Way back in 1991, when a successful chartered accountant (CA) named Dewang Mehta was offered the charge of a small software body called Nasscom, little did anyone imagine that he would become a legend – unfortunately, not a living one – in the software sector. Nor did anyone believe that a sector with a mere $100-million (Rs 466-crore) overall revenue would rake in $50 billion (Rs 2.33 lakh crore) over the next two decades.
Nasscom had a humble beginning. The first summit was held in 1990 in Delhi. And Dewang Mehta had written an article on this. “The article was very well-written; the vision and thought process was very impressive. So, when we were looking for a replacement for Anil Srivastava, I approached Dewang,” recalls information technology (IT) veteran and Chairman & Managing Director of Onward Technologies, Harish Mehta. He was also Dewang’s old-time friend.
“He was earning very well then and Nasscom was just in its infancy. So, we told him that he could work for Nasscom for four days, while continuing with his consultancy work,” reminisces Harish Mehta, who himself was a software engineer who had stayed in the US for five years. He returned to India and realised there were “countless procedural hurdles for the software industry”.
Another IT veteran and Managing Director of InfrasoftTech, Hanuman Tripathi, says he still remembers the early days of Nasscom. “Till 1996, it would be a conglomeration of 25-30 CEOs meeting for an evening dinner. It now has over 1,500 participants.”
Today, the software body’s membership base comprises over 95 per cent of the industry revenues in India and employs over 2.24 million professionals.
Atul Nishar, founder and Executive Chairman of Hexaware, says: “I still remember those early years when we would not only talk about the Indian IT sector but also had to talk about India.”
The period between 1991-2001 was one of transformation and growth, for both Nasscom and Mehta. Dewang Mehta grew in stature, gaining respect within the Indian information and communications technology (ICT) sector as an industry leader, and Nasscom, too, began to be recognised as a force.
“Besides a dream for the software industry, Dewang Mehta had a blueprint for the IT industry and how it could be used effectively to change the lives of India’s teeming millions. He wanted the benefits of IT to make its way down to the grassroots levels and his favourite slogan – ‘roti, kapda, makan, bijli aur bandwidth’ – epitomised the needs of the emerging, 21st century Indian,” says Kiran Karnik, former Chairman of Nasscom.
Karnik took over after Dewang Mehta died of a heart attack on April 12, 2001, in a Sydney hotel. “While Kiran did not have an IT background, he had successfully launched Discovery as a pay channel. This was a big achievement during those days. He had created the Discovery brand in India,” recalls Harish Mehta.
Karnik believes Dewang left behind a phenomenal legacy. “He made my life very easy,” adds Karnik, who took over just four days after the 9/11 terror attacks that paralysed the US, and led to a slowdown thereafter. He points out that when he took over Nasscom, “we had almost got out of body shopping and were doing newer things like business process outsourcing (BPO)”.
He believes that Nasscom’s strength also lies in its database “which Dewang Mehta had initiated”. The work on the database started in 1999, he points out. This helped Nasscom in its “research-based policy intervention (as opposed to the word lobbying)”, notes Karnik.
As for Som Mittal, the current chief, Mehta feels he is an industry veteran.
“When he was in HP, about 30,000 people reported to him and a further 15,000 from the partner environment. Besides, he has been the chairman of the industry as well. I think each of them had their set of challenges and they have come out of it well,” says Mehta.
New challenges from US
Tripathi believes that “Som’s challenge will be to work closely with the US government to reduce the impact of the anti-outsourcing talks that keep happening. Moreover, he will also have to work to promote India in such a way that it is seen as a partner to regions other than the US”.
Nishar concurs. “Challenges continue to be there. I think, going ahead, it is about creating an inclusive growth. Two, I think the noise from the Western regions are again coming up and that will need a lot of mediation. And, finally, the internal regulatory environment,” says Nishar.
According to Mittal, it’s about taking Nasscom to another level.
“It is not just about the software industry. We have successfully created forums for engineering and products services, the small and medium enterprises. We now need to take them together,” concludes Mittal.