India Mourns Its "e-Genius"


By Bruce Einhorn In 2000, Outlook, a popular Indian magazine, ran a list of the "most boring" people in the country. Dewang Mehta, the president of India's National Association of Software & Service Companies (NASSCOM) made it to No. 6 because, the magazine griped, of his endless talk about India's software industry. Whether it was in newspaper columns, TV talk shows, or public seminars, you could always count on Mehta to be there, promoting the country's thriving software industry and talking about how it could help transform India from a poverty-ridden nation into an information technology (IT) superpower.

Getting needled for such work must have bothered Mehta. But rather than accepting sympathies from well-meaning friends, he insisted he didn't mind. He did once pen a letter to the editor of Outlook. But it wasn't what others might have expected. "I wrote that I was disappointed that I wasn't Bore No. 1," he told me in January.

TIRELESS ADVOCATE. Mehta, who died on Apr. 12 of a heart attack, was always aiming for the top. At the time of his death, the 38-year-old was both the head of NASSCOM and spokesman for the government's National IT Task Force. Indeed, he died in a hotel room in Sydney, Australia, while taking part in a delegation led by Pramod Mahajan, the Indian IT Minister.

Mehta spent more than a decade at the helm of NASSCOM, working as a tireless promoter for India's most successful industry, helping software companies like Wipro, Infosys, and Satyam take advantage of India's abundance of engineering talent to become important players in the global IT industry. Worldwide, outfits that want to outsource some of their software needs now look to Indian companies.

Mehta had something to do with that by building the New Delhi-based NASSCOM into one of the most high-profile and effective lobbying organizations in India, a group that worked hard to ensure bureaucrats and lawmakers took the right steps to help the industry grow.

SOFTWARE EVANGELIST. The most ironic thing about Mehta landing on that "most boring" list was that he was anything but. Yes, he was an accountant by training, but with his Elvis-style pompadour hairstyle and his suave, soft-spoken style, Mehta was hardly your typical taxman -- or software grunt for that matter.

True, he had a knack for self-promotion. His Web site (dewangmehta.com) not only mentions the basics of his background: He went to Delhi University and London's Imperial College, was named India's IT Man of the Year by Dataquest in 1997, and Computerworld's Software Evangelist of the Year three years in a row in the late 1990s. The site also includes some of his ambitions and dreams for himself and India.

Later this spring, he was planning to host a new TV show. Within a few years, he saw himself becoming a filmmaker, using images generated by computers. He wanted to become a politician, too, running for Parliament. Ultimately, he wrote, he intended to retire to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he would "ride horses, write poems, teach young kids, and meditate."

"DREAM MAN." Mehta certainly made an impression on people. A few days ago, I was in Thailand, talking to Rom Hiranpruk, the director of the fledgling Software Park Thailand in Bangkok. "He was a racing car, going full speed all the time," Rom said. "He had leadership, he had vision."

The chairman of NASSCOM, Phiroz Vandrevala, issued a statement saying that "with Dewang's death, India has lost its star performer." Other eulogies came from industry chieftains as well as ordinary fans. Take these comments from a bulletin board at zdnetindia.com. Mehta was India's "IT mascot," "guiding light," "dream man," "jewel of the crown," or simply "the greatest man in the computer industry."

I met Mehta only once, last January when I visited his recently opened office in Delhi. Many others in India were worrying that the country's software powers were facing a growing threat from newcomers in places like China. He wasn't too worried. "China is 10 years behind," he said. "China will never overtake India -- I will not allow that to happen."

TOMORROW'S CHALLENGE. Still, he knew that Indians couldn't afford to be complacent. "It's stupid to live in the olden days. What worked two years back won't work two years in the future. We have to move ahead," he said. Mehta went on to recite a litany of needs for the government to address: "We need physical and telecom infrastructure. We need bandwidth. We need power."

Mehta was also excited about a new project. Working with ethnic Indian businessmen overseas, he was raising money to open more training centers around the country, a project that he estimated would cost about $2 billion. In January, after just a few weeks of working on the project, he said that he had already raised $400 million in contributions. It's unclear now what will happen to that and some of Mehta's other big dreams for India's software industry. Einhorn covers technology for BusinessWeek from Hong Kong. Follow his column every week, only on BW Online


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