On a warm Thursday morning in New Delhi, Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi made a bold pitch for IT becoming the face of India, and, in the process, coined the Twitter-friendly phrase ‘India Talent (IT)’ + ‘Information Technology (IT)’ is equal to ‘India Tomorrow  (IT)’.

 “Citizens now have a direct say [in governance]. Earlier this was limited to once in five years or from one election to another. [The] Internet has truly empowered the citizens,” Mr. Modi said at the Big Tent Summit organized by online search giant Google last year.

 But was this pitch very bold, or, for that matter, even new? The Indian political class, after the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi administration, has certainly enjoyed talking about using technology and IT to boost economic growth and bring about development.  

 After all, the promise of technology-aided growth and development is an idea that’s easy to like because it feels intuitively correct and because it’s reassuring: more technology will obviously help in boosting growth, and better technology is something we can build and implement.  And thus you have the ‘connecting 2.5 lakh gram panchayats through broadband’ scheme and the ‘Aakash tablet’ project — which, while great buzzwords, are poorly constructed and implemented concepts with little to show for in the way of results. (The national optic fibre network (NOFN), for instance, has not only grossly overshot its budget but also looks nowhere close to being completed.)

 The greatest failures of the outgoing dispensation, with regard to IT and the digital economy, were most certainly its inability to bring broadband penetration to a respectable level, and its borderline negligent behaviour towards the start-up ecosystem.  

Sadly, the e-commerce industry has grown only on the back of foreign capital. Sadder still is the fact that some of the biggest e-tailers such as Flipkart and Snapdeal cannot deliver to Congress scion Rahul Gandhi’s constituency Amethi due to a combination of poor physical infrastructure and concern over security.

 There is little doubt that the UPA-led government viewed technology-aided economic growth through the narrow prisms of technological ‘solutionism’ — implementing technology for the sake of looking technology-savvy and hoping that growth will follow —  and fear.

 Will Mr. Modi be any different? One would hope — though the BJP’s manifesto and some of his past comments do indicate so.  

At a 2011 conference on e-governance, Mr. Modi spoke on how his administration adopted the use of computers way back in 2001.

 “Computers, in general, in government offices used to be like a bouquet. No one used to open it. It was like this for years, and there was a government notification that 2 per cent of your expense needs to be on IT. So, the computers were brought, kept on tables, and people used to focus on what cloth to put on it [instead of using it],” he said.  

 By implementing a policy that his messages would only be sent through e-mail, he was able to force his officials to use their computers.

 While the tale may or may not be completely grounded in fact, it is easy to spot the differences in language between Mr. Modi and the outgoing dispensation when it comes to technology and IT.

 The BJP’s manifesto, for instance, speaks of taking steps to modernise small traders and retailers — a task that is currently being carried about by Amazon, Flipkart and eBay — and making all schools and institutions e-enabled.  There are references to rural entrepreneurship and establishing ‘massive open online courses (MOOCS) so as to help working class people and housewives further their knowledge and qualifications.

 Most importantly perhaps, the manifesto speaks of setting up digital infrastructure and enhancing digital literacy — which are foundations that are necessary for projects like the Aakash tablet to succeed.

 While the manifesto does have its fair share of buzzwords — setting up of “high-speed digital highways, which really doesn’t mean anything — there appears to be a different perspective that could be good for India’s digital economy. Translating this into solid execution, however, will be the real test in the days ahead.

anuj.s@thehindu.co.in

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