The Coalition of Competitors
By Kiran Karnik
Pages: 187 Price: Rs 399
The success of the Indian IT industry has spurred a great deal of interest among governments, industry groups, academics and business schools globally. Leading Indian software, hardware and design companies have become subjects of case studies, research papers and, of late, books. Industry honchos such as F.C. Kohli, Nandan Nilekani, N.R. Narayana Murthy and S. Ramadorai too have penned books - some reflecting on their own firms, others discussing larger issues. Kiran Karnik's book on NASSCOM joins this growing body of literature.
Perhaps no trade body in recent times has contributed so much to the growth of an industry as NASSCOM has done for IT. Its persuasive ways with policymakers and brand building exercises at national and international levels have held other trade bodies in awe. Karnik attributes this success to its professional, no nonsense approach and to the dictum of 'compete but cooperate', the book's running theme. An example of this spirit was the decision of top software firms not to poach on Satyam's staff after it went bust so that it could be revived.
Though the Indian computer industry has had a long history, it was only in the post-liberalisation era that the software industry took shape and started flourishing. It was an industry founded by first-generation, middle class entrepreneurs with no links with big business or industrial houses. To match this profile and unique needs, the nascent industry needed a new kind of association. NASSCOM was born to fulfil this very need. Luckily it found a new set of policymakers such as N. Vittal in Delhi and they struck a chord instantly. The association worked with the Department of Electronics and through it with other wings of the government on issues ranging from tax concessions to telecom reforms.
After the 'nice nineties' came the backlash at home and overseas, particularly in the US, with negative stories and sting operations on data leaks appearing in the media. The backlash in the West is attributed to fears of job loss and the protectionist bogey, but the book does not offer convincing reasons for the backlash in Karnataka other than blaming negative stories in the media. Similarly, no credible explanation is available on why the trade association, which had all leading politicians eating out of its hand in the late 1990s, failed to have its way on key issues such as tax holidays in mid-2000s. As regards lobbying in the US, the narrative is cursory and does not go beyond what is already in the public domain. It appears the government also gave a 'small grant' for funds needed by NASSCOM for lobbying in America.
This is a unique book, solely devoted to the functioning of an industry group. However, true to NASSCOM style, it has been hyped up. The book is subtitled The Story of NASSCOM and the IT Industry, but Karnik himself makes it clear that it is neither. The idea, he says, was not to write a biography of the industry or the association but just to analyse underlying dynamics and role played by the association in the industry's growth. While doing so, Karnik has stayed away from highlighting the work of individuals like Dewang Mehta in the formative years or providing data to substantiate various claims made. The temptation to keep the narrative easy and flowing makes it sound too simplistic at times and too sweeping and impressionistic at others. The author refers to prime ministers and chief ministers but gives no names or dates. So much so, even names of people interviewed or media articles referred to have not been given. At best, the book is recommended for those interested in getting a snapshot of the industry on the go.
The reviewer is author of The Long Revolution: The Birth and Growth of India's IT Industry
(HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009)