Sam, son of a carpenter

Written by Nistula Hebbar | Nistula Hebbar | Updated: Feb 7 2012, 05:47am hrs
Satyanarayan Gangaram Sam Pitroda, a Gujarati born in Orissa, has been known as an innovator, the father of Indias telecom revolution and advisor on development and technology to a succession of Indian prime ministers. What he wasnt known as was the son of a carpenter, a badhai before AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi referred to him as such at an election rally in Uttar Pradesh.

Gandhis statement was meant to be a signal that he was ready to be as innovative with social engineering as Mayawati had been in 2007 with her rainbow coalition. But what does it mean for Pitroda As part of the Congress dais at the release of the partys vision document for the state, Pitroda appeared sanguine at the evocation of his caste status.

I am the son of a carpenter, that is an incontrovertible fact, he said when asked. While his caste status has not been well known, Pitroda has not shied away from expressing his personal feelings about this affiliation, not least in the book Caste in Life: Experiencing Inequalities, an anthology of personal experiences put together by D Shyam Babu and RS Khare. In this, Pitroda recalls a dinner where he and economist Bibek Debroy were present along with a German colleague. It was the German colleague who asked them both about their caste identity, the first time that Debroy, apparently was informed of the matter as well.

There has been widespread outrage at this reference to Pitrodas caste affiliation. Many commentators feel that it is an attempt to diminish Pitrodas considerable achievements to reduce him to being a backward icon rather than the tech inconoclast that he is.

Does it diminish Pitrodas achievements Pitroda was born in Orissa, but educated in his home state of Gujarat since his father wanted him to be acquainted with the values of Gandhism from an early age. Unknown to a young Pitroda, one of his school mates at Vallabh Vidyanagar was current Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, a fact which Modi recounted to astounded members of the Planning Commission during a recent meeting.

Pitroda soon left for the United States to continue his education in engineering, after which his extraordinary career in technology and communications took off. In 1975, he invented the electronic diary and had over 100 patents to his name. It was in 1984 that Indira Gandhi met him and persuaded him to return to India. In 1987, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi set him on his way to becoming the father of Indias telecom revolution. From 1987-2012, Sam Pitroda, not least because of his anglicised first name, remained a social cipher to Indians. For a society that is obsessively taxonomic, we were happy to not know who Pitroda really was.

Opinion is divided on what this means. For many it is a useless bit of information about a genuine Indian achiever, but for a role model-starved section of society he could well be a beacon of aspiration. The Congress certainly hopes so. If achievers from economically poor backgrounds can brag about a rags-to-riches storyline, then why cant Pitrodas story be sold in a different way.

What it reveals is Indias completely ambivalent attitude to caste. As a society we are governed by it in astonishingly ubiquitous ways, our elections are mostly fought on the basis of caste, a large part of our social sector policy is based on caste entitlements, and yet our Constitution says it is committed to ending discrimination based on caste. How will that happen, by singling out caste affiliations and ascribing a value to them or by ignoring caste affiliations totally.

In the story of Sam Pitroda, a man who started off as a technocrat and became known as the son of a carpenter, we have the microcosm of a conundrum.