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Agent to Host

Platform ambitions: The story of how iSpirt lost its true north

How a passionate, volunteer-led think tank for India’s software product companies lost its way

Editor’s note:  On 17 January, India’s Supreme Court commenced the final hearing on petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, the unique identity programme. On the same day, The Economic Times reported that a group of private companies have filed a petition to the court, extending support to and seeking continuity for Aadhaar. The petitioners argue that Aadhaar is used by private companies ‘in a big way’ and ‘innovative solutions’ are being created in the digital economy using Aadhaar. To recap, some of the people in these private companies were part of the Unique Identification Authority of India team that conceptualised and built Aadhaar. The conflicts of interest are sometimes subtle and sometimes glaring. It is in this context that we are republishing our September 2017 two-part investigative series on iSpirt and India Stack, the two entities around which the private Aadhaar ecosystem has been built.

It was January 2016 and Jitendra Gupta, the founder of Citrus Pay, a young and nimble digital payments provider with over $32 million in VC funding, was beginning to see the possibilities offered by UPI. UPI, or Unified Payments Interface, was a new digital payments standard that would allow Indians to send money to each other as simply as they sent emails.

Gupta could see how disruptive UPI could be for the payments industry and startups like his own. India’s digital payments startups had no shortage of technology or product design chops but were limited by the country’s fairly conservative banking standards. UPI would change that, and those startups that were early to adopt and harness it would leapfrog over others.

So, Gupta reached out to a few of the banks. Startups would need to go through the software development kits (SDKs), made by banks, that acted as ‘wrappers’ on top of UPI’s core technology (APIs). Only banks would be allowed to directly access UPI’s APIs directly, so startups would need to find a bank willing to license it an SDK.

How could Citrus Pay get access to early beta versions of UPI, so it could start building its own product harnessing it? Gupta was eager for his company to be among the first startups to support UPI when it would go live in April. The response was lukewarm.

Meanwhile, PhonePe, a startup that had launched just a few months ago, was already doing deep work on building a UPI product in partnership with Yes Bank.

Gupta could only watch in silence as Flipkart, India’s largest e-commerce company, acquired PhonePe on 1st April for its UPI app. An app that hadn’t even launched yet. Just a few days later, on 11 April, NPCI announced a “soft launch” of UPI.

But Citrus Pay hadn’t progressed much beyond its initial conversations.

On 25 August, UPI went live. On 29 August, PhonePe went live, becoming the first UPI payments app in the country.

Citrus Pay was still waiting. Within a few weeks, it would get bought by PayU India, a larger rival backed by South Africa’s Naspers Group. Gupta, along with Citrus Pay’s MD Amrish Rau, would end up being in charge of the combined PayU-Citrus Pay entity.

On 8 November 2016, the equivalent of a tsunami would hit the Indian digital payments space as India’s Prime Minister would announce the “demonetization” of 85% of the country’s currency notes. With most currency notes rendered useless, Indians would have no option but to turn to digital payments.

Of these, UPI was the simplest to use.

In just over a month, more than 4 million Indians had downloaded the PhonePe app, making it the most popular UPI app. By January, that number had hit 10 million.

Meanwhile, on 30 December, NPCI itself would launch its own UPI app, called BHIM, queering the competitive field further (related story, “The unlikely story of BHIM, the upsetter of plans”).

Citrus Pay was still waiting for its banking partner to provide access to UPI APIs of the same quality as accessed by PhonePe and BHIM. In March 2017, 15 months after it first began conversations with NPCI and banks, that the Citrus Pay UPI app would be launched.

The market for UPI apps had by then become a de-facto duopoly, with BHIM and PhonePe the undisputed leaders. Their combined market share for UPI transactions in August was over 85%. On Google’s Android Play Store, Citrus Pay’s UPI app has somewhere between 100,000-500,000 downloads. Both BHIM and PhonePe have between 10-50 million downloads.

