Corporates as Representatives

A few weeks before the national elections, organized an open house where people could meet candidates contesting from various parliament assemblies in Bangalore and ask questions to them. Captain Gopinath was contesting from the prestigious Bangalore South constituency. He was one among the favourite candidates – honest, accountable and upright. Many questions were fielded to him during the open house ranging from what he would do about corruption to how he would improve the conditions in the city. One of the questions raised to him was how would he ensure that people’s opinions were reflected in the passage of important bills. To this, he replied that he would constitute a special committee comprising of people such as Mohandas Pai of Infosys and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, among others, who he would consult on bills and legislation before casting his vote. He seemed to suggest that these persons’ opinions reflected those of the masses and hence, consultation would them would automatically imply obtaining views from the public. This both concerned and surprised me – how and why are corporates considered to be representing my opinion?

Just yesterday, news broke out that PM Manmohan Singh has called upon Nandan Nilekani to head the Unique ID Authority of India and implement the project. It appears that Nilekani has been promoted almost to the rank of a cabinet minister. On what basis was such a decision made and why was Nilekani the choice? It concerns me even more because in the past, Infosys’s own track records on accountability have been suspect and that Chief Ministers have held shares and stocks in Infosys. Moreover, Infosys was criticized for accumulating land under the Bhoomi e-governance project.Why is it believed that corporates can be more accountable than governments and/or politicians? What places them above these institutions and actors?

Advocates of free market liberalism would proclaim that corporates are more responsible and ensure that tasks are executed efficiently because they must deliver to their clients. But to pose the corporation as the efficient and accountable opposite of the unaccountable government is again going against the grain of the principles of freedom – it is like replacing one hegemonic institution with another under the presumption that the corporation is likely to be more upright.

For now, the question remains why Nilekani and why a unique ID card for “efficient” delivery of services to the poor. How does one understand this paradigm shift in the distribution of public goods and resources?

11 thoughts on “Corporates as Representatives”

  1. One of the questions raised to him was how would he ensure that people’s opinions were reflected in the passage of important bills.

    This type of question betrays a misunderstanding of the notion of representative democracy. Basically, when we elect a representative, we are delegating decisions to him/her. This type of delegation entails a cost in that the representative’s decision may be at variance to what the “majority” want. The benefit, however, is that we do not have to conduct a referendum on each and every issue. If we want the representative to “consult” the electorate on every single issue, then the benefit of delegation is lost. If we don’t want delegation, then we could then simply get rid of all the MPs/MLAs (saving ourselves a whole lot of corruption) and hold referendums every time a decision has to be made.

    If I were in Captain Gopinath’s shoes – and I have no wish to be – I would have answered that while I would try to make the correct decisions to the best of my ability, I cannot promise to “consult” the electorate every time a decision has to be made. If that is indeed what the electorate wants, they should vote for some other candidate. Of course, I am sure no candidate will ever say this. Sorry for an off-topic comment but couldn’t resist it.

    By the way, regarding this part of your post:

    This both concerned and surprised me – how and why are corporates considered to be representing my opinion?

    Aren’t corporates also a part of our democracy? Perhaps not all but certainly some. Corporations essentially “represent” their shareholders who in many cases are Indian citizens too. If it is okay to consult NGOs, then why not corporations? Exactly what’s the difference?


  2. I don’t hold a brief for Nilekani and have no idea if he will be a good cabinet minister level coordinator for this new project. But your objections to him seem to mix issues:

    1) Infosys’s own track records on accountability have been suspect.
    MMS is basically offering Nilekani a job in his organization (GoI). His previous record on accountability is of marginal relevance so long as MMS remains wedded to accountability. Accountability flows from the top down.

    2) Chief Ministers have held shares and stocks in Infosys.
    Not sure what this has to do with anything so long as Nilekani resigns from Infosys (which he has).

