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January 20, 2000


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Karnataka ministers start PC lessons at their CM's insistence. Keyboards in the cabinet
Karnataka ministers start PC lessons at their CM's insistence.

M D Riti in Bangalore

Until now, you might have only seen them toting those old rexine valises and files. But soon, you might get the chance to see politicians in Karnataka, especially those belonging to the ruling Congress party, carrying notebook PCs instead.

Email this story to a friend. When Chandrababu Naidu first started sporting a laptop PC and talking computerese, his political colleagues in the same profession in neighbouring Karnataka scoffed. Now that
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their own chief minister Somanahalli Mallayya Krishna has vowed that he will rule his state with IT, they are slowly and reluctantly coming to terms with the demands of Change and learning to use a PC.

The latest such politician is, surprisingly, Krishna's predecessor, J H Patel, 70, of the Dal, who is blamed for the sorry plight his party finds itself in in Karnataka. Patel, who had dismissively said that he couldn't distinguish between a computer and hardware, when he occupied the hot seat, now spends hours at his desk in his home in Dollars' Colony in Bangalore, at the keyboard of his desktop PC.

Like the typical new Net user, he is still at the stage of being hooked on e-mail and trying to reach his friends and relatives all over the world by tapping a few keys.

"I am not entirely comfortable yet in searching the Web," he admits, with the candour that he is always known for. "I am still at the stage of learning both about computers and browsing Internet." He explains that a friend taught him the basics of a PC and the Internet recently.

Is he now trying to prove he isn't some old fogey, showing that he is computer-savvy?

"No, it's just that I now have the time for it," he says earnestly. "I still do have a great many political commitments, but they still leave me a lot of spare time. When I was chief minister, my days were too full, although my colleagues were after me to learn even then."

He still insists that IT cannot really help improve administration or economic development.

"People should not just try to take the citizenry for a ride with a big image-building exercise about being PC savvy," he says scathingly, referring, of course, to Krishna and his constant use of computers.

Although Krishna has declared an infotech crusade of sorts, Patel's Dal government had already made some attempts to make its MLAs computer literate. Under the initiative of former assembly speaker Ramesh Kumar, about 60 MLAs had taken a one-week course in the use of PCs last year.

"My idea was to enable all these people to participate in video-conferencing, and have their own e-mail addresses for easy communication," Ramesh Kumar says now. Even the Constituency Computer Management System (C-Com) that Krishna talks about all the time was actually set up by Karnataka's IT department during the earlier regime.

Soon after Krishna started displaying his notebook PC in public, senior minister Mallikarjun Kharge, Krishna's closest rival for the chief minister's post, declared that he was coming to grips with the new technology.

"I am happy that my senior colleague is following in my footsteps, and I hope that he soon outdistances me," Krishna had said tongue-in-cheek, at that time.

Now, a couple of government departments and corporations are jointly preparing to place huge orders for PCs and notebooks. They are also trying to design a good introductory course in learning computers for legislators. Those who took the previous course complain that it dealt more with theory than with the practical.

Besides, each of them got barely 10 minutes of actual computer time in the whole course, and are still trying to figure out a mouse from a trackball, they say.

Krishna's legislators will now be given an option of choosing either a desktop or a laptop for their use. Krishna hopes he and his ministers can soon hold video conferences with nine DCs on a single screen, through multiple imaging. All the existing systems are to be upgraded to enable this.

Most ministers already have desktops installed in their offices in the state secretariat. But the systems are being handled entirely by their staff at the moment. Most departments are still feeding all the information into these systems.

Apparently, about 40 legislators have already signed up for this course, which might begin at the end of this week. The rest might add this to their busy schedules after the assembly gets into session, next month.

Meanwhile, Krishna himself loses no opportunity to further enhance his image of being IT-savvy and interested in anything to do with PCs and the Net. He attended the India launch of Microsoft Windows 2000 in Bangalore on Wednesday, and is personally overseeing the grand welcome ceremony planned for Singapore's premiere Goh Chok Tong, who will inaugurate the International Technology Park at Whitefield on Saturday.

If Krishna succeeds in making his entire government reasonably PC-literate, he might be able to convert his favourite word of the month, e-governance, into more than just a slogan or a catchword.

And he must be looking over his shoulder too, for the competition's catching up...

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