“THE FUNDAMENTAL NATURE of government is a platform,” the tech billionaire Nandan Nilekani declared in the 2015 book Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations, which he co-authored with the software engineer Viral Shah. “We are talking about radically reimagining government, its purpose, its role and the way it carries out its functions, with technology at its core.” A campaign to realise this promise had been underway since 2009, in the form of the Aadhaar biometric identification system and the various digital systems that mushroomed around it. Nilekani and his coterie were now prescribing this approach to all domains of the state, from healthcare to education. The Indian state has since built countless platforms—for identification, payments, healthcare, e-commerce—for government and private companies to use.
Aided by the Narendra Modi government, which aggressively portrays itself as an efficient technocracy and has harnessed technology to maximise its own power, such infrastructures are now in use on a massive scale. Indians use the CoWIN platform to register for COVID-19 vaccinations, their Aadhaar details to open a bank account, the Unified Payments Interface to pay for groceries and a host of digital systems to access welfare schemes. The effect of this—often forced—digitalisation, we are told, has been a “digital revolution” that has resulted in vast improvement in the life of the average citizen.
As Modi’s Digital India becomes ubiquitous, older forms of technocracy are being whittled away. In 2015, the Modi government replaced the Planning Commission—the seat of postcolonial technocracy—with the NITI Aayog, the national institute for transforming India. This finally put to rest the supposedly out-of-date, out-of-touch institution that relied on sample surveys and five-year plans. Modi’s favoured technocrats are not the economists, statisticians or social scientists of the old order but a group of savvy bureaucrats masquerading as CEOs. The bureaucracy itself is being radically altered by the introduction of lithe digital systems designed in Bengaluru-based startups.