The great Indian dreamer

One of my favourite posters says “Some people see the world as it is, and ask why. But I think of things that never were, and ask, why not? “

Management gurus may wax eloquent over sticking to the knitting and focusing on core competence. But the truly outstanding businessmen are those that can think out of the box. These are the great dreamers that produce great leaps forward.

How many top Indian businessmen qualify for the title of Great Dreamer? Hardly any. Most are dynastic successors, following in the footsteps of their fathers (Mukesh Ambani and Kumar, to name only two). Some have indeed come up with new dreams, but these are typically dreams about doing in India what has been done elsewhere. Very rarely are they about things that never were.

Consider Ratan Tata, who has strong credentials. In the 1980s, when most Indian businessmen, including JRD Tata, were still focusing on manufacturing empires, Ratan saw the huge potential of high technology. He suffered severe setbacks like the flopping of ventures like Elxsi and Plantek abroad, but persisted. He reaped his high-tech reward in the 1990s when Tata Consultancy Services emerged as a global power.

His other big dream was to produce a made-in-India car. His first attempts via the Tata Sierra and Tata Estate were disastrous. Institutional investors feared that Ratan’s dream of making an indigenous car would bankrupt India ’s best truck company. Why not stick to the knitting?

When the Indica was launched and initially flopped, there was a chorus of “I told you so.” But Ratan fixed the problems of the Indica and relaunched it. The new version proved a winner. It is now set to capture global markets, through a marketing tie-up with British Rover.

Ratan Tata certainly broke new ground in India , and in the Tata group. But in effect he repeated in India what had been done abroad. He did not invent software, he replicated in TCS what had been done elsewhere. He justified Telco’s entry into cars by saying that many companies the world over (like General Motors and Toyota ) made both cars and trucks. So, he was a Great Replicator rather than a Great Dreamer.

Does Narayanmurthy of Infosys deserve the title of Great Dreamer? Which other professional engineer in the 1980s could have dreamed of overtaking the biggest captains of industry in India ? Indian engineers used to think of themselves as employees, not as employers, let alone potential multinationals. Narayanmurthy broke that mould.

Yet he did no more than replicate what thousands of software professionals had already done abroad. In Silicon Valley and elsewhere, software professionals had set up their own companies, often with the help of venture capital. To do the same in india was far more daunting and challenging. The controls were strangulating, venture capital was absent, and India had a terrible global image. Narayanmurthy can justly claim fame for proving that what was possible in Silicon Valley is also possible in India . But that does not quite qualify as Great Dreaming.

Indeed, some would say that Azim Premji was the greater dreamer. Narayanmurthy was trained in software and continued in the same field. But Premji came from a business family making vegetable oil. He could have stuck to the knitting and become India ’s biggest edible oil producer. Instead, he diversified into computer hardware and software. Premji is undoubtedly a Great Diversifier, but that is not the same thing as a Great Dreamer.

Pramod Bhasin of GE Capital also has good credentials. To him goes the credit of first visualising India as the business process outsourcing (BPO) capital of the world. His vision is now driving an entirely new serice industry, and the mighty USA is worried about losing millions of jobs to India .

But Bhasin too was a replicator. BPO first emerged in Ireland and the Caribbean , and Bhasin’s key achievement was to see that this could be done even better in India .

Who, then, can really claim to have dreamed of things that never were and asked why not? I can think of only one name: Yogi Deveshwar.

As Chairman of ITC, he could have continued producing cigarettes, or building more ITC hotels. Instead, he has invented the concept of the e-choupal, and aims to create the biggest agricultural distribution system in India by linking farmers to markets through the internet. The vision itself is breathtaking, bridging the supposed digital divide in one great leap. The world over, many governments have talked of using the internet as a tool of grassroots empowerment, and some have done so through large-scale public investment and subsidies (Digvijay Singh’s Gyandoot project in Madhya Pradesh is a good example).

But Deveshwar had the vision to see the e-choupal as a commercial operation, and hence capable of replication throughout India without political subsidies and intervention. Large farmers and traditional middlemen (arhaitis) have been hired by ITC to help run e-choupals, harnessing their traditional knowledge. ITC is creating several new e-choupals every day, and has already established over 3,000 of them, connecting 18,000 villages. Deveshwar wants to cover the whole of India , and in the process make the e-choupal business bigger than even ITC’s cigarette business.

That is something no other company or country has attempted. Others in India (like Drishtee) have also tried to use the internet for rural marketing, but these have been small-scale efforts. None has attempted anything with the breadth and speed that Deveshwar has displayed.

When he became head of ITC in the mid-1990s, I voiced fears that he was an opportunist trying to use bogus patriotism to grab power from the major shareholder, BAT. I was plain wrong, and need to eat crow. Deveshwar gets my vote for the title of the Great Indian Dreamer.

What do you think?