“Our product launch got substantially delayed as we were not being provided adequate support for API integration. This delay hampered our go to market plans and we missed demonetization opportunity,” says Gupta.

“NPCI has no accountability. It does not come under RTI (the Right To Information Act) but runs and controls all major digital payment systems. This was highlighted by the Watal Committee. This is bad for the payments ecosystem and the country because we need more competition and openness in payments to grow the market,” says Nikhil Pahwa, founder of MediaNama, a digital news site that has been covering the payments and fintech space closely since 2008.

Meanwhile, PhonePe’s asking valuation was rumoured to be around $500 million in early 2017, and given its continuing traction, could only have increased subsequently.

The seed of PhonePe’s relationship with UPI was ostensibly planted at a “hackathon” organized by NPCI and iSpirt, the apex think tank for the Indian software products industry, in early 2016. Numerous startups competed to build apps that utilized UPI.

“What was promised was that all APIs would be open and introduced through hackathons. But there has been no equal access. You have to be in iSpirt’s good books. You have to navigate a lot and know the right people for access. Which means only a few get access, while everyone else only consumes them,” says the co-founder of one of the most well-regarded payment processing startups in India.

The Backstory

iSpirt wasn’t always like this. In fact, it was nothing like this.

It started out in 2013 as the “Indian Software Products Industry Round Table”, a think tank whose sole objective was to help Indian software product companies grow. The two people behind it were Sharad Sharma and Avinash Raghava, both leading the product evangelization efforts of NASSCOM, India’s apex IT Services & BPO body.

Disillusioned by the step-motherly treatment towards software product companies from NASSCOM, Sharma and Raghava formed iSpirt with the support of 30 of India’s best software product founders and executives. Each of the 30 became part of a “Founders Circle” and donated money to set up the initial corpus for iSpirt to function.

To maximize impact, iSpirt decided that it would restrict itself to only three areas: policy advocacy; creating reusable ‘playbooks’ from other successful product companies that could be used by others; and helping catalyse a market for software products.

Thanks to the sheer energy of Sharma and Raghava, they were able to tap into a wellspring of knowledge and know-how from India’s best software product startups. Within a year, iSpirt’s “Playbook” sessions were a highly acclaimed example of how best to spread insight within the Indian ecosystem. Its blog, “Product Nation”, became a go-to place for entrepreneurs, developers, and investors from the ecosystem.

iSpirt was helping Indian product startups on two fronts – helping some go global, and helping others sell local.

On the global front, “M&A Connect” helped bridge the gap between large international companies and Indian product startups. “InTech50” was a flagship event that showcased India’s most promising startups.

Meanwhile, on the local front, its “Software Adoption Initiative” was about helping increase the software product adoption rate in specific sectors, by connecting potential buyers with software product makers.

To foster the creation of newer product startups, iSpirt held “Bootcamps” across the country to help wannabe entrepreneurs understand what it took to become successful.

For a small volunteer-led body, iSpirt’s energy and drive were infectious and effective, quickly creating a network of tens of thousands of motivated founders, entrepreneurs and developers.

But all good things must come to an end. And the beginning of that end started in 2015.

The Investigation

“One question we’re trying to answer is, was Sharad doing it personally or were more people from iSpirt involved? We believe Sharad is not equal to iSpirt,” said NRK Raman to Nikhil Pahwa.

The day was 24 May 2017 and the conversation was taking place over a telephone conference call. Raman, the former MD and CEO of Oracle Financial Services, was the head of iSpirt’s recently formed Guidelines and Compliance Committee, IGCC. Other than him and Pahwa, the others on the call were all senior iSpirt volunteers Amit Ranjan, co-founder and former COO of SlideShare; Aneesh Reddy, co-founder and CEO of Capillary Technologies; and iSpirt’s Avinash Raghava.

The IGCC’s remit was to investigate allegations of coordinated and anonymous social media attacks on critics of Aadhaar, India’s digital identity project that was the bedrock of “India Stack”. India Stack was a collection of technologies built atop Aadhaar that was increasingly looking like the tail that wagged the iSpirt dog.

