Column : What TED didnt get about India

Written by Manjeet Kripalani | Updated: Nov 12 2009, 03:15am hrs
At the recently concluded TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Mysore, our junior foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor, spoke about how India would dominate through soft power. For soft power, you need to be connected. India has become astonishingly connected through 15 million cellphones a month. Its the empowerment of the underclass, said Tharoor. He continued with Indias diversity, its food, and with Bollywoods popularity in Dakar and Afghanistan. India, he added, loading on the Tharoorisms, is the nationalism of an idea, the history of an ever-ever land, the idea that endures differences and still rallies around a consensus. While it cannot be super-poor and a super-power, he concluded, the country has embarked on a great adventure of conquering those challenges.

It is unlikely that the vast number of Indians who are chronically worried about their daily bread will find their struggle a romantic great adventure the way Tharoor does. It was also strange for Tharoor to offer soft power as Indias only contribution to the future. Particularly when the venue of the talk was a demonstration of how hard our soft power has become.

TED India took place in Mysore, at the 377-acre software training centre of Infosys Technologies. It is the worlds largest training centre, with accommodation for 14,000 employees, classrooms placed within giant Corinthian columns, and a multi-media centre that rivals the Epcot Centre in Disneyworld. The roads and gardens on the campus are even better maintained than in Singapore. Software built this hardware.

If Tharoor did not notice it, nor, it seems, did the attendees at TED. Of the 1,000 global VIPs who descended on Mysore, the majority were westerners and non-resident Indians. Many had come to India for the first time, and the experience in Mysore was painless. This was the first TED in India, and the fourth held internationally. The title was promising: TEDIndia: the Future Beckons. On the Mysore campus, Indias future had already arrived.

It did not reflect in the programming of TEDIndia. The idea of TED is unique. Brilliant new minds who expound their futuristic ideas in 18 minutes to a sophisticated celebrity audience, interspersed with entertainment, music and some socially responsible talk. This TED conference was more Bono Saves the World than either Technology or Entertainment or Design. No soft or hard power, but powerlessness.

The only tech brilliance on show was the augmented reality process of MIT grad student Pranav Mistry and his Sixth Sense programme, and a local geniusthe rest all came from the Westwho used similar technology to recreate virtual tourism for Hampi. In abundance were those who had created charter schools in India, those who sheltered and rehabilitated the wretched and trafficked in society, those who recently discovered that cheap cellphones married to corporate social responsibility was the new cool.

It is noble, but it is not TED. For those fed on TEDs past, it was a let down. There is an incoherence with TED this time, says a veteran TEDster. It was supposed to showcase India and what the world can learn from India. Theres plenty to learn from India in technology alone. For example, India has the worlds largest conglomeration of software engineers, and therefore is one of the most powerful software testing centres in the globe. That has spawned entrepreneurs of its own. We also have the worlds fastest growing cellular phone market, as Tharoor reminded us. New technologies that cater to this market are blossoming, and those entrepreneurs are leading the global pack. None of them, however, were on display. From the audience reaction it was clear what people had learned: that India is still a poor country, and that their charity was welcome. Funds were emotionally raised for education and for helping to rehabilitate girls who are trafficked and abused in India. Many in the audience were bewildered, but many said it was part of the TED experience.

After 15 years of software revolution, of being at the frontier of globalisation through outsourcing, of making the most of virtual infrastructure, of cellphone egalitarianism, inventing the Nano and fighting for overseas market share with one hand tied behind our backs, is this, then, still the image of India that the Westand NRIscontinue to cherish and feel comfortable with

The valuable take-aways from TED India were buried deep inside something called the TED University Sessions, held in side classrooms early in the mornings. At a session held on Thursday, November 5, at 8.30 am and run by Reuben Abraham, an associate professor at the Indian School of Business, a group of people discussed the commercial potential of opportunities just above the bottom of the pyramid business model. The new discovery: that those who are still technically poor, have stepped beyond the bottom of the pyramid into its centre. Theres a new market being created here for high quality, low-cost products and public services.

In 2010, TED will move on to another country, and mantra. And India Its an open bet whether the country will be embracing a future visible on the Mysore campus, or still be in the same place, sadly conquering itschallenges, as Tharoor says.

The author, former India bureau chief for BusinessWeek, is executive director, Gateway House: the Indian Council on Global Relations