Print This Post
28 April 2022, Gateway House

The Maverick Effect: The Inside Story of India’s IT Revolution

The rise of India’s software services industry has been oft-told. In this book, the author, one of the principal players of the industry, tells the story from the inside, of how Indian IT is leading to Indians aspiring to be first class citizens in a first class country run by a first class administration.

Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King's College, London

post image

For foreign government officials, visiting India in the 1990s and meeting senior officials in the ministries of New Delhi was always a pleasant experience. Indian hospitality was warm and meetings were accompanied by a cup of tea and biscuits, or even cake, served by a white-coated waiter. But in many ways it was also a journey into the past, in dusty colonial buildings with old fashioned files piled high on every desk, usually tied with red tape next to a whirring desk-fan which tried to compete with the summer heat. 

Much of this was a British colonial legacy overlaid by a heavy Soviet-style command economy and protectionist socialism which had existed since the days of Nehru. Nobody expected decisions to be made quickly. Sometimes corruption was suspected. 

But in the technology parks in Gurgaon (now Gurugram), Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru, a completely new and different India began to emerge in those years. Instead of dusty buildings there were bright, new glass-fronted office blocks with air-conditioning and open plan floors. The staff wore smart open-necked shirts and held meetings in small break-out spaces. Influenced by their largely American clients, senior managers sat with their teams both in the office and at the cafeteria. If anyone wanted tea or coffee they went to the kitchenette and got it themselves. Although everyone was polite, young men and women even questioned a boss’s judgement. There was no interest in anyone’s gender, religion or caste; just in what they could contribute to solving any given problem.

How did this happen and how did it happen so fast in a country which was almost a byword for bureaucratic delay? In New Delhi, the changes were attributed to the economic reforms of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh in 1991 which ended the Licence Raj. But a new book by Harish Mehta called The Maverick Effect: The Inside Story of India’s IT Revolution (Harper Collins, Gurugram, 2022) provides a real answer.

It is a remarkable story that combines the life of the author himself with the creation of the National Association of Software and Service Companies, or NASSCOM, the industry body created in 1988 by India’s young software companies, which enabled the IT revolution to happen. The story of how a small group of talented mavericks persuaded a skeptical government to liberalise an ossified system is quite remarkable. Mehta gives much of the credit to the young, ambitious, but complex personality of Dewang Mehta who drove himself to an early death by lobbying for the IT industry to be given space to develop. Even the battle to be given a share of India’s very limited foreign exchange reserves in the early 1990s was a herculean struggle, as was the idea of opening a data channel to the U.S.

The Maverick Effect is beautifully written and easy to read, and therefore accessible to both the general reader and the IT professional. There are arresting quotes throughout. One friend urged Mehta not to return from the U.S to India where he risked being “a first class citizen in a second class country under a third class administration”. (p.9). This, of course, only strengthened his determination to cut up his Green Card and leave Silicon Valley. However he did acquire from the U.S. his strong preference for meritocracy over privilege. 

Mehta attributes his patience in dealing with government opposition partly to his mother’s fervent Jainism, a response to the rigidity and subsequent “inequalities imposed by Hindu privileged classes” (p.92). At the time New Delhi regarded business as “greedy self-centred capitalists…grabbing profits while evading taxes”. (p.51). There was a similar attitude towards Intellectual Property (IP) and piracy. One official told him, “For centuries the West has looted us. Now it is our turn to reap the fruits of their labour” (p.148), implying that copy-catting IP was acceptable. But, little by little, NASSCOM won the arguments. Why would any foreign company invest in India if its IP would be stolen? 

There is a delightful incident of an official demanding to see the contents of a floppy disk and then putting a staple right through it to affix it to his report. And another where an official agrees with NASSCOM to set the excise duty on software at zero rather than ‘nil’. ‘Nil’ would have required higher-up approval, whereas zero was just a number. (p.52)

The author addresses the charge that Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) was just a case of “we do your mess for less” (p.134). Maybe that was how it started, but whole generations of quite humble young men and women have become skilled and aspirational, and are now able to offer global customers better back-office service quality as well as good value from India. Increasingly these BPO centres are becoming “Global Capability Centres” (GCC) (p.146), offering a range of skilled solutions to complex problems, far beyond the ‘mess.’ 

The author could have explained more fully the remarkable social changes which this revolution entailed. At first the IT and BPO workers were drawn from primary Indian cities, and later from smaller cities. Already now the demand is such that they are drawn from small towns after which they move to the new Technology Parks; where they can afford a moped and later a small car. Gradually a new middle class of millions of skilled employees has developed in India, imbued with a work ethic based on fair employment practices and meritocracy.

The figures are staggering. The Indian IT industry was worth $52 million in 1988 and $154 billion in 2017. (p.69). Eight out of every nine dollars of hard currency earned by India comes from IT (p.214). There are gleaming tech cities all over India with 1,000 development centres and a presence in 80 countries (p.216). It is no exaggeration to say that the IT industry, shepherded by NASSCOM, “arrested 500 plus years of downward cycle of the Indian economy” (p.170), as Mehta concludes. 

The Maverick Effect: The Inside Story of India’s IT Revolution, Harish Mehta, Harper Collins, Gurugram, 20 March 2022.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London and a former senior British diplomat. He later worked in the financial sector where he was a frequent visitor to Indian Technology Parks.

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact

© Copyright 2022 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

TAGGED UNDER: , , , , , , , , , ,