Copyright 2016,

Sanjeev Aga: Why Waste a Crisis?

Idea Cellular's Sanjeev Aga tells Forbes India that the mess in the telecom sector is actually an opportunity to make things better

Name: Sanjeev Aga
Leaving As:
Managing director, Idea Cellular
Career: Idea Cellular, Aditya Birla Nuvo, Blow Plast/VIP Industries, Asian Paints
Education: MBA from IIM Calcutta, Bachelor’s in physics (St. Stephens)
Interests: Reading, public speaking and occasionally, writing.

A recent survey by consulting firm KPMG said that the telecom and real estate sectors were the most corrupt sectors in the country. How does that make a veteran of this industry like you feel?

It hurts me. The sector indeed has a poor reputation. But it also contains some corporates whose competitiveness and standards of conduct are the best in India, and can take on any in the world. Comprehension levels about the sector are low, and people are unable to distinguish between good and bad. This is an occupational hazard, and one learns to ignore what is nonsensical, but it is not a good thing. The better telecom companies are secretly admired, but in the public they become everyone’s favourite punching bag.

Any ideas how things can be made better?
Telecom policy should be made by a top-notch specialist regulatory body, with a top-notch specialist tribunal as a counter point. And the regulatory body should write out larger principles from which the nuts and bolts of policy logically follow. The umbilical cord between the ministry and these bodies is incestuous, and must be snapped. If you ask me, nothing like today’s crisis to create a Satyam-like interim ‘wise men’s’ supervisory set-up and clean up the mess. Why waste a crisis? But that does not seem to be happening.

From a management perspective, you have seen telecom evolve since 1998. How would you describe the experience?
I joined this sector in November 1998. Some persons describe telecom as infrastructure sector, others as a marketing sector, or a services sector, a technology sector, innovation or IT sector. But I think telecom is the ultimate ‘management’ sector. Like in a five-day Test match, every skill-set is stress-tested, against some of the world’s smartest companies.

People may not know it, but Idea is among the top 10 telcos in the world in terms of size of operations. Bharti and Vodafone are bigger. This is a seriously competitive sector.

A lot of firms entered the sector but only a few have been able to succeed. Why?
I think this sector has enormous competitive barriers. In 2007, some people mistakenly thought that the competitive barrier was a piece of paper — a licence. This sector has some of India’s most outstanding companies and I say this after having worked for 38 years across multiple sectors. So, these stronger firms have become razor sharp in terms of competitive ability. Competitive barriers are such that only the very brave will now consider a new entry.

And to top it all, Idea was not the largest or the most profitable in the sector…
Four-and-a-half years ago, when the Birlas took over this business we were a marginal and a regional player and losing share of market. We set out to change all that, and these years have been like a sustained sprint of capability building. In our brand positioning, we chose not to drum-beat tired attributes like network or product features. We may not have been the biggest, but that did not stop us from thinking like a champion. Someone remarked that our USP was in the mind-set.

So what next?
I don’t know. I have worked non-stop for 38 years, and it has been great fun. I feel very fulfilled. In the future, I would not like to do a full time CEO role, but I would be happy if I could add value to people or projects I like. I would also like to read, and sometimes write.