As a digital destination, India is red-hot. After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his maiden appearance at Davos, had declared that he was replacing red tape with a red carpet; his administration had already embraced Digital India, the brand poised to displace the Incredible India of palaces, camels and yoga retreats. While Digital India is a mix of many public sector initiatives as well as private ones — such as a 4G network blanketing the nation with Internet access at throwaway prices — it needs the digital players from the outside. And these outside players have responded. Amazon was so gung-ho that it pledged $5 billion on cracking India. In response, arch-rival, Walmart, raised the bar by putting down $16 billion to secure its own toehold. Nevertheless, Amazon has dug in for the long haul; after “Prime” and “Alexa”, apparently, “India” is the third-most frequently used term in its recent letters to shareholders. Beyond the retail giants, there are the usual Silicon Valley suspects — Google, Facebook, Netflix, etc. — hoping to be the stewards of a digitally-emergent nation. Even Indian startups have felt the love. Ventures, mostly digital ones, have raked in over $10 billion in funding from overseas for two years in a row.
Modi’s “red carpet” call was issued from the Swiss mountains a year ago — in 2018. But, for now, welcome to 2019, notably, an election year. The digital CEOs jetting in expecting that red carpet must recognise that this is a year when “real” India takes precedence. They must also be able to distinguish between the many faces of real India and frame their strategies appropriately.
First, there is the India of small towns and villages that makes for riveting case studies in business school classrooms. This is the India where the nawabs of the Net go native: Finely calibrated products and processes are re-calibrated to suit the uniquely Indian context. Websites and apps are stripped-down to work with low-end phones. Local shopkeepers, whose businesses will be eviscerated by global e-commerce, are re-deployed to become the distribution agents of those e-commerce giants by taking to bicycles and two-wheelers to navigate the unpaved roads and unmarked addresses that Google Maps cannot locate. This is the India where digital players put aside their allergy to the analogue world and accept cold hard cash. This is the India where the Googles and Amazons must invest in translation to multiple language to ensure they are truly making inroads. Suffice it to say, any digital player serious about the Indian consumer has been working hard to figure out how to crack this facet of Indian reality.
Then, there is a second face of real — mostly urban — India attempting to grapple with the same struggles as their counterparts in the rest of the world: Balancing the conveniences and the sheer thrill of digital connectivity with concerns about violation of privacy and manipulation by nefarious groups. WhatsApp, India’s prime conduit for digital rumour-mongering, has taken several steps, ranging from public service advertisements and appointing a grievance officer (albeit one who is still based in California) and limiting forwarding of messages. It is unclear how effective these measures will be, particularly in advance of an election season. If the recent experience prior to the elections in Brazil — marked by an “unprecedented industrial use of disinformation” (according to the fact-checking organisation, Aos Fatos) — is any indicator, the Indian voters should brace themselves for a whirlwind ahead. The digital players are still fumbling in their attempts to address these concerns and will continue to grope around in the dark looking for a solution.
This brings us to a third face of real India that shows up prior to election season: A reality that is a perfect storm of populism, pandering and paranoia. For populism, one needs to look no further than the world’s digitally most connected politician. Prime Minister Modi continues to brand himself as a champion of the aspirational middle-class and has seized the political narrative using digital tools, such as the NaMo app. This is just fine, except that when the NaMo app comes pre-installed in 40 million Reliance Jio phones, the branding begins to feel a tad Orwellian. When Modi’s image is, in turn, used in advertisements for “Jio Digital Life”, the Orwellian circle is complete.
Then there is the pandering. Apart from the cozy connections with certain large businesses as evidenced above, pandering takes place in the form of protectionism on behalf of local businesses, both large and small. Recent draft government rules suggest a plan to require that Indian users’ data be stored locally. Since international digital players typically store data in servers around the world, this would drive up their storage costs disproportionately. This would, obviously, please local businesses and work in the current administration’s favour in an election. To pile on the munificence to local businesses, the Modi administration recently tightened rules on international e-commerce players, effectively preventing them from selling products from affiliated vendors or selling proprietary products at discounted prices. This, too, builds much-needed goodwill prior to elections. One can only hope that there is no demonetisation 2.0 that is sprung on the country given how well that worked in pandering to the “ordinary man”.
Finally, to see paranoia in action consider the home ministry’s recent authorisation extended to 10 government agencies with rights to access user data “for the purposes of interception, monitoring and decryption of any information generated, transmitted, received, or stored in any computer resource”. All of this, of course, runs counter to the Supreme Court’s determination of citizens having a fundamental right to privacy. Even though government surveillance can, in theory, be carried out on anyone, it is fair to assume that it could have a chilling effect on the administration’s critics and political opponents.
Each of these pre-election moves can be confounding to the uninitiated international CEO and it is unclear if they are in the best interests of the users. I am afraid, even the world’s most sophisticated digital players haven’t figured out how to deal with this face of real India, that is, the politically charged India of the election season where the red tape abruptly returns and replaces the red carpet.
The lesson is clear: Digital India can never out-run the real India; the two must share the same road. Much like on the very real roads of India, digital players must learn how to swerve, speed up and hit the brakes at any time. They must constantly “blow horn” to make a noise and ensure their presence is felt. If it doesn’t figure out how to do the swerve-speed up-brake and blow horn routine, digital India will be on a collision course with real India — and there is little doubt which India will win.
Ever the wordsmith, Prime Minister Modi had remarked in an early trip to Japan: “We used to play with snakes, now we play with the mouse. When we move a mouse, the whole world moves.” My one piece of advice to Amazon, Walmart, Google and all others of their ilk: Don’t get too comfortable with that mouse. We still play with snakes.
The writer is the Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context and non-resident senior fellow of Brookings India
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