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Hail Gates
When the world's richest man visits, India sits up

September 20, 2000
Web posted at 3:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 3:00 a.m. EDT

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When two of America's corporate icons, Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corporation, and Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, visited India recently, their experience could have not been so different. The hype that preceded--and followed--Gates' 24-hour visit made Welch's three-day trip seem almost like a public relations failure. And this when GE has invested about $400 million in the country so far, compared to Microsoft's paltry $5 million.

Bill Gates had India's political leaders mesmerized. About a dozen chief ministers of states--elected politicians who otherwise would not spare a private businessmen even a glance--lined up outside Gates' hotel suite at the Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi. But only four were ushered in for a private audience with the world's richest man. "This kind of attention is usually reserved for visiting heads of state," said Pramod Mahajan, India's Information Technology minister. Mahajan himself cut short his trip to the United States, as part of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's official delegation, and flew back to meet Gates.

IT is the new mantra amongst India's politicians, and Gates is clearly the reigning cyber guru. Two of India's most tech-savvy chief ministers--who were granted one-on-one meetings with Gates--were SM Krishna of Karnataka and Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh. With laptops and spiffy presentations, the politicians made their pitch: for some of Gates' billions.

But Krishna and Naidu were not the only ones Gates had enthralled. A dozen other elected representatives used the visit to position themselves as digital-age politicians. Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chauthala gushed: "Gates sahib [Sir] will guide us in IT." After the chief ministers' roundtable on e-governance, economist Jairam Ramesh, a witness to the proceedings, said: "I wish these leaders would get as aggressive about governance as they are about e-governance." The competitiveness left even Bill Gates slightly fazed. "I'm impressed with the keenness of Indian politicians to use IT in e-governance and education," he said. "This is something you can't find even in the U.S."

Gates' visit was in stark contrast to his last trip in 1997. Then he met only with Chief Minister Naidu--the mindset of the Indian politician has undergone a sea change in the three years since.

Populist moves like distributing free rice and providing low-cost housing have long been politicians' way of drawing in India's masses. Nearly one in two Indians is illiterate, and the penetration of computers is abysmally low (4.3 million PCs for a population of one billion).

Yet embracing technology is getting increasingly fashionable amongst politicians, who think it will give them respectability amongst the "classes." Dewang Mehta, chairman of NASSCOM, India's trade body for the software industry, borrows from Indira Gandhi's famous populist slogan when he says, "The new-age slogan is roti (food), kapda (clothing), makaan (shelter) aur computer".

So what did each of the chief ministers get from the world's richest geek? Not much. Gates announced a fresh $50 million phased investment in Microsoft's own Hyderabad development center. He committed another $1 million every year for five years to promote India's rural IT education program. Gates' visit, otherwise, turned out a fairly routine affair. He did a hard sell of his company's .NET project, which will shift Microsoft's focus from PC-software to offering wide-ranging Internet services, and he announced a global strategic alliance with Infosys, which will develop business solutions for companies using Microsoft technologies in areas including e-commerce.

India is prominent on Microsoft's world map for several reasons. Besides the sheer number of people, the company plans to tap the huge market potential of its special language software. For instance, 78.9 million Indians speak Marathi and 68 million speak Bengali. That is a huge business opportunity--and Gates is not one to let an opportunity like that pass him by.

Days after Gates' India stopover--en route to the Sydney Olympics--the dust is slowly settling in his wake. It will take a while for reality to dawn all round that his trip was just a little more than mega-hype.

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