FC Kohli (1924-2020): A lifetime of service to the nation

November 30, 2020 6:00 AM

Widely known as the father of the Indian IT industry, Faqir Chand Kohli, the founder CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), was awarded a full scholarship for higher education abroad by the Indian government in the 1940s.

Faqir Chand Kohli (1924-2020)

By Jayant Krishna

Widely known as the father of the Indian IT industry, Faqir Chand Kohli, the founder CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), was awarded a full scholarship for higher education abroad by the Indian government in the 1940s. He insisted throughout his career that all he did in life was an attempt to repay that debt to the country. The IT-ITeS sector contributes 8% to India’s GDP and has captured half of the global outsourcing market. However, but for Kohli, there would either have been no Indian IT industry at all or it would have lost its early-mover advantage by a couple of decades.

Prof Clayton Christensen once told me at the Harvard Business School that the only time there has been disruptive innovation in the Indian software industry was when TCS successfully tested the onsite-offshore model, heralding the physical separation of the customer from the software engineer. FCK, as he was known, would depute almost 20% of TCS professionals on domestic projects that amounted to less than 10% of the revenue, since he believed it would be a shame if our engineers do cutting-edge work for global MNCs while India is deprived of their services. He regretted that despite his best efforts, the government did not set up a world-class semiconductor industry, the prime reason that India never developed an indigenous hardware industry. FCK’s another lament was the country’s failure to develop software in vernacular languages which caused the digital divide.

Post-retirement, FCK’s iconic work on adult literacy could have made India fully literate 15 years ago if successive governments had embraced it wholeheartedly. The Padma Bhushan, honorary doctorates, international recognitions and lifetime achievement awards came his way, but he remained largely indifferent to such felicitations.

As a young consultant during my early days at the Tata Group in 1994, I went to discuss a power sector restructuring project with him. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he had cut his teeth in the Indian power industry before moving to IT. Predictably, he told me in his characteristic style, “Young man, be better prepared next time if you wish to be better received.” Earlier, I had heard before a meeting with him that he always expected his associates to be prim and proper, dressed in a blazer without exception. I quickly borrowed one from a colleague, although this didn’t escape his keen eye. Once the meeting ended, he remarked, “Well, gentleman, that blazer doesn’t appear to be yours!”

I have always felt blessed to have received so much love and affection from Kohli and his consumer-rights lawyer wife Swarn. I travelled extensively with him in the UK and in India; with him sharing countless anecdotes. Once while at an airport store I was buying a wallet, but he insisted on footing the bill, remarking, “You are just like my son.”
For years, he sent a European music magazine to my son Ujjwal when he told FCK that he plays piano. He retired from TCS over two decades ago and I left TCS almost five years back, but we still get a basket of mangoes grown in Kohli’s Alibaug orchard, every year, without fail. One rarely gets such genuinely caring leaders and life-long mentors like him these days.

Just before the pandemic, I spent an hour with FCK in the same Air India Building room overlooking the Marine Drive from which he ran TCS as its longest-serving CEO. Till the age of 96, he worked and read voraciously in his office every day.

During Partition, his family migrated from Pakistan and settled in Lucknow. He remained grateful to the city that gave his family shelter. He completed BSc (Hons) in Electrical Engineering from Queen’s University, Canada, in 1948, then worked for a year at the Canadian General Electric and subsequently received his MS (Electrical Engineering) from MIT in 1950.

He returned to India in 1951 and joined the Tata Electric Companies where he helped set up India’s first load dispatching system to manage system operations. Spotting his brilliance, JRD Tata picked him to set up TCS in the late 1960s. Kohli’s obsession for technology, focus on training, customer centricity and process rigour became truly legendary—and the rest is history. I never really understood why India never conferred the Bharat Ratna on Kohli given his unparalleled contribution to the nation. Anyway, it was an opportunity lost for the government since FCK had risen above accolades and recognitions; he was in a different league of leaders.

(The author is group CEO, UK India Business Council, and former CEO, NSDC. During his 22 years with the Tata Group and beyond, he worked closely with Kohli)

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