The newly formed NDA government yesterday announced the names and portfolios of the newly appointed new Union Cabinet. The names relevant to the digital industry are: Ravi Shankar Prasad, in charge of the ministry of Communications & Information Technology (including Telecom ), and the Law and Justice ministry.

While India is taking a strong stand globally on Internet Governance, and it helps to have a telecom minister who understands law, we’re not sure if this is a good idea. Telecom is an infrastructure sector, and techonology and connectivity is critical for development of almost every other sector. It suffered in the hands of the previous UPA government, riddled with scams and expensive auctions, which have forced some telecom operators to shut, and others to sell out. The cost of the auctions are being transferred to consumers, and the focus appears to be now be on milking the base (Airtel, for example), instead of growing it. High speed Internet is nowhere to be seen in India, and while mobile might not be able to support substantive data usage, wireline access to the Internet is stagnant.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken about ‘the convergence of ministries’, prior to the announcement of the Cabinet, saying.

  • It is a good beginning in transforming entity of assembled ministries to Organic Ministries. It will bring more coordination between different departments, will be more effective and bring a speed in process.
  • The focus is on convergence in the activities of various Ministries where one cabinet Minister will be heading a cluster of Ministries who are working in complimentary sectors.

Kapil Sibal’s tenure as a minister in charge of both Human Resource Development and Communications and IT was a disaster, and the only area where we saw convergence between the two ministries, was in the shambolic, unnecessary and built-to-fail attempt at the “Aakash tablet”.

If there is any significant area of ‘convergence’ between telecom and law, we don’t see it. This isn’t the combination of Rural Development, Panchayati Raj and Drinking Water and Sanitation, or Road Transport and Highways, and Shipping.

Frankly, I was expecting that the ministry of Information & Broadcasting and Communications and IT would be combined, since it makes no sense for DTH, IPTV and Mobile TV to be under I&B, and other distribution and connectivity businesses to be under Communications and IT. This is despite the fact that it’s best for the same ministry to not look at both content and carriage. In fact, in our opinion, it’s best for the I&B ministry to be done away with altogether, and relegated to the equivalent of Ofcom in the UK, but no government will want to give up a tool it has for controlling the media. Prakash Javadekar, a spokesperson for the BJP, is the Minister of State for Information and broadcasting; this reminds us of Manish Tewari, who was also made the I&B minister, and went on to give long speeches saying he supports Internet freedom, but kept adding caveats. For example, this speech.

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The other significant appointment is Nirmala Sitharaman, Ministry of state for commerce, and given that Modi holds all portfolios not allocated to any minister, it looks like he will be the minister for commerce. This means that Sitharaman and Modi will decide on the fate of FDI in Multi-brand retail. That policy needs to be fixed, after the last government took a disastrous approach to it. Note that the BJP is against FDI in retail, but there is no mention of their stand on FDI in e-commerce in their manifesto.

Besides, the industry wants easier and clearer processes while investing in SMEs. The industry will benefit largely with clarity in these areas. The BJP manifesto mentions digitization of all government work and providing technology enabled e-Governance to minimise delays and corruption. While the policies seem beneficial to the community, the challenge lies in implementation.

(with inputs from Jalaja Ramanunni)