Bill Gates, the biggest thing in India since the Beatles

America's richest man has pledged $500 million to help fight AIDS and promote education on the subcontinent.

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Something happens to people when the world's richest man passes through a crowd.

At a photo exhibit at the regal Maurya Sheraton Hotel here, Bill Gates - the famous billionaire, philanthropist, and founder of the Microsoft Corporation - slid through the masses to view photos of AIDS patients. But for everyone else, the main attraction was, well, Bill Gates.

Hands were shaken, backs were slapped, and through it all, Gates wore the painful frozen grin of a Hollywood star at the Oscars.

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"Mr. Gates, you are my idea of the ideal man," purred one former Indian fashion model. "You are rich, and you are powerful."

He is also married, one hastens to add.

On his third tour of India, the $46 billion man with the poor man's haircut is causing a stir in Indian society that speaks as much about Gates's power as it does about India's ambitions to be a leader in a technological age.

It's an unlikely match: the world's richest man in one of the world's poorest countries. An American businessman in a country that has been as suspicious of foreign businessmen since the arrival - or invasion - of the British East India Company some 300 years ago.

But as unlikely as the match is, the attraction seems to go both ways.

"It's a mutual admiration society," says Chandan Mitra, editor of the Pioneer, a right-of-center daily newspaper here. "He's worshiped almost like a demigod. And it's not just about money. A lot of Indians feel that Bill Gates, by funding a development center in India, has made India a world information technology power. So this is India's way of saying, 'Thank you.' "

Gates has made a habit of showering India with praise. At one press conference, he noted that some 20 percent of his software developers and engineers are of Indian origin. At another, he spoke with pride of the new software development center he has set up in Hyderabad, the only site outside of the US where Microsoft has invested money for development.

People here still quote, with odd pride, an assertion that Gates made on a previous trip that South Indians are the "second smartest people in the world, after the Chinese." Had this come from anyone else, headline writers might have called for a revocation of his visa.

Officially, Gates's visit had two purposes. One was to highlight the growing problem of AIDS in India, which US government reports estimate could affect some 25 million Indians by 2010. For this effort, Gates pledged an astounding $100 million to various government agencies and charity groups, more than many developed countries give to AIDS research and treatment.

The other purpose is much more complex. Gates pledged some $400 million for basic education and computer classes, and for enhanced computer systems and training for Indian government offices. One piece of that package, called Project Shiksha, aims to train 80,000 teachers and 3.5 million students at public schools to use computer software - Microsoft products, of course.

On the surface, this looks like good corporate citizenship. Gates himself said, "My philosophy has always been to give back to society what you get from it." But analysts say that Microsoft's donations also could serve to put pressure on the Indian government, which recently decided to abandon Microsoft products for cheaper Linux-based software.

To avoid the Gates four-day juggernaut, one would probably have to stay in a far-off village. Even those readers of Indian newspapers who skip the front page for the glamour pages inside found out what Gates had for dinner (roast lamb, grilled prawns, black lentils, vegetable kebabs), what he found in his minibar (strictly Diet Coke), and what he did to relax (go online on his high-speed ISDN connection to check in with the office).

But while Gates may have rock-star status among India's large, well-educated middle class - which is equal to the entire US population, according to some Indian estimates - there are some neighborhoods in town where Gates is just another man in a suit, surrounded by an armed entourage worthy of a visiting US president.

Consider Gates's visit to the Naz Foundation, a local charity with numerous programs to counter the spread of AIDS. There was no red carpet, no elephant ride, no cheering crowds or swarming paparazzi. Just one lone AIDS activist, Anjali Gopalan, who came out of the unmarked office, dabbed a red-paste mark on Gates's forehead, and brought him inside to talk with AIDS patients.

And for half an hour, the world's richest man, sitting cross-legged on the floor, pondered a problem beyond the realm of silicon and software.

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