New Delhi: Before Bhoopalam Gopalakrishna Mahesh, 46, became one of the technology brains behind the digital branch of the Narendra Modi campaign; before he started Oneindia, a news portal that provides news in seven languages to around 18 million people a month; and before he became a poster-boy of sorts of the short-lived Indian dotcom boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was, quite simply, the man behind Mahesh.com.
Non-resident Indians (NRIs), especially those with a long memory— rare in these attention-deficit times—still speak fondly of Mahesh.com, a website launched in 1995, that was among the first to offer India-specific news to NRIs.
It was a contemporary of Samachar.com, a website launched by Rajesh Jain, now Mahesh’s brother-in-arms at the Modi campaign, and who famously sold his family of websites to Satyam Infoway Ltd for the then expensive sum of Rs.499 crore.
Mahesh didn’t land any such bonanza, but when US-based technology entrepreneur of Indian origin Raj Kumar Koneru was looking for someone to launch a content website in India—urban legend has it that he did this after Rediff.com’s Ajit Balakrishnan refused to sell out to him—Mahesh was an obvious choice to head it.
Indiainfo.com was the result and while it didn’t go anywhere, Mahesh persevered, founding Oneindia in 2006, and being tapped by Jain to be the technological brain behind the Modi campaign for the national election that’s due by May.
The digital branch of the Modi campaign spans close to 10 websites, including news and opinions site niticentral.com and India272.com, a platform where those keen to see the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win at least 272 seats in the Lok Sabha (giving it a simple majority) can volunteer. It is managed by a team of 50 people, based in New Delhi and Bangalore, and headed by Arvind Gupta, a 43-year-old who is the head of the BJP’s information technology cell overseeing all its digital-Web, social and mobile properties.
Modi himself is reported to be the strategic brain behind the campaign, and Jain and Mahesh the technology brains.
Mahesh, based in Bangalore, goes about his task in his quintessential low-profile way. “He has always been a low-profile guy, but he is always guiding the team and making things happen,” says the Kannada language editor of Oneindia, S.K. Shyama Sundara.
That probably explains why, on most days, including when this writer met him, Mahesh is likely to be trawling the Twitter feeds of his multilingual news empire even as he mentors the technology team behind what may, perhaps, be India’s largest and most organized political campaign ever. “I am essentially a tech guy, but with a great love for language content,” says Mahesh.
Mahesh was born in Bangalore in 1967. His father was an official at the government’s department of telecommunications, a job that meant transfers across the country. One such transfer took the family to Patna, where Mahesh’s lifelong obsession with news began.
“When I arrived in Patna, I didn’t have any friends; I guess I must have been 10 or 11 back then. The only way to spend time was with newspapers,” he recalls. “Gradually, all I ended up doing was poring over newspapers, slowly picking up Hindi.”
Journalism, though, wasn’t a career option.
“My grammar was too bad and besides I was really good at math, something that I wanted to explore,” he says. Mahesh eventually ended up going to Sri Jayachamarajendra College of Engineering in Mysore to study engineering. “At the university, everyone was talking about computers, and my college, I think, was one of the few ones to have a computer in the country.”
He was hooked.
Mahesh graduated in 1988 and spent a few years working at the Indi an Institute of Science’s artificial intelligence lab, and at Sam Pitroda’s Centre for Development of Telematics.
In 1989, Mahesh decided he wanted to study in the US. “I was just part of the wave,” he says.
He landed at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, “the cheapest place I could find”, but was very clear “that I wanted to go back to India”.
After graduating in 1992, Mahesh began working at a 10-person start-up based in Frederick, Maryland, providing information technology services to the government sector. As the decade progressed and the hype around Silicon Valley increased, there was no inclination on Mahesh’s part to move there. “I wasn’t interested in doing that,” he says.
But he was interested in the medium. He created an online presence for the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in the greater DC area. And, surprised at the relative absence of information catering to the NRI diaspora, he started Mahesh.com that sourced content from India and featured articles on matters relevant to NRIs—the procedure to get an H1 visa; figuring out the closest Indian grocer in a Maryland suburb; the best long-distance call rates; the logistics of shipping stuff to or from India. Slowly, Mahesh became a household name among the NRI community in the US. “I could literally go to any NRI household and people would know me and welcome me.”
Mahesh was looking to expand when he met Koneru.
Back to India
Indiainfo.com was launched towards the tail end of 1999 and gained a lot of attention when Morgan Stanley acquired a 7.6% stake in the company for $11.6 million in 2000, valuing the entire company at about $150 million.
