by Tom Field

Profile: PowerPoint Prophet N. Chandrababu Naidu Stakes His Career on the Promise of IT

Dec 01, 20007 mins

For a while there late this summer, it looked like India’s laptop minister might crash.

We’re talking about N. Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Now serving his second four-year term as this state’s top elected official (a role somewhat similar to that of a U.S. governor), Naidu has staked his career—and his state’s future—on the promise of IT. He was the first Indian politician to “discover” the IT industry, if you will, and when he was first elected in 1995, he came to office with a penchant for PowerPoint presentations. Hence, the nickname laptop minister, which has stuck to Naidu as tightly as he’s stuck to his agenda of promoting IT as a means of eradicating poverty, creating new jobs and elevating India from its “developing nation” status. Under Naidu’s leadership, Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, has emerged as a global IT hotspot. When Bill Gates looked outside the United States to build Microsoft’s first offshore development center, he built it in Hyderabad.

When President Bill Clinton visited India this year and wanted to talk technology, he met with Naidu, the self-proclaimed CEO of Cyberabad.

And yet his critics argue: What good was IT last August when Andhra Pradesh was hit with its worst monsoon rains in 50 years? Twenty-four centimeters of rain fell in 24 hours, smashing Hyderabad with a deadly flood that killed 142 people. To his credit, Naidu was at the forefront of the flood relief effort, and he didn’t duck any of the questions about why his vaunted IT didn’t do a better job forecasting the weather. Still, the lingering image of that tragedy is a newspaper editorial cartoon that depicts Naidu and his laptop alone in a lifeboat, adrift in a city called Hydrobad.

Just days after the flood waters receded, Naidu was swamped with the tide of political discontent over his recent power tariff increase. Emotions erupted into an Aug. 28 riot that injured 180 people and killed four. Again, Naidu’s IT agenda was a hot topic in the post-riot discourse. Not only was Naidu forced to defend his public policy, he also had to protect himself from the threat of suicide squads that supposedly were gunning for him.

When CIO caught up with Naidu in mid-September, it was within the fortified walls of the Andhra Pradesh State Assembly Building in Hyderabad, where the chief minister was surrounded by armed guards, plainclothes security and bomb-sniffing dogs. But not even those confines, nor the challenges that necessitated them, were enough to shake Naidu’s faith in IT as the vehicle to free India from the tyranny of poverty. “IT cannot do everything,” Naidu says in his thick, Telugu accent, the native dialect for Andhra Pradesh. “IT can help eradicate poverty, and people are saying, ’Why can’t we do it now?’ But that is impossible. Nations are built over a period of time. For everything, there is a gestation period.”

Ahead of His Time

Naidu, 50, discovered IT in 1985, when, as the newly appointed general secretary of the state’s Telugu Desam party, he got his first PC and set about reorganizing the business of public policy. As he rose through party ranks, Naidu became (continued on Page 164) (continued from Page 160) known for both his computer-generated presentations and his pursuit of streamlined government processes through IT.

Already dubbed “laptop minister” by the time he was elected chief minister in 1995, Naidu quickly learned just how meager the state government’s general IT awareness was. For example, soon after taking office, Naidu asked an assistant whether his office was equipped for PowerPoint. “We’ll check,” he was told. That staffer soon returned and announced, “You have three PowerPoints in your office.” Puzzled by the answer, Naidu pushed for clarification. “See?” the staffer said, pointing to the office’s three electrical outlets. “Three power points.”

Around that same time, Naidu inquired how many PCs were in the state. The answer: 80,000. Realizing that number had to be off by more than a few thousand, Naidu probed. It’s true, he was told. Andhra Pradesh really did have 80,000 PCs—police constables, that is.

Obviously, much has changed since 1995. Naidu is surrounded by advisers and secretaries who understand and support his mission. As a result, Andhra Pradesh today is a model of Indian e-government initiatives (see “Takin’ It to the Streets,” Page 162), and Hyderabad has become home to dozens of IT businesses, schools and software development centers. Naidu has built a reputation for being business-friendly, promoting new incentives (free land, permits and tax breaks) for IT businesses that settle in Andhra Pradesh. Through healthy doses of policy making and self-promotion, Naidu has come to personify his entire nation’s development as an IT superpower. And he’s not shy about taking credit. “I have brought some psychological change [to India],” Naidu says. “Everybody in India thought, ’We cannot [succeed in IT]. We’re not America; we’re not Singapore.’ We have changed that climate. Now everybody thinks we can do it.” Naidu is quick to point out that he was the only politician promoting IT five years ago, and he’s quicker to point out that all Indian politicians are talking tech today. “When I initially began to focus on IT, many people thought I was pursuing an elitist agenda,” Naidu says. “Now everyone realizes the importance of IT for India’s future.”

Of course, not all Indians are happy with Naidu. Beyond the normal political opponents (and in India’s multiparty democracy, elected officials have plenty of those), Naidu is dogged by detractors who resent his prominence and minimize his efforts. “In a sense, what Naidu did was find a market niche that was unoccupied by other politicians,” says D. Prakash, IT secretary for the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. “He found IT was the flavor of the month, and he saw economic conditions where he could do something [with IT].” Of Naidu’s efforts to change government’s rules and provide special incentives solely to IT businesses, Prakash chooses his words carefully. “Some people can argue he was being entrepreneurial,” Prakash says. “Others can argue it was ridiculous.”

National Ambitions

Frankly, Naidu doesn’t much care what other states have to say. He’s focused on bigger and better things—perhaps with an eye toward running for national office at the end of his term in 2004. Increasingly, Naidu is focused on IT issues of national importance. As cochairman of the country’s National IT Task Force, he was influential in the recent decision to deregulate telecommunications, and his has been one of the loudest voices calling for bringing Internet connectivity and IT services to India’s remote villages. Although PCs are expensive and telephone lines are unreliable at best in India, Naidu points out that the country has 37 million cable TV subscribers who would benefit from some version of WebTV.

“Distance learning, telemedicine, e-government and e-commerce are all areas that can have tremendous impact on the lives of ordinary villagers,” Naidu says. “A farmer in a village can improve his earnings through accurate information on market prices, weather conditions and farming practices. The quality of education available to a villager can undergo a sea of change with access to educational content from the best schools, colleges and universities in the world.”

And yet the average Indian villager doesn’t necessarily share Naidu’s perspective on the life-changing potential of IT. Changing this attitude is Naidu’s current mission. That’s why he’s concentrating on new e-government initiatives in Hyderabad, on IT job creation throughout Andhra Pradesh and on improving the entire national telecommunications infrastructure. “I am confident that if we do these things, if people get a taste of [IT services], then they will want to go further, further, further,” Naidu says. “Everybody works sometimes for pride, but how to get that pride—how to motivate—that is the stage we are entering.”