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India needs politicians who understand tech, not lawyers who double up as IT ministers

Whether it’s a BJP or Congress government in May, India must pick a true technologist at heart from three options for the post of IT minister.

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At a meeting of a parliamentary committee on information technology in late February with the representatives from Twitter, only 9 out of 31 committee members attended the hearing to discuss citizen’s rights on social media platforms. This was timely, given the Lok Sabha elections were due to begin in a month and half, in which the social media was bound to play a huge role. Later that month, a member of the committee, days before a meeting with representatives from Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, had termed these meetings ‘a waste of public money’.

It’s not just the Indian politicians who seem to not fully grasp how important technology has become for a nation. The United States isn’t far behind.

“Senator, we run ads,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had replied during a congressional hearing in the US, when Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah asked him how Facebook can afford to remain free for its users. In another congressional testimony, Google CEO Sundar Pichai had to explain that Google doesn’t make iPhones, when Senator Steven Arnold King from Iowa asked him about a notification his granddaughter had received on her iPhone.

These are just a few instances where politicians from India as well as from countries in the West have failed to understand simple nuances of technology, and how it affects people’s lives. India, unfortunately, is heading in a dangerous direction with its lack of politicians who are able to understand how technology works and see both the good and bad clearly.

Also read: Here’s how technology can help us end the scourge of modern slavery

Technology will play a significant role in India’s economic and social development in coming years. We need politicians who can harness the power of technology for the larger good, without compromising privacy or security. We need politicians who can help create regulation that promotes innovation, and provides clarity, thereby attracting investments. Very few of our currently elected or to be elected politicians are capable of doing so. Let’s look at who was responsible of ensuring that India becomes a tech superpower over the last 10 years.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have appointed India’s law minister as India’s information technology (IT) minister since 2010. Kapil Sibal was India’s IT minister during the second UPA government, and Ravi Shankar Prasad has been India’s IT minister since 2014. During Kapil Sibal’s tenure, India’s Supreme Court had to strike down the draconian Section 66A of IT Act. I have first-hand experiences of how unwelcoming the environment was for a tech company as an early employee of Facebook starting operations in India during those years.

Not a lot changed under Ravi Shankar Prasad. Digital India, which was without doubt Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship project, didn’t go anywhere before Reliance’s Jio came along and saved the day. Ravi Shankar Prasad had a great opportunity to encourage innovation across connectivity, digital payments, and artificial intelligence (AI) to name a few. The progress has been slow at best.

Not having enough politicians who understand technology isn’t a problem unique to India or the US. Europe is struggling as well. The General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR), which became a law in May 2018 across Europe, isn’t a great driver for innovation or new tech businesses. Entrepreneurs have complained that it can kill their businesses.

Also read: One ally that will help the new BJP or Congress govt create jobs – Artificial Intelligence

The government in China, on the other hand, seems to have gotten a hold of things. Their government has laid out detailed plans for how China can grow using new age technology like artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Chinese companies are flourishing when it comes to building everyday solutions using new age technology. China has already beaten the US on number of patents filed, and research papers published in English.

India will need to find its own path, instead of borrowing directly from what the US, Europe, or China have done. Two things the new government can focus on are:

A true IT minister of India

Instead of appointing a lifelong politician as an IT minister, the new government should appoint a technologist at heart, and by expertise, to the post of IT minister. Looking at the current leaders across India’s political landscape, there are three great to good options. If the BJP or the Congress comes back to power, and forms a coalition with the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, they should make KT Rama Rao the IT minister of India. He has first-hand experience of continuing to develop Hyderabad as a tech ecosystem. He has the vision required to invest in future tech early.

Also read: SC wants artificial intelligence to reform medical education, asks Nandan Nilekani to help

BJP can also look to appoint Rajeev Chandrasekhar as the IT minister. He has built and run a telecom company, and he continues to be one of the few politicians who truly understand technology. This is highly unlikely given his seniority in the party, but crazier things have happened in Indian politics. If the Congress-led coalition comes to power, they should offer Nandan Nilekani the role of IT minister. In fact, the BJP-led government can do the same. Regardless of his political ideology, it’s an offer Nandan Nilekani will find very hard to refuse.

Use Rajya Sabha appointments wisely

Out of the 12 appointed Rajya Sabha members, there isn’t a single technologist. There are several Indian executives with global tech leadership experience who would prove invaluable as Rajya Sabha MPs. Someone like Ravi Venkatesan can help guide the IT Ministry as India grapples the smartphone revolution it’s going through, and upcoming opportunities and challenges of artificial intelligence, Blockchain, and other technologies.

If appointing someone from the industry is too “radical” for the government, the ruling party can easily find a suitable scientist, researcher, or a professor. It all boils down to the will. Do any of the parties – regional or national – have the courage, foresight and political will to do the right thing?

The author is a tech policy consultant, and a former Facebook and Google employee. Views are personal.

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