I called Mr Naidu: Here is what the man who infused life in the IITK Alumni group really thinks

On 9th August, around noon, my friend from IIT Kanpur sent me a text message: “You have to see the IITK Alumni Association group on Facebook.”

I already had. No one who is a part of the group could have possibly ignored it — unless Facebook’s algorithm thought otherwise. It was unlike anything else I had seen in the group. Ever.

I am talking about posts from Mr. Naidu Bogineni, a 1982 alumnus who pursued his MTech in material science from IITK.

IIT Kanpur

On Thursday, Naidu announced his nomination for the upcoming election of the President of the IIT Kanpur Alumni Association.

His goal, in his own words, is “to bring the augmented reality and IoT for the day-to-day business of the Alumni Association, IIT Kanpur”. His motto: “bring the technology to the doorsteps of common man in India.” He donated $100 to the Alumni Association and suggested every alumnus should donate either Rs.1,000 or $100 to the fund.

I would not have been writing this story had his posts ended there. That was just the beginning. The posts turned provocative, comments outlandish.

He believes IIT grads are not doing enough. “I observed that most of IIT B.Tech graduates with their arrogant behavior are not doing great job in the industry compared to other engineering college B.Tech graduates. Er. Satya Nadella is an example. I will try to solve this issue, if I become the President of AA,” he wrote in the group.

More: “This FB group is infested with bunch of jokers! Not useful for IITK in any sense.”

And then, this: “I am a born leader because I am the eldest son of a middle class farmers family.”

Naidu’s original posts, unfortunately, have now been deleted. That makes it difficult for me to articulate the passions he had enthused — you just had to see it.

Some were outraged reading his views, others questioned if he was a real person (he posted his phone number details for people to check) or if the account was hacked.

Some were puzzled what he wishes to achieve (“But I don’t understand his politics…he literally is cutting his votes.”), others called him a troll (“tired of Naidu Bogineni trolling around in this group.”)

Some wanted him to be removed from the group (“Can’t the admin of this group remove this guy Naidu Bogineni from the group or even report to FB and get this account closed?”), others disputed this (“Whether we like it or not, Mr Naidu is an alumnus of IITK, and thus has full right to be a part of this group of IITK Alumni.”)

But for most, this was plain fun (“No, please don’t stop it so soon. I just started having fun. Free entertainment is bliss!). Facebook is hardly this entertaining.

Wow. I don’t remember the alumni group being so active — ever. Barring the adorable archival photographs posted by our amazing alumnus Shirish Joshi (I wish I can write captions like he does), which are bound to make IITK enthusiasts nostalgic about their alma mater — the group has no life.

But Naidu changed that, albeit temporarily. And that too on a very special day: 9th August. 58 years ago, in 1960, on this very day, the first set of IIT Kanpur lectures were delivered by Professor MS Bhatnagar at the premises of HBTI.

What was this all about? I was genuinely curious what he was up to. Naidu’s original post indicated he had some ideas. But things started getting bizarre after a slew of banal and amusing comments.

Naidu is not a privacy fanatic like I am. He posted his personal phone number in one of the comments. I didn’t waste any time. I called him.

I am currently based in New York City. Naidu lives in New Jersey, approximately an hour away from my home. With just a few weeks left before I leave this beautiful city, I requested if we could meet in person this weekend. But Naidu had other commitments. And so we chatted on the phone for a good 45 minutes. I couldn’t contribute much. I spoke for five minutes max.

What makes Naidu a “born leader”, as he had claimed? “I donated $100. I asked you to donate $100. What’s wrong with that? I am saying I am a leader. I do things first and ask you to follow me. There is nothing wrong. And I made it in a little fun way. These people bombarded me on that.”

“My intention is not to hurt anybody,” he said, adding, they keep “talking on unnecessary things which are useless. I want to change that tradition. That’s why I am a little bit sarcastic but it doesn’t mean I don’t like these people,” he said. “I am talking serious things, they are commenting smiley faces. That is ridiculous.”

That alumnus should “donate to the institute something every year” is only one of the many hardly held beliefs of Naidu.

What else? He thinks IIT graduates are not realizing their full potential. Naidu’s beliefs are based on his personal experience working in numerous engineering sectors. “I never find IIT graduates there. Most of them are from private colleges. They are doing a very good job. They know their limitations, they are working hard to learn new technologies.”

How representative that statement is, I am not sure. But Naidu is not the only one to make that observation.

