The Maverick Effect by Harish Mehta

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Popular culture tends to portray all bureaucrats as old-fashioned, kickback-seeking, and selfish. In my personal experience, this was far from the truth. There were a lot of bureaucrats who really wanted to make a difference. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t accept our overtures, year after year, without a single incident of corruption.

Our work with government, bureaucrats and departments, ranging from the DoE and the Home Office to the Customs, Revenue and Excise departments, to institutions like the RBI and the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), ended up impacting over 100 regulations. . Some of them took more than five years of advocacy to bring about change. Such was the breadth and depth of our engagement.

Startup crash

Impossible events led to the formation of NASSCOM in 1988. The odds against which it ultimately came into existence make it nothing short of a miracle. But there was more to come. Wait to hear how the association turned the millstone. The first round was to put the right people in the right seats.

We had agreed on a two-person management team. The first, the president, would be a full-time employee. Second, the president would be an industry veteran who understands business challenges.

The president was to be the public face of NASSCOM. That person’s stature would become NASSCOM’s stature. If we wanted to match the credibility of MAIT, we would need someone as revered as FC Kohli or Dr OP Mehra. Qualities such as credibility and assertiveness were functionally crucial for this position.

Ideally, we would have Kohli himself taking over. But he had made it clear that he would continue at MAIT because he wanted to see the hardware and software industries grow in India.

I couldn’t have been in that job because I just wasn’t senior enough. Hinditron also had an ongoing JV with DEC. Also, I had suffered a heart attack the previous year.

Eventually, we approached the highly respected Prem Shivdasani, who had just retired from International Computers Indian Manufacture Ltd (ICIM) and started his own software business. ICIM was then one of the leading computer companies in the country. Shivdasani had also been the founding president of MAIT. He just did the trick.

After an initial six-month reluctance, Shivdasani promised to join us, but only until formal elections were held. Once he consented, we started getting other people to join us as well. I held the positions of vice-president and treasurer. From then on, there was no going back.

We had Anil Srivastava on board as chairman. Anil has served as a government advisor and has held positions in the private sector in the fields of information and communications technology. He was articulate and wrote well; just the man we thought we needed to liaise with the government. NASSCOM was ready for a good start.

Or so we thought.

We took the first stumble when we realized that Anil was not aligned with NASSCOM’s vision and mandate. We wanted NASSCOM to primarily build an ecosystem that would help software companies thrive. Part of that meant focusing on government policy and lobbying for industry. The ecosystem was going to evolve, but at that time, lobbying was the key to making it happen. This involved meeting with bureaucrats and politicians, debating industry issues and convincing them to make the changes we were looking for. Additionally, we expected Anil to set NASSCOM on the path to economic and organizational sustainability.

Anil was more fond of writing academic articles in journals and other publications. He was good at giving presentations, but lacked the entrepreneurial spirit that NASSCOM desperately needed to stay afloat. He wanted to be an evangelist, not a lobbyist.

There were also other problems. Within months, the still active Narayana Murthy pointed out to me that NASSCOM’s expenses were piling up alarmingly. I had remained focused on long-term issues and handed the day-to-day operations to the team. This had led to an accumulated debt of Rs 10,00,000. When I started investigating, I realized that we were running NASSCOM with the lavishness of an established business and not that of a non-profit organization or start-up. Anil had even rented the fuel-guzzling Standard 2000 sedan at the association’s expense. Exasperated, I contacted Anil and asked him to come up with a budget. He responded by sending me an article titled “Startups Don’t Have a Budget”. Thereupon things went south, abruptly ending our relationship with Anil. Our experience with Anil taught us an important lesson in managing people and their expectations. We probably weren’t clear in defining the role and that probably created this mismatch. NASSCOM’s ability to deliver took a hit, and something had to be done urgently to stay afloat.

— Harish Mehta is a founding member of NASSCOM. This excerpt from his book has been lightly edited for style, but otherwise unchanged from the original publication.

First post: STI

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