Contrary to the general assumption, Ashwini Vaishnaw is not from Odisha. The Union cabinet minister in charge of powerful communications, electronics, IT and rail portfolios is from Rajasthan. His family is from Pali and he grew up in Jodhpur. For all intents and purposes, however, he’s Odia. He is part of the state IAS cadre, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from there and he is a staunch follower of Lord Jagannath. In the first five days of his “cabinet”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new blue-eyed boy four times asked for blessings from the Lord of Puri.
Vaishnaw would need more science than spirituality, however, to complete the task that was asked of him. It’s not hard to understand why Modi chose a low-key insider for crucial portfolios: during his IAS days, he was part of Vajpayee’s PMO; he was a start-up entrepreneur and held positions at companies like GE and Siemens. The former Wharton student’s short tenure in the upper house of Parliament saw him championing the government’s data laws, and he was often called upon by the PMO for contributions on policy and technology.
Rapid changes in the world of technology and its growing role in everyday life have increased the importance of Vaishnaw’s portfolios stratospherically in recent years. Even though his predecessor, Ravi Shankar Prasad, seemed obsessed with a brawl with Big Techs in general, and Twitter in particular, many laws and reforms desperately needed for the rapidly changing world were lagging behind.
For example, the personal data protection bill is still “unknown for the future”, almost four years after the government started working on it. Arguably the most important bill that could have formed a blueprint for a future life fueled by technology, it has been mired in countless parliamentary committee hearings. Its original spirit as envisioned by the Supreme Court ruling on the “Right to Privacy”, the recommendations of Judge Sri Krishna’s Committee and global models like the European GDPR was undermined in the final version.
Ditto with the deployment of 5G telecom technology. As Modi returned to power in May 2019, Prasad promised 5G would be rolled out in 100 days. It’s been about 700 days; a clear 5G policy, spectrum auctions, and clarity on trusted equipment suppliers are not there yet.
The health of the telecoms sector needs intervention. The state-owned BSNL and the private operator Vi (formerly Vodafone-Idea) are in dire straits. The sector is only a faint shadow of its heady reform-driven days, although its importance in taking digital India to the next level cannot be overstated.
Then there is the vexatious issue of social media. While no one is quite ready to come out yet and say that Prasad has gone too far, it is likely that a more moderate approach would be taken by Vaishnaw in the matter. His first statements after taking over and meeting with the secretaries of Electronics Niketan, however, remained true to the status quo that Twitter must follow Indian laws.
” The positive points [of IT rules 2021] were accompanied by legal and technical challenges that could hamper the operationalization of these rules and lead to unfortunate implications for the digital rights of citizens, ”said Kazim Rizvi, founder of The Dialogue, a public policy advocacy forum. “A key area of engagement would be to create harmonious and interoperable policies that prepare India for the world in technology.”
It’s on Vaishnaw Street, with its penchant for data and the exploitation of technology. His background in logistics should also come in handy while giving Indian Railways a makeover, the other department he has been in charge of.
“The next wave of economic growth, and therefore power in the global scenario, lies in the efficiency with which we use technological change. We can aim for efficiency gains and opportunities never considered before, if they are based on a stable political base and synchronized with each other, ”said Rizvi. Modi’s line of thought might have been that Vaishnaw’s varied experience dealing with paperwork on three sides – as a bureaucrat, entrepreneur, and politician – would help him take that great leap of faith. With such high expectations, it’s just as well that this technocrat occasionally seeks divine help.