“We hired a lot of people and were very bullish,” says Mahesh. Towards the peak of the dotcom boom, Indiainfo.com had close to 900 employees.
One of those was Radha Radhakrishnan, who had moved from The Hindu Business Line, the business newspaper published by Kasturi and Sons Ltd. “It was a very big risk at the time to move from Business Line to work at a dotcom,” says Radhakrishnan, now a communications professional with the Azim Premji University.
“What convinced me at the end was Mahesh’s track record,” she adds, listing his technology expertise and understanding of content. He was already experimenting with content in other languages, Radhakrishnan recollects.
And he was among the first to realize that “online content need not be just news”, adds Moinuddin Ahmed, then a project leader at Indiainfo.com, now an associate director in a technology company he didn’t want to name. “Mahesh was always aware of the interactive nature of the Internet,” says Ahmed.
The dotcom boom burst in India in 2001-02. And Indiainfo.com bore the brunt of it.
According to news reports in Rediff.com and The Hindu, the company was burning Rs.4 crore a month and earning just Rs.22 lakh.
A proposed partnership with VSNL, then the monopoly long-distance telephony operator in India that would have brought millions of users to the website, didn’t materialize.
Indiainfo restructured, but for Mahesh it had lost the sheen that had originally attracted him to it. In 2005, he left. The site shut down soon after and the Indiainfo URL was sold to DB Corp. Ltd in 2006.
Mahesh wasn’t done with the Internet. In 2006, he launched Greynium Information Technologies Pvt. Ltd, an Internet services company that also ran Oneindia.com.
Sriram Hebbar is the chief executive officer of Oneindia. He is a self-described “sales guy” and has been with Mahesh for the past 13 years, since the Indiainfo days. Hebbar is a bespectacled, soft-spoken man who sits in an office identical to the one occupied by Mahesh exactly one floor below him. One side of Hebbar’s floor is dominated by a large caricature of him mouthing quotes such as “content is king”, “think numbers” and other phrases that urge the office to be more productive.
“Mahesh and I have gone through a lot of ups and downs together and so we have developed a close bond,” says Hebbar. The duo believed that the “vernacularization of the Internet would happen in India in a big way”, he says. “In 2010, we began to see the traffic across the tier II cities come online, that was when both of us knew that we were correct in our aims,” Hebbar adds.
Mahesh maintains that the only way for the company to make money would be to leverage page views that average around “360 million per month (globally) these days”. “We aim to be close to 1 billion by the end of 2015,” he says.
According to comScore, Oneindia attracts close to 7.5 million unique visitors in India and the total number of page views is 159 million.
Apart from the six news sites, Oneindia runs tech and lifestyle portals, gizbot.com and boldsky.com, both of which are also available in six languages.
In 2010, Jain’s netCORE Solutions Pvt. Ltd acquired Greynium. “Rajesh Jain and I knew each other since 1997, given the fact that the (number of) online entrepreneurs was so small that everyone knew everyone else,” says Mahesh.
It was Jain who convinced Mahesh to work with Modi.
Modi and Mahesh
Mahesh found himself in the headlines after The Times of India newspaper reported on 3 July 2013 that Modi had identified him and Jain to run his digital campaign.
Several urban legends have sprung up around Mahesh—some paint him as a digital mastermind controlling the entire digital Modi-for-Prime Minister campaign. Others see him as the man behind the BJP’s aggressive social media presence. The reality is much more prosaic, says Mahesh.
Niti Digital is promoted by Jain “to transform India”, and has teams across cities running niticentral.com, IndiaVotes.com and India272.com. Mahesh’s job is to mentor this team, he says. Mahesh is also the man behind the vernacularization of the Modi campaign, say three people familiar with the matter, all declining to be identified.
Mahesh himself is reluctant to provide more details of his involvement in the Modi campaign. He signed up, he says, because the Modi campaign was the first to reach out to him, although he says he is convinced “Modi will deliver and 2014 will be a unique election”. He has never met the Gujarat chief minister.
Mahesh points to a recent Google survey on the significant role the digital medium will play in this election as proof that the Internet will play an important role in attracting young voters this election year.
“You must also have seen the recent census data,” Mahesh says, referring to the number of young and first-time voters. According to the census, there are close to 150 million first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 22. “Getting them registered is the biggest challenge in this election. Technology will play an instrumental role (in doing this),” he adds.
“From my part, there are no expectations. I don’t want to be acknowledged or something, I just feel Modi can deliver good governance and if I can help in that, I am happy to do so,” Mahesh says.