Going after “black money” has always been tempting for India’s political leadership. But Delhi found it hard to translate the idea into effective policy since corruption had come to grease the wheels of India’s political economy. What changed the odds in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s huge gamble on demonetisation is technology — the recent advances in digital finance.
To be sure, Modi is not the first political leader in independent India to bet on technology. But the speed and scope of the current technological transformation allows a risk-friendly Modi to do things that few of his political peers are willing to contemplate. For Jawaharlal Nehru, investing in science and technology was central to the modernisation of India. Indira Gandhi continued Nehru’s support to big science — atomic energy, space and defence. She also presided over the Green Revolution that ended India’s uncomfortable dependence on imported food. Rajiv Gandhi was even bolder in imagining the policy possibilities of technology. While he maintained Delhi’s commitment to big science, Rajiv Gandhi also focused on mobilising technology for immediate developmental missions like drinking water, oilseeds, dairy production, literacy, immunisation and telecommunications.
The successors of Rajiv Gandhi, preoccupied with running fragile political coalitions in Delhi, had a lot less time for science and technology. Modi, however, has turned out to be an unlikely enthusiast for the technological transformation of the Indian political economy. If the UPA government invented the Aadhar, but was ambivalent about it, Modi had no hesitation in making it his own. That Modi has a strong political mandate and has arrived in Delhi at a moment of accelerating technological change in the world is a coincidence. That happenstance, however, could turn out to be rather consequential for India.
Some of the criticisms that Modi confronts today are not very different from those that Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi had to face. Nehru was attacked for investing scarce resources in big science and higher technical education. Rajiv Gandhi’s “computerji” was the butt of jokes for the Delhi elite. The Left is almost instinctive in its assertion that technological modernisation will hurt the poor. The conservatives are worried that “Western technology” will bring with it alien social values.
Modi’s initiatives — from Digital India to Startup India — could well be the key to India’s future, as the so called fourth industrial revolution, involving robotics, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and other technologies, threatens to alter the nature of economic production and power distribution in the world. But to succeed, Modi will need to rethink the relationship between science and the sovereign that was established in the Nehru era.
The principal agent of S&T development in independent India has been the central government. What began as a special relationship between Nehru and a few leading scientists has been bureaucratised over the last many decades. Today, Modi can’t put India on top of the fourth industrial revolution through a bureaucratic diktat from Delhi. He needs a strong partnership with the private sector, especially in the S&T domain.
Meanwhile technology hubs like Bengaluru and Hyderabad have come to believe that the central government in Delhi is part of the problem rather than the solution. The truth, however, is science and sovereign can’t succeed without the other. Bold government initiatives are needed to create markets for new innovations, as well as help the IT services industry evolve rather than be overwhelmed by automation. Technological innovations can, in turn, help the political leadership meet developmental goals more effectively. The society looks to the sovereign to limit the potential negative fallout from the current technological revolution — from massive loss of jobs to concerns about individual freedoms.
We need strong public-private partnerships to balance the twin imperatives of promoting technological innovation and devising economic and social regulation. The two also need to work together in leveraging international partnerships to build strong Indian capabilities across a broad spectrum and shape the global regimes on technological standards and political control.
No place represents India’s future technological possibilities than Bengaluru that is home to India’s innovators and is deeply connected to the world. The origins of Bengaluru as a science city perhaps offer pointers to the kind of collaboration we need today between the central government and the private sector. India’s premier research institution, the Indian Institute of Science, was borne out of a conversation between Swami Vivekananda and Jamsetji Nussserwanji Tata when they met on a ship sailing from Yokohama to Vancouver in 1893.
Support from the Mysore royal family was critical and eventual permissions from Lord Curzon were necessary to get the IISc off the ground in 1909. Bengaluru’s tryst with aerospace goes back to 1940, when the industrialist Walchand Hirachand established India’s first aircraft production facility with the help of the Mysore royals. As the Second World War rumbled on, the Raj took over the facility that would eventually become Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
In the 20th century, state was the motor of big science in the developed world. In the post colonial South, the developmental state had an even larger role. In th 21st century, the private sector is poised to make big contributions in many frontier areas — from artificial intelligence to biology. As the relationship between science and the sovereign evolves around the world, Modi needs to devise a new framework for partnership between Delhi and Bengaluru as well as other technology hubs around the country.