Gandhi For The New Millennium
Date: Sunday , October 25, 2020
Satyan Pitroda is popularly known as Sam Pitroda. He is an internationally respected telecom inventor, development thinker, entrepreneur, and policymaker. Sam has over 50 years in information and communications technology (ICT) and related national and global level developments. For his contribution towards IT and his assistance to former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh in bringing computerization as an advisor to the PM, he evolved as the ‘Father of India’s Computer and IT Revolution’. The Odisha-based Gujarati born Sam was raised in a family that highly values Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy. Sam completed his master’s degree in Physics and Electronics from Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara. Post that, he further pursued Masters in Electrical Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Sam Pitroda served as the Chairman of the Smart Grid Task Force, as well as the committees to reform public broadcasting, deliver e-governance, modernize railways, and various other development activities.
Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, worked for the independence of the country and mobilized the masses, ultimately leading India to freedom. That was 50 years ago, and now he is essentially forgotten in India. We have put Gandhi up on a pedestal to look up to once in a while. Contradictory as it may sound, if you ask average students in India who their role model is, they would most probably say Gandhi. Yet, because Gandhi is so high up in concept, you really cannot relate to him. Until Richard Attenborough’s movie was released, Gandhi was forgotten in the Western world as well. The movie made people aware of the Gandhian values and principles, not just Gandhi the person, but Gandhi the phenomenon. There are several critical elements of Gandhi that we need to revisit today.
Gandhi was the greatest communicator that ever lived. Using very simple symbols and actions, he communicated very complex messages to create a mass movement. Even in this age of high-tech communications, our leadership fails to communicate their vision, whether it is at the political, social or even corporate level. Gandhi knew how to master media. Going forward, several messages need to be communicated, for example, “India going to be a software giant,” “It will be a global economic power,” and “It will be completely liberalized.” These messages can be simplified, packaged differently and conveyed, as Gandhi did. The message must appeal not just the media-aware elite, but to the larger masses, in their own language and style.
Gandhi constantly emphasized equality, breaking up of caste, gender and age barriers and abolishment of untouchability. He showed love and companionship with people from every part of the society. Everyone had a place in his scheme of things. Today in India, we must remind ourselves that nothing and no one is inferior. Even in the business world, the boundaries that have been created around businesses are no longer needed. Today, a competitor could be a potential partner; employees and suppliers can be share-holders. The more we focus on these concepts, the faster will be our rate of growth.
Take the mission-critical case of literacy and education, for instance. In India, religion could play a key role in this endeavor, but has not. Why can’t all the temples, mosques and gurudwaras begin to provide literacy classes to the people, knowing that such a large percentage of people are illiterate? Indian people have such great faith in religion, which can be utilized towards this cause if the religious leaders take this as a task. This is an extension of Gandhi’s tirade against the concept of untouchability.
Gandhi never gave up. He got beaten and had blood all over, yet he stood up and did the same thing over again. Once he made up his mind that we will fight and get freedom, he just kept at it. I don’t think we have made up our minds that we want to modernize India. The perseverance that is required to be able to galvanize the country died right after Independence. The same values that got us independence are required to build a modern nation, but they have not been channeled toward this goal. China, for instance, developed a successful four-point program for modernization; the only difference here is that they just kept at it for 25 years! India doesn’t show that tenacity, whereas it was all in Gandhi.
This was perhaps Gandhi’s greatest characteristic, and it is extremely relevant to India’s situation today. Simplicity is not about wearing white khadi clothes. Consider our politicians today – they have five commandos around them wherever they go. Simplicity is about people in public offices minimizing personal requirements until the people around have reached a minimum standard of living. Extravagant living by people in public office does not go unnoticed. Simplicity amongst corporate leaders in India is equally important because the difference between the top and the bottom level is much larger and noticeable than in other countries. For example, in the US, employees who sweep the floor or take out the garbage may also have a car, a TV, and other amenities that workers of similar profile in India don’t have. It is difficult to expect high quality work from someone who perhaps lives in a slum, barely survives with the salary he gets and travels one and a half hours to get to work, sweating in the heat. Companies need to bring the standard of living of their employees up to a point that they can begin to appreciate the quality of life before bringing quality consciousness in their work.
Related to simplicity is the concept of self-reliance. This trait is often misconstrued as closing the doors to the outside world. Self-reliance is about adding values at home — completely using what is already available. When we were working at C-DoT to produce the rural telephone switch, people said: Why do we need to develop this in India, when it can be bought cheaper outside? Well, by that thinking, we need not produce anything since pretty much anything can probably be bought cheaper outside. But the technical talent was available in India, and we had to give it a mission to create something unique and useful. This was the concept that Gandhi promoted, though during those times, the symbols used were different — he urged people to burn foreign goods. More than anything else, that was a communications exercise, yet it created an environment of self-reliance throughout the country.
Gandhi stood for truth and absolute truth. With information technology, this becomes a greater reality because it brings in openness, accessibility, connectivity and information for everybody, anywhere. The confluence of truth and information is going to be the foundation for a modern India in the new millennium.
In the final analysis, Gandhi talked of rural development and a self-sufficient community, two things that we could not translate or fulfill after him. As a result, people from villages moved to urban areas for jobs, power, water, transport, and other advantages. With the Internet and other information technologies, I think it is possible to make rural India self-sufficient. If you look at the history of the last 100 years, most of the new towns were built along the railroad. In the US, businesses bloomed near the convenient eight-lane highways. The next round of prosperity will come from Internet highways. Creating new Internet infrastructures that run through rural India will enable people to do work and business from where they are, reducing the load on several already stressed systems. By using new technologies to provide everything on the fingertips, we may see people moving back to where they came from, and to the advantage of cleaner air, uncongested streets and a better way of life.
Gandhi is more relevant today than ever before. Gaining independence from the British was simpler — the enemy was clearly identified and was essentially external. Modernization is much more difficult, because the enemy is unidentifiable and part of the system. Just as the drive for independence was made into a movement by Gandhi, modernization needs to be provided the same breath and force of a movement, a missionary zeal.
Gandhian ideas cannot be taken lock, stock, and barrel today. But we focus on his ideas, we will find several important, fundamental issues that will help us today, some of which I have discussed above. To understand and follow these, you don’t have to wear khadi, or abstain from an occasional glass of wine! Gandhi is one element that can help us focus our efforts towards modernization, and we should use it as much as possible.
This article is based on a telephone conversation with Sam Pitroda.