'Indian IT Isn't Hype at All'

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The fiery former spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, Pramod Mahajan, was named to head the Ministry of Information Technology last November when India became one of the few nations to create a separate IT ministry. He recently met with TIME Asia correspondent Meenakshi Ganguly in New Delhi. Edited excerpts from the interview:

TIME: How much of the excitement around Indian IT is hype? Pramod Mahajan: I don't think it is hype at all. We have gone through the Green Revolution, where we made ourselves independent in food. In some parts of the country we had what we call the White Revolution, where milk production was increased. But I don't think there has ever been any kind of revolution that has set everybody on fire like the IT revolution.

TIME: Does India have the kind of infrastructure needed for an IT revolution?

Mahajan: It depends on which way we look at it. If you ask me to look at it negatively, I would say, "PC penetration is not even 0.5%. Telecoms penetration is not even 3%. We don't have 24-hour uninterrupted electricity supply." But then, our strength is not in world-class telecoms or power infrastructure. It is in world-class human resources. Today, the people who are working in Silicon Valley are 100% made-in-India.

TIME: But having human resources won't solve the infrastructure problems.

Mahajan: Dismantling our old system overnight is neither possible nor desirable. But we need to improve telecoms and power. At a policy level, the government has taken every decision that was needed. Now give us a couple of years to implement them.

TIME: Still, the IT industry hasn't affected the lives of the majority of Indians.

Mahajan: I agree. Sometimes people think IT is an English-speaking, lite, urban, southern-Indian phenomenon. But when I move around in the villages, people say: "Please do something about IT for us." Ministers ask me for IT parks -- half of them probably don't know that there are no trees, just chips. That is the yardstick of a revolution. The challenge before the IT industry is not exports worth $50 billion: that's going to happen anyway. The real challenge is to ensure that IT-enabled services reach the people. Within the next three or four years we should be able to show to the last man on the street that IT has improved his standard of life.

TIME: Do you agree that if the government had interfered with IT in the early years, this revolution would have failed?

Mahajan: I have often repeated a joke that India has been successful in the IT and beauty industries because there were no ministries involved. But nowhere in the world can you develop an industry without government or the law. Who would talk about visas with the Germans? Who would sign memorandums of understanding with China? Who would ensure that Japanese was taught in India so people could do business with the Japanese?

TIME: Will India be able to keep up with the competition?

Mahajan: Competition was a word used in the Old Economy, which was capital intensive. The New Economy is knowledge based, and cooperation is now the key word. That is why the Chinese Minister of Information Technology recently proposed to us a memorandum of understanding, which we signed, to exploit other markets. This was unimaginable a year ago.

TIME: So you're confident India will be a world power in IT?

Mahajan: I don't want to use the word "superpower." That was a term used during the Cold War, and I am not at war with anybody. We missed the Industrial Revolution because we did not have enough capital. Now we don't want to miss the IT revolution, because we have enough knowledge capital.