    3) Infosys was criticized for accumulating land under the Bhoomi e-governance project.
    Possibly. But the appointment of Nilekani is not the same as Infosys acquiring GoI. Are you saying Nilekani will talk GoI into becoming a landgrabber ?

    In accepting the job Nilekani ceases to be a representative of the corporate world. The rest remains to be seen.


  3. Zainab,

    Nexus between the bureaucratic, political and corporate power and the introduction of unique citizenship ID Citizenship identification papers are both important issues but if we talk about both in the same breath, we will miss out on a lot of important detail.

    First, the UI issue. Census of India staff have been working on this project for quite a few years now and may even have carried out some local pilot tests somewhere. The question here is simple: would you rather have a 9 or 13 digit number that you can memorize and punch into the touchtone to get things like – booking tickets, walking past security doors, accessing your insurance files etc., anywhere in the country or even abroad or would you prefer to fish in your shoulder bag to find the ration card, PAN card, bank account, drivers licence or passport whatever it may be that the representative of the service provider at the other end is asking for to make sure that you are who you say you are ?

    Obviously, the UI is a hugely complex business. What identifying information about you will that sequence of digits contain – [place of birth? caste etc. ], who will have access to it, what entitlements, obligations and reporting duties does it bring with it ? how portable will it be [travel permissions, right to work in a particular place etc?] who will administer it ? what aspects of an individual or community life can be monitored, tracked and regulated through the card ? For example – if you put a radio chip on the card, you can monitor mobility across borders. (just imagine all the new SeZ related borders that are coming up). Which agencies will be involved in issuing that number ? which corporations will be involved in providing the technologies – how well trained will the staff be? who pays their salaries ? who will have access to which part of the databases?

    as the UI will refer to an individual – how will its use as the key identifier in welfare provisions alter the the ways in which the state discharges its obligations to families, communities etc.

    Clearly, the UI will make life easier in some ways and for some people. it can potentially make it difficult – even disastrous for some people. it is a new technology of governance. and that means, it is a highly contentious business – it will both empower and disempower. It opens up new possibilities for everyone – not just a small bunch of elite stakeholders. For example, it means that someone may be able to access food better because the state cannot any longer pretend that she does not exist simply because she is hidden somewhere in the folds of the family/community.
    By the same token, details like howmany times someone crossed a border in a given period of time, howmany times one has accessed a particular service, etc., can all be collated, one can conceivably even insert features into the number or card to reflect such data and use it for political, commercial, purposes. It can be used to penalize certain groups. It can be used to regulate the lives of some groups.

    These questions among other things, I assume would be the brief of the new national authority that NN will head. The devil is not in who heads it – but in the details – the brief of the Authority.


  4. >>These questions among other things, I assume would be the brief of the new national authority that NN will head. The devil is not in who heads it – but in the details – the brief of the Authority.

    Hi Anant, I seemed to have missed the discussion about the formation of this new national authority, before this week that is. What are its main objectives? If you or someone else can pass on some links with such information, I would appreciate it very much.

    Is this along the lines of Social Security Number in the US?


  5. Hi Anu, you havent missed much.
    This is hot off the press – and caught people’s attention in Bangalore mainly because it involves Nandan Nilekani, cochairperson of Infosys.

    The idea of a single multipurpose card has been in circulation for a long time. I dont have any hard documentation but I recollect a couple of news reports about it from the NDA days. And then, a few years ago, while chasing down some data from the Census department, I ran into people experimenting with different models. If I can find the time, I will post some exploratory notes. The minister said it will be like the US Social security number. But I think that is a superficial comparison. At that level, there are dozens of models across the world – some in implementation and many just at the stage of discussion. Given that some reports here also mention biometric data on the card — something that big IT firms in india have been rearing to play with, Here are some links:


  6. Thanks for all the comments. I think I surely confounded some issues in the process of trying to write a rushed post. Let me clarify a few things.

