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The political face of India’s technology journey

  • 'Midnight's Machines' divides the journey of technology in India into four broad periods, starting from World War II to present day
  • It examines the role of key personalities—if Nehru was reluctant to promote private entrepreneurship, Modi sees it as vital to incubating technological advancement

Technological ventures like Aadhaar are ultimately dependent on political patronage
Technological ventures like Aadhaar are ultimately dependent on political patronage (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

India’s political leaders, right from Jawaharlal Nehru to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have tried to modernize India through technology but on their own terms, often sacrificing technology at the altar of political expediency.

Now, Arun Mohan Sukumar Midnight’s Machines attempts to trace the country’s technological development from World War II to the present day (1945-2019).

“I tried to examine the whole politics that helped or hindered the development of technology at various points in time, because Indian politics has invariably influenced everything that matters to us, right from cricket, faith, culture and entertainment," Sukumar said at the launch of his book in Delhi recently.

The book divides the journey of technology into four broad periods: the age of innocence, the age of doubt, the age of struggle and the age of rediscovery. “As I moved from the 1990s, I lose the distance and time and the wisdom of hindsight and perspective that is required for an objective history and I hope you will forgive me," he said.

A PhD candidate at Tufts University, US, who heads the technology initiative at a policy think tank, the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, Sukumar is not new to either technology or research. Midnight’s Machines blends history, politics and science to present a comprehensive account based on extensive research of archival public records and open-source reportage. “He proves himself to be a rare historian, with a journalist’s eye for detail and a novelist’s ear for prose," said member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, who was present at the launch.

For the most part, Sukumar is critical of the role politics has played in technology, describing its impact as “pernicious".

The book examines the role of key personalities in the development of technology in India. First and foremost, Nehru, whose quest to create a scientific temper influenced the development of technology, in contrast to Mahatma Gandhi, who was sceptical of its role. Sukumar, however, believes that while Nehru did kindle the spirit of inquisition and scientific temper, he failed to forge a link between industry and laboratory. Nehru’s emphasis on rural economy meant that the nascent private sector was unable to provide employment to graduates from Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), many of whom decided to go abroad.

Depending on your political disposition, it’s possible to argue that Sukumar has not been too kind to Nehru, who was instrumental in establishing the IITs and laying the framework for technology. For it was, in fact, the bureaucratization of decision-making, the policy choices and the global mood that contributed to the way India negotiated its technological journey. There was public interest, for instance, in technology around the time of the Emergency but the government sought to keep a lid on it through restrictive policies such as licensing. Computers were not introduced in state-run enterprises for fear that these would take away jobs.

If Nehru was reluctant to promote private entrepreneurship, Modi sees it as vital to incubating technological advancement. A case in point is the number of initiatives unveiled by him—Make in India, Digital India, Skill India and Startup India. Modi is also digitally savvy—one of the few prime ministers to have used social media platforms effectively during elections.

But there is a flip side to this technology—the proliferation of false and incendiary speech on social media, which has given rise to lynch mobs, harassment and vandalism. “Communal violence in India is no longer manifested in the form of large-scale riots, but as microaggressions involving localized rumours on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or WhatsApp. No matter how adept the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has been in its use of digital tools in electioneering, it cannot hope to control some of the pernicious, even deadly, outcomes of sectarian violence ferried by digital networks."

Sukumar writes that while Modi needs technology to win elections and stitch together pan-Indian coalitions, he is also mindful that the same technology has begun to take aim at India’s social fabric in ways that could work against the BJP’s dream of a Hindu nation. No wonder Modi has been quoted as saying “Technology is both the problem (samasya) and the solution (samadhan)."

While the major chunk of the book is written keeping in mind the political landscape of independent India, it also acknowledges the efforts of technocrats like M. Visvesvaraya, Vikram Sarabhai and Nandan Nilekani.

Nilekani, for instance, pioneered Aadhaar, a technological venture for the public sector. In the author’s opinion, Aadhaar’s most consequential legacy will be its co-opting of the Indian state’s administrative machinery for a technocratic project. But the story of Aadhaar also shows how new technological ventures in the country have always needed political patronage to survive. Aadhaar’s future will ultimately be a political decision, as has been the case with other technologies, where politicians have crafted a political narrative to regulate the relationship between the citizen and the machine.

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