India has named a former bureaucrat who graduated from the country’s top engineering school its new Information Technology minister, appointing a new point person in an increasingly fractious relationship with the world’s largest technology giants.
Ashwini Vaishnaw, 51, will head the ministries of Electronics & Information Technology, Communications as well as Railways, the government announced late on Tuesday evening. The incoming minister has an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and attended the Indian Institute of Technology, which counts tech leaders like Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai as alumni.
A major restructuring of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet saw the exit of Ravi Shankar Prasad, who had been battling U.S. social media giants like Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. in one of the world’s fastest-growing internet markets. As recently as last week, Mr Prasad had been vociferously defending the government’s moves to exert control over user data and online discussions.
The reshuffle comes as India joins governments around the world in tackling what they regard as an inordinate amount of power by Silicon Valley giants, particularly as free speech protections conflict with politics and domestic security. Rules issued in February requiring social giants to take down posts deemed offensive and divulge the originators of messages have been a particular sticking point in the tussle between Modi’s government and the technology firms.
Mr Vaishnaw will now step into the influential role as the country gears up for further confrontations with American technology titans. India, with 1.3 billion people, is one of the fastest-growing markets for companies ranging from Google to Facebook and Twitter.
“I don’t expect things to change with the new appointment as it’s evident that the government’s policy aims to increase control over the internet in India despite the impact on both investment and citizens’ rights,” said Nikhil Pahwa, founder of the New Delhi-based digital news portal Medianama, which tracks technology policy. “An area for improvement is transparency in policy making, which had been on the decline.”
After finishing his engineering degree, Mr Vaishnaw started his career as a member of the Indian Administrative Service and then completed his MBA at Wharton. He went on to work for General Electric Co. and Siemens AG before becoming an entrepreneur. He ventured into politics and was elected to the Rajya Sabha. Mr Vaishnaw worked in the Prime Minister’s Office in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s administration.
“Ashwini was one of the most brilliant people in my Wharton MBA class,” said Nipun Mehra, chief executive officer of the Sequoia Capital-backed e-commerce and fintech startup Ula, which he co-founded. “He was older than most of us and had accomplished so much before coming to Wharton so the class learned quite a lot from him,” the Singapore-based Mehra said.
On Twitter where he has 79,000 followers, the new minister thanked PM Modi for “giving me the opportunity to serve the nation.” He tweeted that he’d take charge on Thursday and “work relentlessly.”
— With assistance from Edwin Chan.