In 2013, when veteran journalist TN Ninan, now Chairman of the Business Standard newspaper, visited GE’s research facility in Bengaluru, he found “none of the top team of twenty engineers took his first engineering degree at any of the prestigious IITs,” he wrote in book Turn of the Tortoise. The man in charge, Gopichand Katragadda told Ninan that “they regularly recruited from the second-rung engineering institutes in the country, the better graduates of which are substantially cheaper while being almost as good as IIT graduates.”

This point leads to Naidu’s major concern: why don’t IIT graduates pursue engineering? Why do they opt for management or civil services or other businesses, he wonders.

I have had this conversation numerous times. But for Naidu, this is extremely important. To understand his position on this issue, consider his views about the billionaire investor and entrepreneur Vinod Khosla, an alumnus of IIT Delhi who founded Sun Microsystems in the 1980s. Naidu is not impressed with Khosla. Why? Because after studying engineering at IIT and Carnegie Mellon University, Khosla got an MBA from Stanford.

MBA, arguably the most polarising three letter word in the IIT fraternity. MBA — meaning business, meaning management.

“He did his MBA from Stanford as a businessman, he collaborated with Electrical Engineering Ph.D. students and co-founded Sun. But not as an engineer — that’s what bothers me,” Naidu said. (I was speechless!)

Naidu wants IIT graduates to be like Google founders — start world-class tech companies from what they have learned in their engineering courses.

“I want my IIT Kanpur students thinking on those lines, not like Khosla. That spirit is missing. Why don’t they cultivate that spirit from day one? That’s what I will bring in if I become the president of the alumni association.”

He repeated what he wrote in his post. His dream to bring Augmented Reality and IoT to the day-to-day business of common man; his vision that engineers should bring technology at doorsteps of the common man; he wants to bring semiconductor companies to start companies near river Ganges.

As I was hearing all this, I began wondering, how would he react when I will break the news to him that I am a journalist. After all, with his framework, I am also a part of the problem — an IITian who is not tinkering with machines.

That moment did come. “So what do you do?” he asked.

“Sir, I am a journalist. I use data to tell news stories,” I said, with some hesitation.

But there was no awkwardness. We didn’t talk much about my profession. We did discuss the “data” part a bit. Maybe he was glad that I cared enough to call? I don’t know.

If you ask me, my judgment about Naidu is that Naidu is very judgemental. I didn’t find his posts or comments offensive, but neither do I like the larger-than-life sermon on what individuals IITians ought to do.

His aspirations appear to be rooted in the nostalgia of the India in pre-liberalisation era. That was clear when Naidu recalled how “90% of the graduates would go for MS and PhD in the US”. Not anymore, and he wants to change that.

Sure, older alumni can educate us what IITs were. But you need to talk to the younger lot to understand what IITs are. For me, IITs are “more than anything else, institutes that give wings to the aspirations of the rising middle class. Not the hub of engineering marvels or scientific breakthroughs,” as I argued here.

Naidu — and others — must acknowledge this reality before thinking about the road ahead. Whether this is how things should be is a different question; I am just stating where we stand now. And perhaps, to begin with, maybe we should articulate an answer to the most fundamental question in the clearest possible way: what is the purpose of education at IIT Kanpur? We can debate the rest later.

All said and done, Naidu’s posts have led to some serious discussion. One alumnus said, “one of the biggest problems with IITK is its inability to change and adapt with time, be it course content or goal alignment.” Another said we need “urgent revamp of curriculum and pedagogy”. Some have hopes from the new director: “We recently hosted the new IITK Director in the Bay Area where he presented his vision for IITK. We believe he will turn around IITK.”

Naidu continues to puzzle me. When we spoke on phone, he said he will keep quiet from tomorrow (Friday, that is) onwards. “I am a very busy person in this country and don’t have time to deal with all the idiots,” he said.

That didn’t happen. As I write this, Naidu is on — full on. I have no idea where this is heading.

Just because I appreciate the date 9th of August — first ever lecture of IIT Kanpur, guys! — I thank Naidu to infuse that energy in the group.

I do hope he understands the election is not for the director of the Institute, but for the Alumni Association, which has just so much authority. But from what I learned about him in that one phone call, he won’t be deterred. Whether he wins the election or not, I don’t think he gives a damn. Naidu is a dreamer.

“IIT Kanpur is only one IIT. I want to take care of all IITs. And all IITians. We can lead them to good things.”

“And even India,” he later said.

“I am not asking IITians to do things for others. Just go home and help parents and farmers to adopt modern approaches. In that way, I will change the fate of India. Do you have any problem? My dream may be ambitious. But what’s wrong in dreaming?”

Freelance Reporter. Programmer. I write words and code. More: samarthbansal.com

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