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Why Cisco’s John Chambers Is Bullish On India

Cisco CEO John Chambers at Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2014Cisco CEO John Chambers at Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2014
Former Cisco CEO John Chambers Photograph by Stuart Isett — Fortune Brainstorm TECH

Cisco’s John Chambers is bullish about India.

Fresh off announcing a $100 million investment into country in March that will be doled out over several years, Cisco’s executive chairman and former CEO helped lead the first annual West Coast summit for the U.S.-India Business Council this week in Silicon Valley. In September, Chambers became the chairman of the group, which was founded in 1975 to improve business relations between U.S. and Indian companies as well both countries’ governments.

During the summit held on Monday, attendees from various technology companies, lobbying groups, and law firms, gathered to discuss India’s growing economy and its impact on U.S. businesses. India’s GDP is currently valued around $2 trillion as of 2014, according to the World Bank, and the Indian government-created policy think tank Niti Aayog projects the nation’s economy will hit $10 trillion in 2032.

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In an interview with Fortune, Chambers said he took the position after meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and was impressed with Modi’s ambitious plan to modernize India’s technology infrastructure and spur economic growth. Modi’s unveiled an initiative in July that called for creating a national fiber optic network to provide broadband Internet for every citizen, bringing cellular connectivity to rural villages, and investing in India’s electronics manufacturing sector.

Chambers was swayed with Modi’s call to build India’s infrastructure and weaken some government policies that made it more difficult for foreign companies to do business. “Boy it takes courage, because in India probably more than other countries—maybe with the exemption of France—everybody is a critic at times,” said Chambers.

Indeed, Modi has his share of critics who claim he has been slow to deliver on his promises to reform the nation’s economy.

Regardless, Chambers believes Modi is a “visionary” who has what it takes to transform the world’s second most populous country. If India can modernize and become an economic powerhouse by adapting to technology, other countries could use it a model to follow.

The U.S.-India Business Council is focused on forging public and private partnerships between U.S. businesses and companies and government groups in India, Chambers explained. The idea is that big corporate investors in India like Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) can reap financial benefits as the country adopts more technology.

These companies, in addition to other giants like Qualcomm (QCOM) and Cisco (CSCO), have promised to help with upgrading the country’s Internet infrastructure and invest in Indian startups.

Chambers said that Cisco first bet on India in the mid-2000s and even created what he called a second company headquarters in the region. During that period, he said that India had great potential, but that it didn’t quite reach the inflection point he believes India is at now.

“It looked like everybody was saying the right things, but turning the right things into action was a struggle,” Chambers said.

Now, Chambers is swayed with Modi’s rhetoric, which calls for increased investment in manufacturing sector and greater use of software and data crunching to improve efficiency. He also agrees with Modi’s belief that India must train its workforce in new technologies and that a vibrant startup community can create jobs.

“You begin to see now, the elements of success starting to occur,” said Chambers.

Chambers believes that India’s big broadband projects will eventually connect India’s disconnected to the web, which would help with creating a bigger workforce for the technology sector. He said that half of India’s population is under the age of 26, and it’s that generation “that will use these technologies” enabled by an Internet-connected society.

“I think this will be a $19 trillion opportunity in the next 10 years,” Chambers said.

India’s current condition reminds Chambers of the United States in the 1990s when President Bill Clinton used several speeches to promote “the information era” and the rise of the Internet.

“I was actually on stage with [Clinton] at the White House, with Vice President Gore on one side and Clinton on the other,” Chambers recalled. “You talk about intimidating,”

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At the time, some people doubted Clinton’s argument that the Internet would be as big a phenomenon and predicted that the web would kill jobs, Chambers said. Instead, the United States ended up adding millions of jobs, he explained.