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Harish Mehta’s book shows why NASSCOM is a catalyst in India’s start-up world. It’s a treat

Thanks to the IT industry, India is no longer about wandering cows and fakirs. Harish Mehta's 'The Maverick Effect' tells that story.

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The partial biography of a sensitive Indian businessperson and a successful industry, Harish Mehta’s The Maverick Effect is a treat on many levels. Mehta writes candidly and, at times, poignantly about his personal life, his family, his moments of joy and his encounters with intimate tragedies. He also takes us on an anecdotal journey through India’s IT industry, largely based on his own experiences. The synchronicity of the experiences is something that others can relate to.

Mehta’s book is also, more or less, a complete biography of the Indian software industry’s Chamber of Commerce — the National Association of Software and Service Companies. NASSCOM has many parents, but no one doubts Mehta’s primacy in the gallery. It was his baby in more ways than one. To this day, he remains the leading mentor of the adult NASSCOM.

Mehta’s life mirrors many things in India of our times. An engineer from Pune’s famous college goes to the United States in search of a Master’s degree. Drops electrical engineering and moves to computer science. Gets hired at a level way below his abilities or qualifications. Quickly gets his bosses to recognise his talents. They move him up and pay him more. Nevertheless, he feels that there is a glass ceiling above him. Also, by now married to a family friend’s daughter who is a mathematician, the two do not feel very comfortable with the social environment in the US. They decide to return to India. He has, at best, a vague plan in mind. His Indian friends in the US predict that his return to India would be a disaster and that he would come back soon.

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Mehta’s entrepreneurial insights

Mehta comes to India, forgets that he is an engineer and tries to dabble in the family film distribution business. This does not work out. The seductive lure of computers and computational science draws him back. He gets into a quasi-corporate, quasi-partnership venture. Realises that Indian businesspeople spend most of their time on regulatory approvals, not on customers, products or services. This is when the seed of the need for a NASSCOM gets planted in his mind. He is abruptly removed from his corporate partnership role — a phenomenon that we now know to be both inexplicable and common. He has to start off on his own entrepreneurial venture. He juggles his time and makes steady progress.

Until now, the story is reasonably predictable. But what is fascinating about Mehta’s nature is that, even as it is difficult for him to devote time and energy to an industry association given the needs of his own fledgling business, Mehta somehow “makes” the time and the energy. He continues to patiently plug away at the need for a common institution to nurture an ecosystem that would support and encourage India’s software industry. He meets resistance from entrenched chambers and mindsets. And then he comes up with the brilliant insight — “software services” are intangible and hence need a focus entirely different from that devoted to manufacturing hardware.

His story of a customs official insisting on “seeing” what is exported and stapling the floppy that Mehta finally gives him, tells it all. The “services” story and his boundless optimism about the potential for high margin exports, in a country starved of foreign exchange, finally start to make an impact. Other entrepreneurs are quick to support him. After the customary phlegmatic and sceptical pushback, even some well-meaning bureaucrats finally understand Mehta’s perspective. The giant Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and its legendary founder F.C. Kohli need to be persuaded. This too happens. NASSCOM is off to a start.

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Building NASSCOM from ground up

Mehta makes light of it. But by design or by accident, most of the ongoing tasks involved in establishing and nurturing the new organisation end up dropping on his plate. The story of the recruitment of the charismatic Dewang Mehta as the executive president is fascinating. And then, Mehta provides a lot of interesting details about NASSCOM-Harish-Dewang jugalbandi. Harish Mehta rues, and rightfully so, that in India we tend to forget heroes like Dewang who need to be remembered, feted and emulated.

A unique characteristic of NASSCOM is the consistent refusal of its founders to lobby for petty, short-term, parochial gains. The emphasis was on openness, competition and attempts to create an ecosystem where all would have a chance to prosper, not just a select few. Mehta explains how this approach ended up over the years with bureaucrats and even politicians losing their traditional suspicion of businesspeople and conceding that the NASSCOM folks were patriots with a positive constructive agenda. The stories of how NASSCOM had to beg for telecom connectivity, which, today, is taken for granted, and the story of how Software Technology Parks came up “anywhere” in the country, make for intriguing reading.

Mehta repeatedly emphasises that our entire national mindset was focused on the physical. Large industrial estates in distant suburbs were emphasised. But the “production” of intangibles is actually better in small venues in densely populated neighbourhoods. This of course was before the IT industry grew into its present ‘giant’ status, making large campuses quite common. The Indian IT industry under NASSCOM’S leadership consistently supported foreign investment even on a hundred per cent basis. This position surprised other chambers of commerce, which preferred protected turf. But let us just look at the facts: even as IBM and Accenture grew to be giant employers in India, Indian IT majors also became global giants. There is nothing like the pure air of competition to ensure that world-class entities emerge.

Also Read: Digital India a good start but govt must build capabilities for robust growth

Giving wings to India’s IT industry

NASSCOM’s position on intellectual property has also been consistent. The story of Dewang Mehta, having an elephant “crush” pirated floppies in public, has, of course, entered the history books as a legendary act. Harish Mehta saw early on that if India was to be seen as a reliable supplier of software services, it could not be seen as a thief of intellectual property. The other NASSCOM founders agreed with this emphatically. Today, no major company in the world, when giving business to Indian firms, even remotely worries about theft.

Mehta deftly makes the point that the enormous success of India’s IT industry, or to put it otherwise, of NASSCOM members, has had multiple positive impacts.

The first, of course, is the high value-added exports, which the country desperately needed. Second is the enormous number of “good” jobs created directly and indirectly by the industry. Third, the IT industry proved conclusively that while existing business houses could, if they chose to, move into the sector, there was also an opportunity for ordinary professionals who were not moneyed to be successful. This has resulted in widespread comfort with entrepreneurship across all of Indian society.

The IT industry has been a major PR asset for the country. India is no longer only about wandering cows and wonderful fakirs. It is definitely the land of software programmers and data architects.

For my money, the best part of The Maverick Effect is Mehta’s description of how, instead of letting current success go to its head, NASSCOM and its members have been working overtime to ensure that they remain relevant now and more importantly for the future. For the optimistic Harish Mehta and his NASSCOM friends, it appears that the best is always yet to come.

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Mehta’s eventful life, achievements

I would also draw the attention of the reader to how generously Mehta gives credit to numerous people. It is this collegial approach that has been at the root of Harish Mehta’s enormous influence and success. Our countrymen and countrywomen should note that “sharing” credit is both morally good and consequentially, desirable.

Intertwined with the NASSCOM story is a poignant personal love story —  the romance of Shaila and Harish, and the tragic death of the former. Mehta’s stoic atheism is reconfirmed. However, he remains loyal to his rooted Jain idea of “anekantavada” — the definite possibility of multiple points of view co-existing.

Today, Mehta can look back on his eventful life and feel proud of his achievements as an entrepreneurial businessperson, as an extraordinary founder and builder of NASSCOM, a globally unique and important chamber, and as an amazing catalyst in the start-up world of contemporary India.

The bittersweet part is that Shaila is not by his side. But Harish bhai, some of us believe that she is somewhere up there saying shabhash to the love of her life. On that note, I wish you more achievements and of course more books.

Jaithirth Rao was the Chairman of NASSCOM and is a personal friend of Harish Mehta. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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