Nandan: When I wrote Imagining India, I was looking at the broad swathe of India’s problems and opportunities and I saw that there are many ways of bringing about change, one of them was through ideas. Societies change when ideas change. That’s what led to that book, and you are right, it had a broad intellectual sweep and I looked at and laid out the whole landscape.
Nandan: Yeah, Indian history has many examples of start-ups — the nuclear programme, the space programme, the Green Revolution. In all those cases, there was a certain big idea which was not something you could do in the traditional system, so you created a group of people and empowered them to get it done.
Nandan: It’s just that we had done Aadhaar and, actually, on the first six ideas in the book too we have done work. For example, we designed the LPG cash transfer system, which was then taken to completion by this government; eKYC for a paperless India; cashless economy using business correspondents and MicroATMs; the Goods & Service Tax Network design was done when we were there, and so was electronic tolling. So these six things were done. And then we said, let’s take up some other big challenges. So we looked at the legal system, power, health, education, expenditure and so on. These are all areas where we had done something or the other. So we thought, look, we might as well put down our experiences and some thoughts about the future so that it’s there on record. Many of them may happen, some may not, but at least our mission is to put it down on paper.
Nandan: Actually, the credit for that should be given to this (Modi) government. The e-Sign, which is the electronic signature capability with Aadhaar and “Digital Locker”, which allows you to store documents with an Aadhaar signature and retrieve them with Aadhaar, were implemented by this government as part of the Digital India programme.
Nandan: Well, the advantage of expressing government policy or rules with algorithms is that you can express that as logic and, therefore, it eliminates discretion. When you make rules ambiguous and fuzzy you are putting power into the hands of an individual to interpret the rules and that leads to all the dysfunctionality that you see in government. So, it is very important that as far as possible, rules should be embedded in software.
We are saying, we need to do these 10-12 projects, we need to do start-ups, but the start-up should be an amalgamation of people from within and without. People from inside are vital, because they understand government processes. No outsider can figure out how the government works, so people who have spent 20-30 years doing that stuff, navigating the Central Bureau of Investigation, Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Chief Vigilance Commission, procurement rules, Parliament, Right to Information, etc., are necessary. But you also need to complement them with people from outside to bring in domain knowledge, technology, custom-oriented thinking and so on. And you need entrepreneurial leadership, because for a start-up, whether in the government or in the private sector, you need to think like an entrepreneur. That’s what we are saying.
Nandan: No, I have no plans...
Nandan: Well, I have done that. I am done with running companies, I am done with running government projects. Now I am happy doing things with a public change component, but where I don’t have to run large organisations.
Nandan: What’s happening is, because of the winner-takes-all nature of the Internet, a few companies dominate the Internet. Then they try to sort of bend the rules in their favour. That’s why I am totally for Net Neutrality. And more and more, they are trying to say that the identity and authentication will be done by them. Now that’s not a good thing. Identity and authentication should be a public good, not controlled by private companies. I think India is the only country in the world — maybe Estonia also — where identity and authentication is a public good, independent of any app or platform. It’s very powerful and very strategic.