The story we set out to report and write was about the top “influencers” of technology policy formulation in India. Businessmen, civil society, bureaucrats, academics, industry experts, lobbyists – we didn’t want to filter out names. But literally, every person we spoke to said they did not want to be quoted in the story. Many repeated this request multiple times during their conversations with us.
Because technology policy today has the power to alter or stymie the most well-planned and well-funded of corporate plans. Ask Facebook. It can alter competitive dynamics and enable late entrants into mature, competitive sectors to upset delicately crafted equilibrium. Ask Reliance. It can cause immensely powerful global corporations to stumble and course correct rapidly. Ask Uber. It can reverse decades’ worth of carefully nurtured effort to paint the opposing side as dangerous. Ask Microsoft.
To be continued!
The list could go on. But you get the point. Whether it be Facebook’s Free Basics debacle; Reliance’s famed ability to disrupt telecom with favourable regulatory tailwinds; Uber’s underestimation of the challenges of clearing regulatory hurdles in India; or Microsoft living to see India adopt an open-source software policy, technology policy is a powerful mega force today.
Before we get into the listing of the people influencing technology policy in India, a few points to keep in mind about how the overall game has changed in the last 5-10 years:
- Technology is central to most government initiatives today, and thus technology policy is of paramount importance to all stakeholders – large companies, countries, governments, citizens, startups, etc. Once associated with vendor management, government IT Departments at both the central and state level are setting macro policies that cut across numerous other sectors. “Look at Rajasthan. Its planning secretary and IT secretary are both the same person, Akhil Arora. When everything in government is tech-enabled, tech becomes everything,” says a veteran policy watcher.
- Technology is political. And it is not value-neutral. Political parties and governments realize it too now.
The game of technology policy lobbying has changed. “Previously those who had influence never let others know. But now the game is played in the open. For instance, iSPIRT states loudly and clearly that their objective is to influence policy,” says one of the people quoted earlier. In the late 1990s and most of 2000s, “government affairs” was the phrase used to describe the work of lobbying and engaging with the government on policy. That later evolved into “public policy”, which was seen as a more respectable and above-board activity compared to the suspect, behind-the-scenes work “government affairs” people did. But a technology lawyer and investor urges caution in reading too much from this evolution, “Just because there are more actors whose intentions are known, it doesn’t mean all actors’ intentions are known.”
- The last three-four years have seen a dramatic change in the number of people involved with technology policy.
- It’s no longer the preserve of well-entrenched, older “corporate affairs” players. From Indian companies like
- Flipkart and Ola that have doubled down and built expensive public policy teams to startup-allied bodies like iSPIRT and IndiaStack, there’s definitely a lot of players influencing technology policy today in India. Civil society has a much better voice too. It was the civil society that largely countered the powerful lobbying from the likes of IBM, Microsoft, and Nasscom over nearly a 10-year period, culminating in India’s open source software policy.
- The approach of the central and numerous state governments towards technology policy formulation has become much more institutionalized. “It used to be that if you were an industry person or an academic with strong views, you would end up on (policy formulating) committees. But now the government prefers entities that have public credibility, say, by producing their own research,” says one of the people quoted earlier.
- The Nandan Nilekani impact is enormous. The Aadhaar program is seen as an example of how to create a policy that influences billions right in the open. One could even say there is a pre-Aadhaar and post-Aadhaar scale when it comes to the technology policy scene in India. The way Nilekani and his team at times partnered with bureaucracy, and other times circumnavigated it in pursuit of their mission goals is clearly recognized as epochal.
Based on multiple conversations – and cross-checking – with many sources, we’ve divided the list into three segments based on the perceived importance and influence of the subjects.