In the CGO Complex on Lodhi Road in New Delhi, a few miles away from the MoRD’s office, plans to build precisely such a database network were afoot. Leading the charge was the scientist responsible for both the computer and software exports policies. Narsimhiah Seshagiri had caught the eye of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1982 when the National Informatics Centre (NIC) under his supervision set up an information management system for the Asian Games. NIC had, within six months, created software for the network that linked the seventeen Asiad venues to the control centre at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, facilitating the instantaneous display and tabulation of results.

Having been handed the responsibility of the games, their smooth conduct was a matter of political prestige for Gandhi, and Seshagiri stepped up to the plate. When Rajiv took office under turbulent circumstances in 1984, Seshagiri already had a draft policy on computers on hand. With minor tweaks, his draft became the law of the land. The steep drop in the cost of PCs that followed the policy made it possible to visualise a truly national network of micro-computers for digitising and sharing data among public institutions. Seshagiri’s plan sowed the seeds of “e-governance” well before the term became a buzzword in India two decades later.

His association with the Prime Minister, and Rajiv’s own enthusiasm for computing, helped, but the creation of such a network – “NICNET” – was far from a foregone conclusion.

The government’s technology policies had invited foreign equipment and expertise, and with them, criticism from the intellectual left and greybeards in the scientific establishment. The computer policy, they sardonically claimed, would saddle India with “screwdriver technology” – the unimportant role of fixing and assembling parts of the PC that were imported from various sources abroad.

The software export rules, on the other hand, were assailed for making India an attractive destination for “body shoppers” – American companies that hired Indian programmers sitting at their desks as cheap labour to write software for their systems located across the world. The criticism of both policies was so strident that the Prime Minister even contemplated abolishing the Department of Electronics. His advisors, aghast at this prospect, were able to convince him otherwise.

“A year-and-a-half before [the 1989] elections, Gandhi appeared to have been advised that the [Congress] party may be giving a wrong message to the people by overemphasising computers. He had to play it cold as far as public support for computerisation is concerned. The point made was that the ‘computer boys’ – as all of us together were called – gave a bad name to the [Congress] party,” Seshagiri has himself said.

NICNET was conceived just as elite criticism and political opposition to Rajiv’s policies were growing and its birth, therefore, had to be cloaked in secrecy. When Seshagiri approached the Finance Minister VP Singh for his approval for NICNET – estimated to cost Rs 240 crore in three years – the latter advised him to set up the network first, and then submit the proposal to the Union Cabinet. It was a daring manoeuvre, for NICNET’s failure would have been a political disaster for Rajiv Gandhi (who lost the elections in any case), but also set back a decade of progress that India had made in warming its people to new technologies.

The project was nevertheless green-lighted by the Prime Minister’s Office. When Seshagiri and his colleagues launched NICNET in 1987, they called it a “hierarchic, distributed computer communication network to support decision-making by the Indian government”. The nucleus of NICNET would be a “Master Earth Station” in the country’s capital, supported by regional hubs in Pune, Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar and another, smaller sub-station in Delhi. These hubs were equipped with the S-1000, a Japanese computer ranked among the “fastest machines in the world” during the eighties.

The S-1000s were, in turn, connected to PCs installed at the state and district levels. Data would be beamed from a giant antenna in New Delhi onto receiving VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) dishes located across India, and vice versa, through the INTELSAT and later, the INSAT 1D satellites. Each PC had a princely (by contemporary standards) storage space of 900 MB. By 1989, NICNET had an outpost in nearly every district: the mission for a “single, nationwide database” had been completed.

NICNET was no Google, but its “query-ability” was a notable innovation. Although the system in New Delhi was the keeper of the keys to the network, any official using NICNET could search for, and retrieve information from, any other part of the country.

The digitising of governance data was itself an impressive feat, but the biggest disruption that NICNET brought about was attitudinal. To bureaucrats soaked in a decades-long belief that computers were “evil” and “inappropriate” to the Indian context, Seshagiri and his team demonstrated it was not only possible to scale up a digital network but also use it to make their jobs considerably easier.

Sure, high-speed connectivity was some years away, and dial-up access to NICNET, even in metros, was not always reliable. But babus had no longer to rifle through dusty shelves and stacks of mouldy paper to find the information their political masters needed to plan budgets, or respond to pointed questions in Parliament (surf casually through the archives of Lok Sabha debates, and one can observe a marked rise in the quality of answers offered by Union ministers after 1990, largely on account of the data newly available to them).

This shift in attitude produced remarkable results. NICNET moved base from the Department of Electronics to the Planning Commission, signalling the embrace of digital governance by the high priests of Yojana Bhavan.

The ministry of external affairs contracted NIC to create its passport control system, with the Regional Passport Office in New Delhi being the first to fully computerise its application process. The Department of Mines used NICNET to create a national minerals database, publishing data on nearly 9000 ores and deposits all over India. Through the network, the agriculture ministry kept tab of reservoir levels in dams across the country, providing an effective flood warning and emergency system.

Public Sector Unit (PSU) entities like the Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL) and the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) created “closed-group” networks spun off NICNET, enabling communications and data analysis between their regional factories and offices. In 1991, the Supreme Court of India and the high courts in each state were linked by the network, facilitating the querying of case status and retrieval of judicial precedents.

The next year, data from the fifth Census was digitised and uploaded onto NICNET. On the day votes were counted for the 1991 general elections, journalists Prannoy Roy and Vinod Dua used NICNET to retrieve numbers from Lok Sabha constituencies, augmenting their analysis with real-time data. Their show, described by India Today as a mix of “electronic wizardry and super anchoring”, changed the face of election analysis, and Indian television, forever.

If NICNET was being put to all these uses, why didn’t the ensuing explosion of data bring about a computing revolution in India? For a fleeting moment, developments in Indian computing almost seemed to mirror those taking place in Silicon Valley, albeit with the gap of a few years.

Growing interest in the PC had prompted the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of Valley-based amateur enthusiasts, to host the first “West Coast Computer Faire” in 1977. It was at the Faire that Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple II computer, replete with a colour display and keyboard. Within a year of the exhibition, Apple II earned millions of dollars in revenue, helping Jobs financially underwrite the development and production-at-scale of the Macintosh.

Apple II took computing to ordinary citizens, especially classrooms, where it was used by students and teachers to tap online databases for research projects and tests. The successful marriage of data and mass computing, exemplified by Apple’s story, made Silicon Valley what it is today. Rajiv Gandhi too succeeded in installing a computer in every district across India, but that did not bring digital technologies any closer to the people.

By 1990, these machines were wired to a network of rich, granular databases from which users could access a wide array of information. India not only had the computers, but also the information that could potentially transform the livelihoods of its farmers, fisherfolk, engineers and doctors. In fact, the project was so sophisticated and ambitious in scope that NICNET invited the attention of European policymakers, who travelled to India to see it first-hand. Yet, despite the data on offer, NICNET could not spur the popularity of the PC, or incubate the creation of an “Indian” Google. Why?

Unfortunately, its command-and-control style of functioning also proved to be NICNET’s fatal flaw. Just as the creation of NICNET was held back initially from the Union Cabinet, decisions on the politically sensitive project continued to be taken by an elite coterie of advisors in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The lack of consultation with state governments came to hurt the popular appeal of this network. To be sure, the National Technology Missions helped some segments of society better understand or appreciate computers. But the rolling out of computers in India coincided with a period in the country’s political history during which regionalism, invigorated by the anti-Emergency movement, had come into its own.

No longer could a government sitting in South Block dictate the terms by which citizens interacted with new technologies. Rajiv was more a technocrat than any of his predecessors to have held high office, but even with 400-odd seats in Parliament, he had neither the political autonomy that his mother or grandfather enjoyed, nor the help of ruthless strategists who could enforce his writ, like Vallabhbhai Patel or PN Haksar.

Having few reasons to take orders from the centre, states were therefore none too keen to join NICNET. They refused to share data with New Delhi, acceding only when the latter agreed to cover all costs associated with the project.

Excerpted with permission from Midnight’s Machines: A Political History Of Technology In India, Arun Mohan Sukumar, Penguin Books India.