situation today is like a frog in pot of water being gradually heated to the boiling point.

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: Opportunities in India’s Digital Space

From a series I had written a year ago:

One clear opportunity in India is in the eCommerce space. As the Internet user base grows, the convenience of shopping from one’s home (or office) combined with attractive deals will grow the market. The key determinant for success for hard goods will be the efficiency of the value chain (logistics of speedy delivery). Winners are already starting to emerge in the space, but these are still early days.

The second opportunity will emerge in the mobile data space. With the combination of high speed networks (3G), smartphones with high-resolution displays in the $100-$200 space (watch for Android to make a big impact in the coming months) and nearly-flat-priced data plans (Rs 100 per month for almost unlimited usage), the mobile data space is going to see rapid growth in the coming years.

One obvious monetisation approach is advertising. But, the bigger opportunity will come from  consumer micropayments. What is needed is a revenue share model akin to the AppStores – where 70% of what end users pay goes to the application developer. In India, the figure for VAS is much less than half of this, on average. This is what needs to change to create an innovation cycle that can drive a new billion-dollar market.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Facebook vs. Google: The battle for the future of the Web: from Fortune. “These companies are fighting to see which of them will determine the future of the web — and the outcome will affect the way we get information, communicate, and buy and sell.”
  • Business Week’s special Steve Jobs issue: Try to get a hard copy of this magazine issue – it is outstanding.
  • Smartifying your Life: from Wired. A sample, on navigating a crowd. “The outer edges of crowds generally move faster than the sludgy middle of the pack.”
  • India’s Innovation Stimulus: by Thomas Friedman in NYT. “India’s young techies are moving from running the back rooms of Western companies, who outsourced work here, to inventing the front rooms of Indian companies, which are offering creative, low-cost solutions for India’s problems.”
  • Hindustan Times’ Chanakya on Reforms: Reinforces the points I am making in my series. “The one thing that UPA 2 was supposed to deliver: reforms.”

UPA 2’s Mid-term Blues – Part 5

The third issue, and this is linked to the governance issue, is that of the economic model for India. Central to this transformation are reforms. The Congress, under an external shock, started the real process of reforms in 1991 under Narasimha Rao. The BJP governments from 1998-2004, under Vajpayee, took this process forward. Since 2004, we have had very little progress  on the reforms front.

The excuse for UPA 1 was that the Left hindered any real reform of the Indian economy. There cannot be any excuse for UPA 2. There is still time left for UPA 2 to unleash a full spectrum of reforms across every sector of the Indian economy. And every sector needs it. Name any sector, and you will see how it is hobbled by all sorts of archaic rules, regulations, and government controls.

Reforms will happen if the right leader takes over, and changes the governance and economic models for the country. Some dynamic chief ministers are already doing it in their states and the results are evident . But states can only do so much. For real impact, it will require the Central government of UPA 2 to wake up.

Continued on Monday.