It’s Still Not Too Late

With great verve, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to convert our country into a digital superpower, a Start-up India that would reconfigure the world with its tech smarts and savvy.

India needs to make sure that it builds an ecosystem for the success of “local businesses”. Yes! Just as Chambal dacoits looted central India in the 1970s/80s, Shenzhen and Silicon Valley dacoits are savaging our digital landscape in the 21st century. We have already resigned ourselves to the astonishing dominance of Google and Facebook, without even a shrug of resistance. These American titans take nearly 90% of all digital ad dollars from India. They own the digital identities of over a billion Indians. They know what we search, buy, whom we date, where we live, what politics we follow, what we say, think, and everything we do!

But wait, don’t we also have an ‘Indian’ counterweight to every foreign invader? If there’s an Amazon, there’s a Flipkart too, founded by local boys Sachin and Binny Bansal, right? Well, except for the fact that China’s Tencent and other foreign investors own 70%, while the Bansal boys are down to 10%. And now Walmart is swooping in for the final kill.

So what, you will counter. See how Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati’s Ola has taken the fight to America’s Uber? Yes, but Ola is now 60% owned by a clutch of foreign investors, including the unstoppable SoftBank (Japanese), which is also the largest investor in China’s Alibaba.

Hold on, we still have our own giant killer, Vijay Shekhar Sharma and his P aytm. Do you know that Alibaba owns 60% of Paytm’s parent company, and Vijay’s stake is in the teens? So who will eventually call the shots here? You must be utterly naive to believe that it would be anybody other than Alibaba founder, Jack Ma. To quote TV Mohandas Pai, “of the eight ‘Indian’ unicorns (startups valued at over $1billion), seven are domiciled overseas, largely owned by foreign capital with most founders reduced to being ‘managers’ dictated to by overseas investors and overseas capital.”

Even otherwise, these ‘Indian’ companies are puny and incredibly vulnerable: Tencent, with a market cap of half a trillion dollars, is training its sights on Hike, Practo, Byju’s and MakeMyTrip; while Alibaba, with a $450 billion market cap, has got Zomato and TicketNew (plus Paytm) in its line of fire. RIP Indian digital companies.

If people like Vijay or Bhavish or Sachin (and dozens of other talented, hungry entrepreneurs) give hundreds of billions of dollars of “economic ownership” to foreign investors, even as they maintain “voting control” with their minority stakes, they can create Indian digital behemoths without ceding to American and Chinese acquirers. We will then see the blossoming of a genuinely digital India, with homegrown rivals to Facebook, Google, Alibaba, Amazon and Tencent.

Frankly, it’s still not too late. Over the next decade, we could see a 13x growth in the e-commerce market, 4x in digital payments, and 4x in smart internet users. That’s a humongous growth which could be harnessed and controlled by local entrepreneurs.

Provided blank expressions on Indian policy makers’ faces are replaced by a can-do spirit to empower and liberate the architects of digital India. Otherwise, PM Modi and his bureaucrats will only encourage the ongoing DACOIT-y (ie, Digital America/ China Colonising & Obliterating Indian Tech)-y

Source: Raghav Bahl, The Quint. Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Quint

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