    1). I am not sure, but the national unique identification number is perhaps along the lines of the US social security number. See for instance this story in HT.
    2). Yes, I agree with Anant that the devil lies not in the head but in the details if the brief given to Nilekani. The question in my head that still remains though is why was Nilekani hand picked for this job? What makes him more qualified than any others for this job? It is a question whose answer I believe I have the right to know. What also concerns me about Nilekani’s appointment is the reinforcement of the belief that corporates are more accountable and efficient when in governance whereas I argue that that need not be the case and that corporations and corporates can be as unaccountable as governments. Corporations are not the opposite of governments. They can easily be mirrors.

    3). Yes, it was not right to raise issues concerning Infosys and then transposing them on to Nilekani’s appointment. The question is what happens if Infosys is awarded the contract for implementing the project even though Nilekani resigns from it? Is there not a potential office of profit here?

    4). Gopinath may not consult all the citizens, at all times during passage of bills and perhaps it may not even be needed each time. But the issue is why should a “citizens’ committee” comprising of Mohandas Pai and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw be sought for consultation? What makes them experts on matters of legislation? Why should they be considered as representative of the interests of all citizens? Why are corporates placed on a higher mantle? What makes them holier than thou?

    Sure enough, I have not raised the most important issues which Anant has raised i.e., what are the implications of creating such a system and issues of who has access and control over data of all populations, who are likely to be included and excluded from such a system. These, I think need to be strongly debated and discussed.


  7. Zainab,

    I will respond very briefly because my comment, as I acknowledged, was not about the desirability of an ID card scheme, it’s actual implementation or the suitability of Nilekani to do the implementation. But having raised a tangential point – and you having responded – I have to reply but I promise this will be the last. Feel free to delete this comment.

    You are perfectly right to ask how a committee containing only corporate heads can “represent” the “public.” But the problem that you are hinting at will always be there no matter how many people (representing various opinions, religions, castes…) you put into the consultation committee. There will always be someone who feels left out. You could, of course, put everyone into the consultation committee but that rather defeats the purpose of having a representative in the first place.

    When we vote for a “representative,” we are, roughly speaking, voting for a person who broadly has the “same world view” as us. This does not ensure that the “representative” will always vote the same way as us, of course, but we believe that there will be agreement most of the time (assuming that the person we vote for is the winner of the election). That’s why my initial feeling about the question was that it was naive and showed little understanding of the nature of “representative democracy.”

    On thinking about it, the question is not as naive as I first thought. Certainly, Gopinath’s response to it tells us something important about his priorities and about how he “views the world.” That should enable an informed citizen to make up his/her mind. I definitely would not vote for him.


  8. Anant, thanks for the links and the note, since you mentioned details, i thought there was more out there that i had missed :)
    The SSN model has a long history with roots in the civil rights movement, it has a legislative history that is several decades old and remains constantly under the scanner with the public involved in its every detail.
    And it breaks exactly where you hope that such a number system might succeed -illegal border crossing. Anyway all this discussion is strange when we have not been told anything, a shooting the moon exercise. All we know is that somebody who has expertise in software and corporate management has been handed a massive, basic ‘civil rights’ job. If identification is considered a table filling,managing, updating a string of letters and numbers job -true it is a complicated job that an informatics intern might happily indulge for a couple of days/months. But will he head to Lalgarh and get down to identifying who is a citizen and then figure out if that citizen falls into a ‘target population’ category to benefit from a scheme such as NREGA?

    Zainab’s questions in the post remain totally valid to me.


  9. There has been a lot of news, blog, wiki activity in the last three days on this business – and the leads go to further leads buried deep under layers of news over the last several years.
    Here are just two links – a wiki entry that provides an overview
    and a blog dedicated to news related to the National Population Register.
    The very first entry on suggests that the 2011 census could very well be the last census taking exercise of the kind that has been carried out by the Government of India every decade since 1872. After 2011, we will see a continual updation of records through the National Population Register.


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