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Lunch with Rajiv Chandrasekhar PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 20 September 2005 00:00
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I'd have been a biker if I wasn't in telecom

 

With one Cessna 172 and a P68 that he flies once a fortnight, a Harley Davidson, a Lamborghini and a Ferrari that he drives early in the morning on the Ring Road in Bangalore on weekends since he likes “to feel the wind in my face”, BPL Communication’s chief Rajiv Chandrasekhar is not your run of the mill businessman.
 
Nor is he your average sports enthusiast, though he has Michael Schumacher’s overalls in an airtight case “so you can even smell his sweat” and the helmet Ayrton Senna used in the crash before he died. Chandrasekhar was part of the original Intel Pentium team and even has his initials etched on all 486s to mark his contribution, writes Sunil Jain.
 
So how come you still have two phones when you don’t have a business anymore, I crack as a 15-kilo lighter Chandrasekhar walks into The Oberoi’s rooftop Chinese restaurant in shirtsleeves — the trademark oversized blue blazer, to hide the ever-increasing girth of his telecom days is gone, though the nervous habit of covering his face while talking remains.
 
Yeah, I know, he counters, just hoping someone calls me on at least one. On cue, the phone rings, just once during the entire meal, and it turns out it’s a wrong number. “From a Hutch phone at that, so that just tells you”, Chandrasekhar makes a light reference to the company that’s just bought BPL Telecom for Rs 5,200 crore.
 
No longer as bitter as he was about fellow telecom players in the days he was waging a battle to prevent Reliance Infocomm a backdoor entry into the mobile business and they decided to settle instead, Chandrasekhar is ready to move on.
 
Chandrasekhar is acknowledged by most to have played a pivotal role in getting the cellular industry big breaks like the migration package in 1999, which lowered license fees dramatically.
 
A known techie who cut his teeth at Intel, if you exclude a three-month stint at Softech in India which made Fortran and Pascal compilers, he’s fully bought out two small tech firms he owned a part of earlier, “to occupy his mind”; and is readying a big infrastructure project, “to occupy body and soul”. His mother, he says, called him when the deal was through, and asked him not to waste the money!
 
He’s in the office everyday (the deal with Hutch allowed him to retain his Bangalore office) at 7:30 am, voraciously catching up on tech happenings like the major changes in the Voice-over-Internet-
 
Protocol space and, in the event, has little time for food. “We’re supposed to be knowledgeable about food here, aren’t we”, he asks, challenging me to sound just that. I cannot rise to the challenge, and we settle for dimsums (chicken and prawn for me, veg for him since he’s to go on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala soon), steamed rice, Chinese greens and prawns in garlic sauce (for me).
 
For all the wining and dining he did in Delhi while while schmoozing with politicans and putting on 18 kilos in the bargain, Chandrasekhar says he’s a non-foodie.
 
We get back to his emotional state when he sold out and the SMS he sent out to “friends and supporters”, and Chandrasekhar is remarkably composed now. “I always knew that the way to unlock value in this business was through mergers and acquisitions, so while the moment was emotional, it was always going to be this way,” he says, before taking pen to paper and explaining how, with very small capital (Rs 35-36 crore), he set up the telecom business and then sold equity at a premium to raise the rest — the idea’s to show that everyone, including his father-in-law, has come away smelling of roses.
 
Ironic that high finance should come so easy to Chandrasekhar since he admits “the first time I saw a balance sheet was in the US when my fiancé, a finance MBA, showed me... I asked her why assets and liabilities had to match!” Ironic also, since it was this inability to match the two, while he raced to ensure BPL networks were the most advanced in the country (they were the first to implement EDGE, for instance), that ensured Chandrasekhar had to sell his 11-year old business.
 
So why are you getting back into infrastructure, I ask him, given how the government picks the winners in this business through arbitrary policy changes, as Chandrasekhar’s witnessed first hand? Is it because of his extremely close political networking — he’s celebrated birthdays with former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foster family, and the current National Security Advisor M K Narayanan is his uncle.
 
And how come he didn’t win the Infocomm battle if he is so networked, even though it was his battle which ensured Infocomm and the Tatas had to shell out Rs 2,700 crore to go fully mobile? “I never won the big battles because I got into the political economy after I got shafted”, he says disarmingly, ‘but one or two people did deliver... remember, when we began, DoT wouldn’t allow us to connect with their networks, revenue-share license fees, they opposed everything... that got resolved.”
 
He doesn’t react to the statement that it was political intervention that prevented ICICI from taking over his company when payments were overdue.
 
As we wind down the meal with the predictable Chinese desert of date pancakes and ice cream, Chandrasekhar can’t resist a crack at fellow telecom czars who’ve changed seven partners, each time getting a better deal, while he’s had the same partner since 1994.
 
“Maybe I’ll get a halo in heaven... but let’s face it, different people have different ways of dealing with situations,” he says, and leaves it at that. The talk shifts to whether the government should have given Intel the concessions it wanted to set up a wafer-packaging unit — he’s not certain since Intel did a wafer-packaging unit (this is akin to assembling of phones, he says) in Malaysia in the early 1990s, but never set up a full fab which, he insists, is worth dying for.
 
He offers parting advice on the new PDA-phone I’m looking at and, like any other techie, suggests a Symbian architecture instead of a Microsoft product — “It works well when it’s doing nothing... the moment you stuff things in it, and expect it to work, it doesn’t!”

 

 

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