From the start of his tenure in office as Prime Minister of India, Narendra D. Modi has placed emphasis on digital technology. Significant roadblocks are present to the actualisation of his objective, to give every citizen of our country access to the digital highway. A thoroughfare that would no longer resemble the slowness and lack of manouvrability of a country road, but the speed and quality of an expressway. The US and India are the two biggest powers that once formed part of the British empire. It was after a substantial network of roads and railways was built in the 19th century that what was still the world’s largest economy began to accelerate its growth, thereby absorbing with ease rapid increases in population caused not just by fecundity but by migration. The speeding up of the highway system under the supervision of Nitin Gadkari and the modernisation of railways that began getting carried out under Suresh Prabhu have created several of the conditions needed for sustained double-digit growth. There have been speed bumps along the way. The PM’s bold decision to replace Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes with Rs 2,000 notes and newly designed Rs 500 notes was designed to register stocks of cash through the banking system, thereby enabling better identification of the holders of currency. It was obviously not Modi’s desire to hinder those using cash for legitimate transactions. But such was the consequence of the RBI starving them such capital for more than a year by draining the economy of currency supplies. Thereafter, the Finance Ministry approved a GST model which had high and arbitrary rates for a multitude of products and services, besides leaving out of the GST net what ought to have been part of it, petroleum products. GST, in this reform as in demonetisation, a futuristic conception of the Prime Minister was subjected lower down to errors in rollout. All of this was pointed out in The Sunday Guardian at the time. The next shock came from following to the letter in 2020 the WHO insistence on imposing immediate and comprehensive lockdowns across the entire country. This was claimed to be necessary in order to break the chain of transmission of Covid-19. Across the world, the actual efficacy of such an extreme WHO-recommended measure on the spread of the disease was indeterminate.
It was, therefore, no surprise that it was DeMo, the initial GST structure and the pain caused by Covid-19 that formed the thrust of Rahul Gandhi in his speech to the Lok Sabha on 2 February, although he seemed unaware that China and Pakistan had been in alliance since the time of Pakistan Foreign Minister Bhutto. Expectedly, for an individual keen to take over the office occupied by his father, grandmother, Rahul did not mention that it was PM Modi who fixed the issues caused to the economy by the RBI draining liquidity post-DeMo, and thereafter ensured that liquidity in the form of currency stocks that were returned to previous levels. It was Modi who supervised ongoing simplification in the GST to make it the “Good & Simple Tax” that he intended it to be. And it was PM Modi who rejected returning to the national the lockdown route in 2021, and who rejected a vaccine mandate. If only Justin Trudeau learnt from Modi rather than lecture him. The Canadian PM is in hiding at an “undisclosed location”, a step PM Modi refused to take even when there was on occasion reason to worry about matters of his safety. As the PM made clear, Digital India has the ability to take this country beyond an Upper Middle Income trajectory within a decade. This is what Indian brainpower and digital tech can do, once harnessed and empowered. For even a thousand unicorns to come up in India, there must be an absence of glitches in implementation. Whether in the fields of tele-medicine or in tele-education, broadband connectivity can empower citizens in a manner that is unprecedented. As Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman points out in the budget, the government needs to ensure that the young in particular who come from underprivileged sections of society be given access to the benefits of the expansion of knowledge that is taking place. While physical infrastructure is necessary, what is equally indispensable is 5G, world-class broadband, access to the internet and the generation and dissemination of content that would empower the minds of the young in particular to deal with the future. DeMo, GST and seeking to slow down the incidence of Covid-19 were necessary. The benefits of all three are now becoming more apparent. India can generate more than a thousand digital unicorns by the time PM Modi completes a third term in office in 2029. For that to happen, conceptualisation and detailing of the plan for Digital India must focus by followed by the quality in implementation that voters will expect from Narendra Modi as they head to the polling booth in 2024.