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The irony of Modi govt's mega start-up show

Last updated on: January 12, 2016 10:46 IST

Instead of business ideas being the product, it is the wonderful government initiatives and the great startup ecosystem that is the product, notes Debashis Basu.

In the mid-1980s, a gentleman called Partha Ghosh used to make frequent trips from Tokyo to India, mainly West Bengal.

He carried with him many proposals to usher in Japanese investments in the state. He was a Bengali, a hometown boy who had made it big, a partner in the Tokyo office of global consulting firm, McKinsey.

Mr Ghosh exuded hauteur, thanks to his stellar academic record and his professional accomplishments.

He could walk into the offices of Writer's Building, the state secretariat, at any time. And yet, his meetings with a bunch of dhoti-clad comrades went nowhere.

In one such trip to Calcutta, possibly in 1986, I interviewed Mr Ghosh over breakfast in the only decent hotel in the communist citadel at that time - The Oberoi Grand. Mr Ghosh rattled off the numerous projects he offered West Bengal and how they could transform the state. I mentally totted up the project costs and asked him tentatively: "But where is the money for all this?"

I have never forgotten his reply partly because it opened my eyes to the huge difference in perspective between a frugal, middle class person like me and a five-star dealmaker like him. His brusque and dramatic answer: "Money is never the problem. There is too much money in the world."

This statement is, of course, true in the circumscribed world that he inhabited: stitching together deals between investment banks, foreign multinationals, multilateral institutions and governments. If the governments were on board, money was never the problem.

It was the politicians who could not use it, trapped in the anti-business positions of the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Ghosh left McKinsey, started his own boutique firm Partha S Ghosh & Associates, wrote a column for a business magazine - but his visits to India reduced.

What went wrong? To use tech marketing lingo, there was no product-market fit. Mr Ghosh's product was a complete misfit for the market he was addressing.

The comrades were slowly getting converted to the good things of life but had no sense of how the economy worked.

They had no intention to stop exploiting the "hopes and dreams of the downtrodden and the proletariat."

This meant they remained hardcore statists, determined to keep out foreign capital and even Indian capital no matter that it is businessmen who create productive jobs.

How times have changed. The world has even more money now. And far from having to be wooed, the government is putting on a mega show on the 16th of this month, for which the poster boys of the tech world - like Uber founder Travis Kalanick and SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son - will be in Delhi.

India is now a great startup nation is the message, and so bring in your capital and get going. But notice the irony. Instead of the government being the market, it is global capital and talent that is the market on 16th January.

Instead of business ideas being the product, it is the wonderful government initiatives and the great startup ecosystem that is the product. Once, again, it will work, if we have a good product-market fit. Do we?

What has really changed in the business climate, forget "startup ecosystem", over the years?

Are businessmen admired as job creators in a country where 300 million people are still below the poverty line? Have politicians started to see businessmen as their most important constituency and started helping them in every way they need to run clean and competitive businesses?

Have the number of laws to set up, run and close down businesses, reduced drastically?

In lawless states like West Bengal and UP, have the top local leaders even taken the first step to keep daily political thuggery from the daily work of government and business?

Is the law about Uber unambiguous and identical in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai? If a business paper has quoted him correctly, DIPP Secretary Amitabh Kant said "the idea is to see how government will keep itself away (from startups)".

This is a rather convoluted pitch for anything. If the government seriously keeps out of business, the business world will know about it at a lightning speed; there would be no need for rock show-like events.

Tech-marketing experts say if you are not sure that you have a clear product-market fit, don't go all out to publicise it. Do a soft launch and eagerly court every scrap of feedback that will help you refine your product and take it closer to the market.

The founders and funders invited next week are living proofs of this "lean startup" strategy. None of them blew up money in self-promotion before their products became refined, because they know that unrefined products launched with blasts of mega publicity usually crash and burn.

Therefore, the irony of their presence in the government mega show of the 16th cannot be missed. Three decades ago, the government was aloof.

Now, it is hyperactive. Will we have to wait for another 30 years for it to simply get off our backs so that genuine businesses thrive, which alone can attract startups?