I thought of writing this essay a few days ago when, upon turning 80, my father, homebound due to an ailment, could provide evidence to his bank that he is alive in a two-minute phone call that ensured he would continue to receive his pension smoothly. All he had to do was sit in front of my laptop and turn on a video call on the bank’s website and show his Aadhaar card. Within a day, he received a message on his mobile phone that his identity had been verified and nothing further was required. A few more days, and his pension was smoothly in his bank account.
Lockean social contract theory teaches us that government exists to, (a) with the consent of the people, (b) to promote basic rights and provide that which is the common good.
The debatable question has always been: how to define what basic rights are, and what the common good is. The welfare state provided many definitions and categories—nutrition, healthcare, financial support, employment, etc. Now, with the unrolling of definitive grassroots technology across India, a definition is emerging, and the reason why this is relevant to India’s G20 presidency is that this might well be the mission critical offering India has for the world.
India’s digital governance products like the United Payments Interface (UPI) have democratized some fundamental transactions between the state, the market, and the citizen. The use of UPI as the underlying infrastructure to every digital app-based transaction has meant that the citizen now expects to be able to operate in a cashless manner in most places, and transaction-touchpoints in the country.
Others like the DigiLocker have assured the convenience of being able to access vital records from any geographic location, and the use of the Aadhaar number as proof of identity has ensured that the first critical level of security, that of identity, that a citizen must have, is ensured.
The question to ask is what kind of a citizen is Indian democracy, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, creating, and can this be replicated in other parts of the world? The answer is: India is creating a new kind of empowered citizenry whose expectations from the state and from the market are different from classic relationships.
For instance, this empowered digital citizen has a deeper expectation of “transactional fairness” than traditional support systems provided by the state. What is happening with this kind of digital technology is that one of the missing ingredients of the relationship between the state, market, and citizen—trust—which had disappeared in many ways is now returning. For instance, UPI has pushed the idea that financial transactions using digital tools should be not only ubiquitous, they should also be at zero or near zero additional cost, and through system which ensures no monopoly is created, and therefore the system remains fair. Unlike in the United States, Big Tech does not, and cannot, monopolise transactions in India, and charge at will; nor like in China, is the process dominated by a hawk-eyed state, which seeks to apply surveillance measures on every transaction. The expectation of a democratic, virtually free to use, and competitive system for financial transactions is unique and potentially replicable. What can also spread is the character of a digital citizen that is created through this process—a citizen demanding day-to-day trust in critical transactions like payment platforms. This resolves one of the fundamental problems of Indian governance delivery—traditional low trust in public service mechanisms, and business services. This is one of the reasons why internet banking and the use of debit/credit cards had been traditionally low in India.
The other element of these digital interventions is that the citizen not only comes to expect trust, he/she also comes to expect a certain platform neutrality.
This is further set to be delivered through ONDC (Open Network for Digital Commerce), which seeks to democratize e-commerce platforms and reduce monopolistic pricing for the use of platform-based distribution. India is also bringing in regulations to minimize “dark patterns” or predatory ways of selling online, and working to implement rules that would enable far greater levels of data protection and security and force Big Tech to restrict invasive and mercenary data gathering tools and methodologies.
Soon, through the rollout of digital health programmes, India will work to ensure that citizens have easy access to medical records and access medical support and advice from any location using digital tools. One bright example of this has already been showcased through the slick efficiency of vaccine certificates distributed via mobile phones through the pandemic.
More and more such interactions which involve the state, the market, and the citizen are being digitally-driven in India. This is formulating a global case study, which is going to be presented during India’s G-20 presidency. Technological prowess is only one part of this argument. India has the engineering and the scale of deployment, but the deeper argument must be that it is in the process of creating a new kind of digital citizen with latent trust in state-driven digital mechanisms (that also include market vendors). This trust exists because the state is trusted and its presence considered useful rather than malicious or obstructive, as traditionally imagined. This has been made possible at scale due to the effective use of technology.
In a troubled world, declining trust among citizens is one of the most important, though little understood, or deliberated issues of the future. This declining trust in both governments and markets are fuelling everything from ideas of decentralized, and denationalized, currencies, to separatism and insurgencies.
The coming of the AI age would require greater citizen participation in order to streamline state and market efficiencies. Lack of trust disempowers citizens who, in turn, become non-participative.
Therefore, rebuilding trust must become a primary, category one priority for governments, and in this India has a model that incorporates both cutting-edge technology and embedded trust-building functions.
The promise of India here is the demonstration that trust can be regained and the use of digital technology, if it works seamlessly most of the time, can encourage citizens to participate and make their lives more productive and the state and markets more efficient.
Hindol Sengupta is a multiple award-winning historian.