Much to the surprise of friends and family, in 1991, Brijendra K Syngal resigned a plush tax-free job with Inmarsat in London to head Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL), an old-style, stodgy public sector company.
Over the next seven years, Mr Syngal transformed VSNL into a nimble new-generation telecom behemoth. By connecting India to the world through high-speed digital links, he was instrumental in the emergence of the Indian software sector as a global player. And, in a move that would revolutionise the country and all our lives, he brought the Internet to India in 1995.
“Telecom Man” is the story of a remarkable Indian who could not refuse the call of his motherland, left a secure and lucrative career behind and returned home to provide the world’s best telecom service to his people.
Mr Syngal is widely regarded as the ‘father of the internet’ and the one who connected the country to the rest of the world in the early years of globalisation and bridged the digital divide.
In the book authored by Mr Syngal with well known journalist and fellow IITian Sandipan Deb, he describes how he had to fight the bureaucracy, manage political masters—three governments, five telecom ministers—through strategy, tactics, guile and plain stubbornness and battle the corruption inherent in the system.
Mr Syngal describes how he had to face constant media scrutiny and false charges, which were often paid for by international rivals and had to walk a tightrope, while always keeping India’s best interest in mind.
Telecom Man is not just the story of Mr Syngal’s eventful life, but is also the story of pivotal moments in India’s transition to a technology giant with help from the Internet, even as the overall economy struggles to catch up. In that journey, Mr Syngal was a key participant—sometimes at the forefront and sometimes in the backrooms—negotiating and manoeuvring crucial international treaties and agreements that would fuel our nation’s progress.
The Internet is now a powerful tool in the hands of ever-enterprising Indians, helping them provide services to the world and also transform our lives here through a gamut e-commerce companies offering a wide spectrum of products and services.
Connectivity has a direct impact on gross domestic product, Mr Syngal says, adding, “I call connectivity the fourth dimension of transport, after land, sea and air. Transporting data—information and content—is immediately empowering. The internet brought around the third industrial revolution—the first was wrought by steam, the second by electricity—and India has gained immeasurably from it. I feel fortunate to have been in a position to have spearheaded its coming to our country. And I feel no shame in admitting that yes, the launch was a disaster—I goofed up!”
However, after the disastrous launch, Mr Syngal and his team at VSNL checked and rectified every possible error and rest, as they say, is history! India was successfully launched on the Internet space, much before than even China. In fact, the Chinese minister visited VSNL and learned few tricks from Mr Syngal and the VSNL team.
The irony is that in June 1998, Mr Syngal was named as one of ‘The 50 Stars of Asia’ by BusinessWeek magazine; and, two days later, he was fired with immediate effect, by fax, for not bowing down to pressure from political masters.
What Mr Syngal did after leaving VSNL is also interesting and a must-read for everyone interested in knowing how the government, policy-makers and corporates work. He offers a no-holds-barred account of his battles with corporate honchos, as well as powerful bureaucrats and politicians without hesitating to name the good, the bad and the ugly ones of the lot.
“…for the public sector chief executive (CEO), the principal shareholder is the government, ergo, the politician… and the politician’s interests are many and varied and are hardly restricted to the bottom line…Then there is the bureaucracy, full of ego…
"Unlike politicians, they face no risk of losing their power and position and perks…They are a brotherhood that looks after its own interests first and the country’s after that, if time permits…,” Mr Syngal describes.
In recent years, Mr Syngal has been instrumental in exposing the 2G spectrum allocation scam. He repeatedly pointed out that the spectrum for 2G cannot be doled out or allocated just like that and instead it must be auctioned. However, this was ignored by the then successive telecom ministers.
He told the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that a simple inflation indexation would show that the cost of 2G spectrum should be Rs7,000 crore and not Rs1,658 crore. “If you took the interest cost, it would have been about Rs10,000 crore.
"Look at the share price of the companies in 2001 and look at them now and do the calculations, and you will get another big number. If you applied the multiples at which the spectrum was sold, it will take you to Rs12,000 crore at least. That was what took us to the highest number, adding up all the circles to Rs1,76,000 crore,” he told the Committee.
Fortunately, he says, no one talks of allocating spectrum through any other means except through auction, adding, “I had burnt a lot of midnight oil on this and all the hard work had borne fruit. It is indeed a sad story that ‘coalition dharma’ ruled us—country, industry and citizen be damned. Is that governance?”
Mr Syngal’s many diverse leadership roles in the public sector as well as private sector combined with his international experience and global connect during the most transformative period in the telecom sector, worldwide, make this book and important read for those interested in how and why Indians have been able to be a part of this revolution.
BK Syngal with Sandipan Deb
Hardcover: 300 pages
Publisher: Westland (20 January 2020)
Rs501.60 (Kindle Edition)