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Lord of the ringtones

These days a fisherman can make a call from his boat and negotiate the price for his catch with wholesalers, writes Kumkum Chadha.

india Updated: May 17, 2007 23:49 IST

These days a fisherman can make a call from his boat and negotiate the price for his catch with wholesalers. Rather than being exploited by middlemen, he has the power to decide when to move his boats in or out of the sea; a Doppler on a mobile can help a farmer get advance information about weather conditions. Today, everyone and everything is just a phone call away.

Meet the man who made this possible in India: Sunil Bharti Mittal. According to University of Pennsylvania’s Dr Francine R. Frankel, Mittal “represents a success story associated with the American dream… become the Indian dream”. Mittal is the founder of Bharti Enterprises.

His God is a guardian angel who appears whenever the chips are down. Mittal, popularly known as the Airtel man, stops every morning at a temple without fail. “Even if I am running late, I spend three minutes at the temple,” he says. He would, if he had the opportunity, spend more time at the temple because he enjoys this communion. It was years ago that he struck a deal with God. “Steer me and I will turn vegetarian,” he had vowed. A tough call for someone who loves eating meat.

This pact started when he was struggling for a licence to import generators. “It was a do-or-die situation. I turned to God and prayed hard for the licence. I promised that I would turn vegetarian for a year if he got me what I wanted,” he says. The next day when he reached the government office, the manager invited him for lunch: “I didn’t believe it. I thought he was match-making for his daughter”. At the end of the lunch, Mittal got the licence “minus the daughter”.

If you ever break bread with him and find that he is eating vegetarian food, understand that a new project is on the anvil. His friends often ask him: “Vegetarian or non-vegetarian?” His answer is the clue to the status of his businesses. Ask Mittal the risks he has taken and he will tell you that the greatest one was when he promised God that he would remain a vegetarian till the time he got his own cell phone. “There was no deadline for this. If it did not happen, I would have remained a vegetarian for the rest of my life,” he says.

But it did happen in 1992 when Mittal got the licence and within three years he launched mobile services in Delhi. When the Government announced the new telecom policy in 1996, which opened the gates for bigger players to enter the market, 22 out of the 25 operators failed to survive. Some collapsed and others merged with the giants. Mittal’s Bharti survived, and helped its founder to remain a non-vegetarian. While Airtel goes about connecting people in remote villages, Mittal banks on his connectivity with God: “Every time I am hit, I sense a protective ring around me,” he confesses.

He likes to keep this relationship under wraps for fear of the evil eye. This is the reason why he keeps a low profile. Ditto his wife, Naina, who to quote Mittal is “constantly in prayer mode”. Post-Padmashree, the couple attended some select social events. Family connectivity is done by a “programme docket”. “My family knows what I am doing, or who I am with. They read about my business in the papers everyday. Stress begins when one doesn’t know where you are coming from after midnight,” says Mittal.

Till the time he hit the “jackpot”, Mittal was known as Congress politician Satpal Mittal’s son. He started out very early in life doing anything and everything to make money: be it manufacturing crankshafts for bicycles, importing gensets or marketing push-button ‘Beetle’ telephones. As a boy, he had mastered the art of guessing question papers right: “Of the dozen-odd questions we were given in college exams, we had to get five right. The weak students would ask me for the magical five questions. I was rarely wrong”. Yet, he flunked the mathematics exam. Though algebra and geometry are still a nightmare, in business maths, Mittal is the numero uno. That apart, he flew planes for Rs 14 an hour and hung around in Ludhiana, his hometown. A “measurement, milestone and closure man”, Mittal assesses everything on a scale of ten. As for milestones, his were a Fiat car and an apartment for starters. He abhors talking heads and long meetings. “Cannot afford a bad closure of the day. To sit in a meeting minus an outcome is bad news,” he says. Mention a Delhi Development Authority land auction and Mittal is all ears. He remembers how he negotiated a deal in Nathupur village, located somewhere on the periphery of Delhi. “I heard someone was selling a plot of land at Nathupur. I met the owner and he said he was willing to sell 100 acres. I went to the nearest tailoring shop and borrowed a two-metre measuring tape. With that I measured 100 acres. It took me hours, but I did it,” Mittal says. Even today, he checks out the papers whenever there is any news about land bidding. “You have moved on from cheap, pahar land or borrowing the two-metre tape from a tailoring shop,” he reminds himself constantly.

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First Published: May 17, 2007 23:25 IST