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Bill Gates has never held public office in the U.S. or anywhere else. But in India, he's treated as a head of state when he visits. He gets state-level security, which means that a dignitary receives him with due honors at the airport, and politicians shake his hand beamingly and get pictures taken standing close to him, which they put up in their homes and offices.
Most of the politicians who fawn over Gates don't even use a computer, so they don't know the wonder of Windows, the operating system that dominates the world of PC users and has made Gates one of the world's wealthiest men. But the Indian politicos know he's rich because he figured out a way to make lots of money from that mysterious thing called technology, and they want him to work the same magic in India.
On Nov. 11, Gates arrived in New Delhi on his private aircraft on a four-day visit to India. Initially, it wasn't a corporate Microsoft visit -- it was to announce new funding for AIDS education and research in India, for which Gates has pledged $100 million over 10 years through the foundation he and his wife control.
STEPPING UP THE PACE. However, Gates turned the trip into a Microsoft visit, with his announcement of $400 million in investment in India over the next three years. It's mostly for his .Net (pronounced dot-net) project, even the $100 million of the total that he'll invest in Microsoft's software development center in Hyderabad, India's up-and-coming cybercity.
Clearly, Gates has realized that he needs to be more aggressive in his efforts to do business in India. Only a month ago, New Delhi announced that it would follow China's lead and use the open-source Linux operating system, a chief Microsoft Windows rival, in government institutions. This has grim implications for the Colossus of Redmond because Linux is much cheaper, in many cases free, compared to Microsoft's proprietary products.
Still, Gates surprised everyone with his investment announcement. And India had been feeling neglected by Microsoft after news earlier this year of its $750 million additional investment in China, compared with the only $150 million or so Gates has put into India so far. And while the Indian government isn't likely to change its mind about using Linux, Gates's plans and his many meetings with New Delhi officials could be fruitful for both sides.
PUSHING OUT PIRATES. While in India, Gates visited Delhi, Bangalore, Bombay, and Hyderabad. The highlight was his trip to Bangalore, city of computer programmers and Silicon Valley dreamers, where Gates is widely admired. He
received a hero's welcome from Bangalore's techies and was received with great fanfare at the office of the office of the state's chief minister, S.M. Krishna.
Krishna proudly informed Gates that the local government was the first piracy-free state office in India and that he was working on making the whole state piracy-free. That's terrific news to a company owner whose biggest headache in Asia is the profits lost to piracy.
Then it was Gates's turn to make a few pronouncements. At software developer Infosys Technologies, a strategic partner and customer of Microsoft's, Gates talked to thousands of engineers about the evolution of PC technology both in hardware and software, his .Net strategy, and how important collaborative work is to the future of software innovation. Infosys Chairman N.R. Narayanamurthy took him round the wide-open corporate campus and showed him with particular pride the company's famous videoconference wall with 24 simultaneous connections, the largest such facility in Asia.
TEAMING UP VS. IBM. Gates then visited Wipro, India's largest publicly held software services company and another Microsoft partner. Wipro recently struck a $10 million deal with the software giant to run Microsoft call centers. Gates addressed Wipro's developers, and as usual, he wasn't afraid to articulate some rather ambitious goals, including the idea that a Microsoft-Wipro pairing could beat IBM, that Linux-using bitter rival. "We [will] go to customers and say that Microsoft...and Wipro...is a very powerful combination as compared to the single-company approach IBM put forth. We can make the breakthrough together."
The adulation in Bombay, India's commercial and film capital, was as over-the-top as Bollywood itself, as India's local film industry is called. Gates stopped over at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, a nonprofit organization, where he promised to top the $2 million he had invested in a computer training institute for the poor -- using Microsoft software, of course.
The Free Software Foundation of India, a local nongovernmental organization that promotes the use of open-source software like Linux over proprietary programs, immediately pronounced that Gates was "indoctrinating" Indian children into using Microsoft and simply aiming at more monopoly. But in Bombay that day, not many were listening. It was a mob scene, with politicians hustling to stand on the same stage as Gates, bringing their wives to shake hands with the remarkably composed exec.
The crowd never stopped clapping. Gates could have been India's leading movie star, no matter that charisma and public speaking aren't his strong suits. The media coverage was adoring, with the business press carrying front-page pictures of Gates's social evening in Bombay with the city's glitterati.
ONE BUMMER. But leave it to New Delhi's politicians to make sure the world's richest man wasn't too carried away by all the hoopla. On Nov. 11, Gates announced in that city that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would be making a $100 million donation over 10 years for AIDS education and care. India has a growing AIDS problem, with an estimated 4 million HIV-positive cases. The government's entire annual AIDS budget is under $50 million, so Gates's $100 million will come in handy -- a gesture that has been greatly appreciated across India.
Still, when Gates quoted a U.S. National Intelligence Council report that India's HIV-infected numbers could grow to 25 million by 2010 if left unchecked, Shatrugan Sinha, India's Health Minister and an aging movie star aligned to the ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, promptly took umbrage. He accused Gates of spreading panic and said his Ministry would decide how Gates's $100 million would be put to use.
Of course that won't happen. Gates isn't giving his AIDS money to the government. And his fears about the potential for the epidemic are, unfortunately, probably well founded. It was the one unpleasant note in what was in every other way a deification trip for Gates in the land of the Taj Mahal. While some folks in India view Gates with as much distrust and disdain as many in America do, here the phenomenon of Bill Gates, the technology guru who can lead the way to prosperity and freedom, is still novel and an inspiration. By Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay