On 11 October, Umang Bedi, managing director of Facebook India announced that he was quitting the company. It was a sudden move, coming nearly 15 months since he took over from Kirthiga Reddy. Bedi’s carefully-crafted version of his own exit suggested that he wanted to move on, to “follow his passion”.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed his departure in a statement, saying “He’s really built a strong team and business during his time with us…”
A day later, the buzz was that Facebook had finalised a new hire for its ever-growing policy team led by Ankhi Das—the company’s director of public policy for India, South and Central Asia. The hire for Das’ effective number two was Shivnath Thukral, a former business journalist, who, until recently, was the managing director at American think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in India. Thukral would join as the director of public policy (India and South Asia), a new position that Facebook has created.
It is an important development in the larger scheme of things. While Facebook has just lost its MD (also its de-facto head of sales), the policy team, considered to have a significant say in everything Facebook India, has gained an upper hand with Thukral’s hire. It appears Das has only consolidated her rather enviable position as Facebook’s most powerful official in the country.
“Facebook’s perception in India is that of a policy-first company. Look at this way: policy-first, sales-next and product third (mostly organic),” says a New Delhi-based public policy professional familiar with the recent developments at Facebook. This person requested anonymity in exchange for candour. “Sales is undoubtedly important. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise in a leading market. But, policy, over the last 18 to 24 months has slowly grown in importance and significance.”
Understandably, this policy-first positioning came after the company’s biggest public setback in India—its Free Basics programme, which was banned in February 2016 by India’s telecom regulator TRAI on the grounds that it violated net neutrality*.
In the last 12 months, as The Ken reported in August, Facebook has been quietly ramping up its public policy efforts in the country, away from media gaze. Both in terms of recruitment and spending efforts. It is wasting no time in gearing up for the 2019 elections, just over 18 months from now. And Das could be its biggest trump card in the build-up to the elections. In policy, Facebook has also seen an important opportunity, especially in a market where regulation of large tech companies isn’t quite the strongest. It gives them enough ground, to not just lobby, but also preempt and manoeuver any such regulation that it believes could deter its growth.