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Book review: Harish Mehta's 'The Maverick Effect' is an engaging 'biography of Nasscom'

'The Maverick Effect' makes the case convincingly, and shows through anecdotes, how Nasscom was crucial for the growth and health of the software industry in India.

April 30, 2022 / 09:55 PM IST
The book also contains photos like this one, of a 2003 dinner after an executive committee meeting of Nasscom. Featured here are (standing, left to right) N.R. Narayana Murthy,  K.V. Ramani and Ashank Desai, and (sitting, left to right) Phiroz Vandrewala, Arun Kumar, Kiran Karnik, Som Mittal, Harish Mehta and Saurabh Srivastava.

The book also contains photos like this one, of a 2003 dinner after an executive committee meeting of Nasscom. Featured here are (standing, left to right) N.R. Narayana Murthy, K.V. Ramani and Ashank Desai, and (sitting, left to right) Phiroz Vandrewala, Arun Kumar, Kiran Karnik, Som Mittal, Harish Mehta and Saurabh Srivastava.

Founder and Executive Chairman of Onward Technologies Ltd., Harish Mehta, is renowned for also co-founding, and for years, leading India’s famous software industry body, The National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM). To selectively quote N.R Narayana Murthy’s blurb for the book – Murthy also calls it “definitive and authoritative” – this is a “biography of NASSCOM”. It describes the birth, growth and present state of NASSCOM, its significant contributions to the Indian software industry, and its key members. The book tells us what The Maverick Effect - The Inside Story of India’s IT Revolution by Harish Mehta, HarperCollins PublishersNASSCOM is doing to stay useful to its stakeholders at the present time. Engagingly written, The Maverick Effect also is a memoir of the author, Harish Mehta, as software entrepreneur and family man whose values guided his choices in business and the public sphere. The memoiristic narrative is shorter than the overarching theme of the birth and work of NASSCOM, which is described through the eyes of an intimate insider.

Several interesting chapters highlight how NASSCOM catalyzed the fortunes of its industry by interacting with the government. For instance, we are told it was at NASSCOM’s urging, BSNL chairperson B.K. Syngal and Union minister Pt. Sukh Ram had the Union government invest in internet bandwidth. This higher speed enabled Indian software companies to gain and successfully work for foreign clients in the 1990s. Another example: we’re told, NASSCOM helped N. Vittal of the Department of Electronics to formulate a proposal for what was realized as Software Technology Parks of India, which came with no taxes and high speed (for that time) internet connections for software companies. We are also informed how NASSCOM “helped put together the initial draft of India’s first Internet policy in the late 1990s. Eventually, that led to the new telecom policy, which, in turn, led to the privatization of Internet service providers”. Similarly, the National Telecom Policy of 1999 contributed to the growth of information technology enabled services and business processing outsourcing units in the country.

The author makes the point land well, that for the Indian software industry, industry-government interface was one of the aces in the hole. The ministers and government officials who helped the Indian software industry are mentioned fondly in the book. Rather oddly, though, the author seems to give more credit for Indian prosperity to NASSCOM than to those who are well known as the architects of liberalization – P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, along with low-profile folks such as Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Also curious is the fact that the shambles about the Section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional, wasn’t mentioned at all in the book. Section 66(A) criminalized “offensive” online posts, and was being used to stifle criticism of the government, until a PIL went to the Supreme Court. The rest is history. But when the Act was being drafted, was NASSCOM kept away from seeing the draft, despite having connections in the IT ministry? (After the case ended, NASSCOM welcomed the Supreme Court judgement.) What happened, exactly? In any case, the book breathes not a word on the whole episode.

Thankfully, there are other insights on tap. We learn NASSCOM was based on ‘coopetition’: the radical idea that competing companies can band together to create a better terrain in which to operate. We learn what kind of mindset enables coopetition, which is invaluable for any industry that’s budding or upcoming. Here we gain insight into the culture of NASSCOM as the author saw it. We are told how important it is for the culture to have the right people. For instance, we are told of NASSCOM presidents, from the author himself, to his successor, the publicity-loving and too-highly driven Devang Mehta, whose love for publicity rivalled his work for his industry. We are told of his successor, Kiran Karnik. Quiet and low-key Karnik, we’re told, transformed NASSCOM into a data-driven house of record and forecast for the industry. We learn of NASSCOM president Som Mittal, who moved fast to halt the runaway train that was Satyam after its founder admitted to inflating profit figures by billions of rupees. We are told what NASSCOM and Mittal did – no spoilers – for Satyam, and it restored clients’ faith in Indian software companies.

What also becomes clear is how much our software industry, during inception, was impacted by NASSCOM. We are shown how NASSCOM advised the liberalizing Indian government in forming enablements that made the software industry zoom to abundance. In the decade after liberalization, India’s software industry touched export markets – business process outsourcing, offshore research, subsidiaries of software multinationals. Moving on, we are told how NASSCOM represented to the government and other stakeholders the interests and opinions of the country’s software industry as it grew after Y2K; further, how NASSCOM reacted when the industry was hit by crises such as 9/11, the 2008 debt collapse in the States, and closer home, the ‘Satyam scam’. And we come to the period just prior to the lockdown, when, as Mehta points out, “[O]ut of every ₹100 that India earns, about eight is contributed by the IT industry”. Through this book, the transformation of the Indian economy after it was liberalized becomes further fleshed out.

Close

There are a couple of passages where the author seems to give a tad too much credit to NASSCOM for many Indians’ becoming prosperous and for the rise of the Indian middle class. Such conclusions are fraught when drawn from an interdependent society. As technology permeates many parts of the economy, software features in many success stories. But so does, say, transport. Should Eicher or Tata Sons’ truck factories take direct credit for the supply chain that ferries my food to my dining table? By that logic, shouldn’t farmers get direct credit for everything? No, but also yes. In any case, these passages, which are few, don’t detract from the many merits of the book.

The Maverick Effect makes the case convincingly, and shows through anecdotes, how NASSCOM was crucial for the growth and health of the software industry in India. It would be of value to those wishing to form similar associations, to corporate historians, software workers, and scholars of management and business.



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Suhit Kelkar is a writer whose journalism and poetry have appeared in publications from India and abroad. He is the author of a collection of poetry, and one of poems and photos. He tweets @suhitkelkar.
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