Over the next roughly 45 minutes or so, Pahwa would meticulously explain to the committee how Sharma had been targeting him and others for what he saw was their opposition to Aadhaar.

“Sharad is obsessed with IFF (Internet Freedom Foundation*, a volunteer body to support research and advocacy on a free and open Internet in India, of which Pahwa was a founding member) and a grand conspiracy against India Stack by IFF,” said Pahwa, according to multiple people present on the call as well as made aware of it later.

Pahwa told the IGCC members that Sharma had gotten a free run to build a fiefdom with iSpirt and that now “arrogance and hubris (were) getting the better of him.”

There was mostly shocked silence from the IGCC members.

“He’s a bully, and because of that there is deep dislike and distrust of iSpirt in the policy circles in Delhi,” Pahwa continued.

Pahwa also brought up SUDHAM, an iSpirt volunteer group that had been set up to do advocacy but had been traced back as the source of the trolling against critics online.

He said the point of SUDHAM was to create a chilling effect, so people wouldn’t speak up. “It was used to silence critics, not to respond to critics,” he said. As the conversation ended, one of the IGCC members told Pahwa they would “come back to you in a couple of days.”

Nearly four months later, there has still been no formal communication from IGCC or iSpirt to Pahwa or the other people targeted by the trolling.

“I haven’t heard from the IGCC since my deposition, and I don’t expect to hear from them now. I don’t know of anyone else who has. The IGCC failed to do its duty,” said Pahwa.

The Drift

iSpirt did yeoman service to the cause of Indian software products during its first three years. That was made possible by the selfless contribution of hundreds of volunteers, most of who contributed their time and expertise out of a genuinely greater desire to help other Indian product companies do better.

But by 2014, something new and alien had seeped into the organization that would over the next few years completely rewire iSpirt. That was Aadhaar.

Could iSpirt help position Aadhaar with product companies as a new way to target Indian consumers? Could iSpirt act as an interface between startups and the newly formed government at the center? Could iSpirt also help build some of the technical scaffolding around Aadhaar so that startups could just “plug and play”?

At first, it seemed Aadhaar’s effect on iSpirt was only isolated. For instance, of the 11 select presentations made by iSpirt-selected startups on 1 July 2014 to the Minister for IT, Ravi Shankar Prasad, only one was based on Aadhaar—the one by Novopay.

Novopay was a digital payments startup incubated by Khosla Labs and staffed by a large number of former Aadhaar volunteers, including Srikanth Nadhamuni, formerly Aadhaar’s head of technology, and Sanjay Jain, formerly Aadhaar’s chief product manager.

But as the months went by, Aadhaar’s influence would only continue to grow within iSpirt.

As iSpirt’s meetings with the government over Aadhaar-based solutions grew in number, so did Sharma’s rise in power and stature. He saw himself presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a “platform” that could even outlast him as his legacy.

“No change happens in less than 30 years,” he told The Ken in an interview on 12 September. “The (Indian) IT industry. The fight against smoking and tobacco. The emergence of Silicon Valley as a design hub in the 1970s. All of these took 30 years.”

What was needed, said Sharma, was a “tech spine” to help entrepreneurs target consumers in areas like financial inclusion or affordable healthcare.

And so, to iSpirt’s existing three pillars, a fourth was added: “societal platforms”.

By 2015, Aadhaar had started seeping into more and more aspects of iSpirts work, culminating in “India Stack”.

“India Stack makes a user base of over a billion people readily available through its API. This means that startups and tech companies can build over this to be able to integrate various functions for their businesses or for larger enterprises. Every bank or telecom operator scans through tons of paperwork every day to be able to verify customers and generate KYC documents. Now imagine the impact if this entire process could be digitized by building an application which would integrate India Stack and the user base of over a billion Indians!”

Other than Aadhaar, which was built and operated by its own statutory body, UIDAI, India Stack champions technologies like UPI (simplified payments), eKYC (digital know-your-customer processes), Digilocker (online storage of digital documents) and eSign (Aadhaar-based digital signatures).

