Of these various accusations, only one can be levelled with any justice at Nandan Nilekani and his erstwhile team at the Unique ID Authority of India, or UIDAI: the last. Aadhaar is a superb tool, one of the best-designed technological interventions to improve Indian governance that can be imagined; but, in many other situations, it could be claimed that even the finest technological interventions will only go so far in solving deep-rooted institutional problems.
Rebooting India, written by Nilekani and another member of the UIDAI, Viral Shah, is at heart an argument for the transformative nature of technology in government. The authors talk about Aadhaar, of course — and then the various killer apps it makes possible, such as inclusive banking, direct benefit transfers, and paperless know-your-customer protocols.
They then go on to discuss other tech fixes they worked on with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the previous coalition in power, as part of the Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects. The Goods and Services Tax Network, or GSTN, for example; the Central Electronic Toll Collection System, or CES, for highways; and the Expenditure Information Network, which would take government transparency to another level by allowing citizens to track where their taxes were being spent.
Not all of these projects took off the way they were supposed to — the EIN is still largely theory. And so the authors’ discussion of them is followed, thankfully, by two successes: India’s electronic voting machines, which have vastly improved the reliability and robustness of our elections, and digital outreach for political parties, which has become since Narendra Modi’s commanding victory a new baseline in Indian politics, even in states as economically backward as Bihar.
Synthesising these examples, Nilekani and Shah wind up with a proposal: that India needs a way to reconcile the energy of start-ups — speed, agility, expertise and market-based incentives — with the strengths of government — scale, stability, intelligent generalists and process-based incentives.
They suggest a new departmental model is needed, a “National Information Utility”, which would bring talent from both government and the private sector together. Such NIUs, which they think could combine the strengths of government and start-up, are “essential to implement technology-enabled solutions to the challenges our country faces today”. The UIDAI, they hint, “could be considered an early forerunner” of the NIU.
Having laid out this proposal, Nilekani and Shah turn to areas where the technological solutions that an NIU could steer would matter. In the building of an electronic medical record system for all Indians, to aid healthcare; online courses and “digital lockers” for educational certificates; smart grids and new-generation batteries to improve power distribution; and a centralised court operation platform that would digitalise and make searchable all court records, as well as allow the progress of any case to be tracked.
Government, they conclude, is “a platform”; it must shift as the priorities of citizens change, and this is their preferred way to do it.
This is a refreshingly optimistic book. The authors’ experience in government — the disputes, the turf wars, the slowness, the political dithering — is gestured to, but does not affect the book’s exalted tone. Other technocrats in government have written books born of their experience, but few have been as purposeful and forward-looking as this. And nobody can read it and believe that the authors are not committed to accountability or to institution-building.
Many of the specific technological interventions strike me as eminently workable, and indeed have been on the agenda since the UPA and are now being incorporated into Modi’s “Digital India” programme. Perhaps the book suffers just a little in comparison, therefore, to Nilekani’s Imagining India, which somehow managed to present ideas every few pages that struck you with their radical new-ness at the time.
I will confess, however, to a small feeling of disappointment. Not in the nature and quality of the argument — the book is easy to read, especially given its subject matter, and ultimately persuasive about its suggestions. And Nilekani and Shah have to be given full credit for being good, decent people; this is far from the standard post-UPA book template, a whiny, tell-all in which the author takes credit for any successes, blames Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi for any failures, and drops dark hints about errors and quarrels to try to get the book’s name on the front pages and prime-time talk shows.