Book Review: An Intriguing Insider’s Account Of India’s Internet Adoption

Book Review: An Intriguing Insider’s Account Of India’s Internet Adoption Telecom Man: Leading from Front In India’s Digital Revolution. Brijendra K. Syngal with Sandipan Deb. Westland. 
  • This is as much a story of the Indian telecom sector’s growth as it is of Syngal’s own life and is eminently readable.

    For those interested in India’s contemporary history, this is a great book to pick up.

Telecom Man: Leading from Front In India’s Digital Revolution. Brijendra K. Syngal with Sandipan Deb. Westland. 300 pages. Rs 398.

Brijendra K. Syngal was the Chief Managing Director (CMD) of the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) which the erstwhile public sector undertaking (PSU) developed India’s internet connectivity. Syngal later worked with private telecom players like Reliance, BPL and Essar. He finally contributed towards building a case on the purported 2G scam.

Telecom Man: Leading From Front In India’s Digital Revolution is his autobiography co-authored with Sandipan Deb, veteran journalist and author. This is an interesting account of Syngal’s work for four reasons.

The cover of Syngal's book
The cover of Syngal's book

Firstly, this book brings out an interesting depiction of India’s first telecom revolution between 1991 and 1998. A lot happened in this period starting with the economic liberalisation brought about by the PV Narasimha Rao government. One of the sectors which immediately benefited was telecommunications.

VSNL got Internet to India, setting up connectivity using undersea cables and then domestic infrastructure for user links. This development happened under Syngal’s term as the CMD of the organisation.

He describes this process lucidly and also the challenges he faced. Getting up to speed on a global technology advancement with Indian bureaucratic set up is never easy, certainly not so in the early 1990s when India had not fully opened up to the world. Syngal’s experience hence brings out the contribution and idiosyncrasies of politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats in this journey.

Secondly, this was also the time when India was hit with the first big telecom scandal during the ministership of Pandit Sukh Ram. This story has been covered in media in different ways over the years.

In those years, Sukh Ram had been painted as a rustic bumpkin who misused his authority in a growing sector to allegedly create personal windfall gains. Syngal describes this period with a lot of caution but also reveals a lot about what transpired and how.

He speaks candidly about his relationship with Rajesh Pilot, Beni Prasad Verma and Sushma Swaraj – three other ministers who he worked with during his VSNL stint. He brings out experiences of how politicians approached technology and reforms in the lexicon of votes and how PSUs could influence and manage them acting on the political instincts. A broad policy shaping was done addressing a much smaller or limited political constituency of the decision-makers.

Syngal also describes the work of Sam Pitroda and N Vittal, two key players in the Indian telecommunications and connectivity growth since 1980s. While Syngal is generally appreciative of Pitroda’s vision, he calls out Vittal’s style as arbitrary and personality tough to work with. This is quite in contrast of other stories of the Indian telecom revolution, most of which paint Vittal in good light for his work on the Software Technology Parks.

Thirdly, Syngal was at the helm when VSNL raised foreign capital with a Global Depository Receipt (GDR) issue. At the time of the issue, VSNL was the third largest issuer ever from Asia, ex-Japan. It was the first Indian PSU to tap global markets for capital to grow business with a clear outline of project roadmap. The GDR proceeds finally went to projects which did not do well. But the recounting of this process is fascinating.

The VSNL GDR was a flop in the first try. The company did not get the desired floor price and the issue was scrapped. In recounting this episode, Syngal names several influential names in then Prime Minister Office, Finance Ministry and a host of other bureaucrats, whose sins of omissions and potential commissions – collusion with private sector competitors – scuttled the growth of VSNL.

Although Indian PSUs are considered inefficient, this story explains how even the efficient PSUs face challenges in the operating ecosystem where corporates influence politicians to curry favours for themselves while killing government-led competition.

The successful GDR issue is also a great story – this issue came up after a few months of the first failed attempt. On this occasion, VSNL had full support of the Finance Ministry and its bureaucrats, who changed their view with the change of political dispensation in the country.

Fourthly, Syngal then describes his experience of working with three big private sector players – Reliance, BPL and Essar. This part of the story is also eye-opening. The private sector, assumed to be more capital efficient, had its own limitations and quirks.

Syngal paints a picture of owner-led firms creating arbitrary processes and rules, where the word of few individuals always outweighed professional knowledge and analysis and a lot of company resources were devoted for managing the owners’ lifestyle. Of course these are all impressions based on personal experiences and there may be other equal and opposite stories waiting to be told. Nonetheless, reading about Indian corporate houses influencing government policies is quite instructive.

Syngal worked closely with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in advising them on matters of telecom policy after 2004. He did so despite his personal differences with Sushma Swaraj, the telecom minister in 1998, who refused Syngal a two-year extension. He narrates how she later on reached out to him and asked for help and support, which he offered.

His calculations and assumptions in imputing the cost of the alleged 2G scam to be Rs. 1,76,000 crores to the national exchequer were key in the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report on the sector. This report eventually formed the first step of the collapse of the two-term Manmohan Singh government.

Some parts of the book, especially the personal stories, do get a little laborious to read. This is usual with many autobiographies where the person’s own view of uniqueness of those experiences may be different from that of readers’. But all in all, this is as much a story of the Indian telecom sector's growth as it is of Syngal’s own life and is eminently readable.

Sandipan Deb’s imprint as the co-author is clear with several complex technological, financial, and management concepts explained in simple words but lucidly. For those interested in India’s contemporary history, this is a great book to pick up.

Aashish Chandorkar writes on issues of public policy. The views expressed are personal.

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