India Stack’s goal was—is—to create four technology “layers” any company could harness into its products: a “presenceless” one where Aadhaar would serve to identify anyone digitally; a “paperless” one to store digital documents; a “cashless” one to enable digital payments; and finally, a “consent” layer to enable authenticated transfer of data.

Given that Aadhaar was the lynchpin for all of these, India Stack became closely associated with the government, which was battling multiple citizen-driven cases in the Supreme Court, challenging the legality and lack of privacy protections for the identity project.

The government saw India Stack as a way to irrevocably embed Aadhaar into the lives of 1.2 billion Indians and all digital commerce. Once embedded, it would be impossible to roll back the ambitious project without causing widespread disruption and harm to people and businesses.

Towards this goal, iSpirt was a perfect foil, and India Stack a perfect fait accompli.

Soon, India Stack was working closely with not just the UIDAI, but also NITI Aayog (read our related story, “The NITI Aayog’s midlife identity crisis”), NPCI, and even the Reserve Bank of India, RBI.

“Sharad started becoming more obsessed with India Stack, and not focused on anything else. All conversations were around that. He wanted to start an India Stack Fund too, to ensure that companies building on top of Aadhaar would get funding,” says a senior member of iSpirt who’s been part of the organization since its inception. He requested anonymity — as did many other sources for this story — fearing retaliation for his critical views on India Stack.

“People are afraid of coming on the record because they’re afraid of what it will do to their businesses,” he apologetically explained.

By 2016, iSpirt and Sharma had become the first port of call when the government wanted to do something big around technology. From just lobbying with the government, iSpirt was now helping decide policy and implementation. And as the de-facto head of iSpirt, Sharma was now the most important gatekeeper in India’s technology ecosystem.

At the organization level, India Stack started slowly taking over its host from the inside out, cornering mindshare, money and opportunities. The inception was nearly complete.

And as iSpirt slowly lost interest in helping product startups and instead started building Aadhaar-based platforms, many of the original product founders and volunteers slowly got disillusioned and withdrew themselves. Highly respected founders like Bharat Goenka, founder of Tally, and Vishnu Dusad, CEO of Nucleus Software, quietly resigned from its governing council.

The newer crop of volunteers who replaced the product entrepreneurs were mostly interested in India Stack, seeing it as a way to get early first-hand experience on Aadhaar-based technologies.

The Power

“India Stack came as a surprise. For me iSpirt was always about Product Nation,” says another iSpirt member who had been part of it since inception. He too requested anonymity.

Meanwhile, Sharad Sharma was now seen as the face of India Stack, and the general leading the war against multinational corporations like Google and Facebook and their “digital colonization” of India.

“Imagine fighting the next general election with the tag that the Government sold the Indian Digital consumer to MNCs like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Uber under the guise of the Digital India program. This would be a political nightmare,” Sharma told Economic Times in a 2015 interview.

But as Sharma’s power and influence grew, those close to him started noticing that so did his arrogance and anger. According to multiple people who interacted with him during the past two years, he started seeing any criticism of Aadhaar as an existential attack on India Stack and iSpirt.

Wherever Sharma saw what appeared to be threats, he tried to either destroy or coopt them. One such attempt happened in March 2016 at a small meeting he organized in Bangalore, between Pahwa and Kiran Jonnalagadda, an outspoken technologist and co-founder of HasGeek, with India Stack members Sanjay Jain and Pramod Varma, both former Aadhaar volunteers too.

Sharma’s idea was to co-opt the support of Pahwa and Jonnalagadda, both key members of Save The Internet, an online collective that had got over 1 million Indians to send letters in support of Net Neutrality to India’s telecom regulator TRAI. Thanks partly to that campaign, TRAI brought in a strict Net Neutrality law and ended up banning Facebook’s ambitious Free Basics “zero-rated” initiative.

