The Indian political class often uses technology-aided development as a political talking point without actually executing anything.
On a warm Thursday morning in New Delhi, Prime Minister-designate 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 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.
Not only has the e-commerce industry grown on the back of foreign capital but, as a case in point, even today, 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% 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.
A different language
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 with regard to technology and IT.
The BJP’s manifesto for instance speaks of taking steps to modernize small traders and retailers—a task that is currently being carried about 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.
One of the more interesting points is what the BJP’s manifesto terms as “e-Bhasha’”—a national mission that would promote IT in Indian languages—if only for the fact that it would pave the way for allowing more and more of our non-English speaking population to get online.
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 Aaakash 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.
Whether any of this will translate into solid execution is anybody’s guess. And it’s not as if things will be picture-perfect over the next few years. The BJP for instance opposes FDI in multi-brand retail; a logical inference would be that it opposes FDI in e-commerce as well.
What we really need is a person, an administration and a vision that has the ability to earn India a seat in the 21st century without sacrificing on values such as free speech and privacy.
Will Narendra Modi be that man?