“They too were afraid of the government misusing Aadhaar. Sharad said, once these people (the India Stack volunteers) leave, they would have no influence, so it would be best to make changes while it was still possible. I was impressed they admitted they had built a beast they could not control. And that they wanted to fix it while they still had influence,” recalls Jonnalagadda.

Pahwa meanwhile brought up the fact that given Aadhaar lacked any purpose limitations, it would end up being used for surveillance. And that the law did not allow a citizen even the right to go to court against someone who may have stolen her data.

The details of this meeting, held under “Chatham House Rules” (no specific quotes can be attributed to people), were disclosed by Pahwa to the IGCC investigation committee after their approval.

According to the IGCC sources, Pahwa said that Sharma had rubbished the findings of a Parliamentary Standing Committee with former cabinet minister Yashwant Sinha at the helm, tasked with studying the privacy implications of Aadhaar. Sharma shouted that the findings had been fixed and that it had been written by the noted lawyer and anti-Aadhaar activist, Usha Ramanathan.

“You don’t understand technology. Technology will supersede the law, and the law will lag behind. You guys will all remain in the past while all of us go into the future,” Sharma said.

“You can’t do anything about the law, it’s already sorted out,” said Sharma, according to Pahwa’s testimony to the IGCC.

Pahwa told the IGCC members that this could only imply Sharma knew that the Aadhaar bill would soon be passed as a “Money Bill” (a parliamentary provision that bypasses most standard procedures) a few days later.

Towards the last week of December 2016, multiple sources confirmed a conversation that took place between Pahwa and a livid Vijay Shekhar Sharma*, Paytm’s founder. Sharma asked Pahwa why Sharad Sharma was accusing him of funding Pahwa and IFF  to the tune of Rs 1 crore, to create a rival to iSpirt and India Stack.

Of course, there was no such funding, but the incident highlighted Sharad Sharma’s extreme paranoia about any other organization emerging as a rival to iSpirt.

This intimidation of what Sharma saw as opponents of Aadhaar (though Pahwa is careful to point out that he only critiques the weakness of Aadhaar in an effort to improve it) would culminate in a coordinated campaign of anonymous social media trolling in May 2017.

The Trolling

During a roughly two-week period, from 4 May to 17 May, a number of anonymous Twitter accounts popped up and launched a coordinated attack on some of the most prominent critics of Aadhaar.

“Don’t you think @nixxin and @jackerhack are responsible for making IFF a shadow of what it should have been? Both did for ego & business.“ said an account called @confident_india. The targets of the tweet were Nikhil Pahwa (@nixxin) and Kiran Jonnalagadda (@jackerhack).

(Note: Some of these tweets may have been deleted from Twitter, but have been archived at a site called Tweepli)

Respected journalist Saikat Datta was accused of being funded by Pakistan’s intelligence service.

Staff belonging to the Center for Internet and Society were told they could expect to find themselves in jail.

“@cis-india.org is screwed too. Instead of responsible disclosure you went for political gamesmanship. Voilated FCRA law. #jail may be nxt”

It became clear very soon that there wasn’t just one account.

“This @Memeghnad is so good at writing dumb fictional fear mongering stories. Must give him a Pulitzer,” said @draveedian. The target of that tweet was Meghnad Sahasrabhojanee, a policy researcher at the Office of Tathagata Satpathy, a Member of Parliament from Orissa state.

It was followed up by another, directly attacking Satpathy, a vocal critic of Aadhaar. “Like master like disciple. Not sure what that MP has done till date except rant.”

The trolling reached a crescendo on 17 May when Jonnalagadda unmasked at least one of the accounts, @confident_india, as belonging to Sharad Sharma, based on the fact that his mobile number was used as the second-factor authentication on the account.

As the troll “gang” imploded in confusion, messages started getting mixed up.

One account, @indiaforward2, clarified in two tweets, “Just woke up to a tweetstorm. I’m in Atlanta attending to a family medical emergency. I can categorically state…@product_nation. I can categorically state that I am NOT operating the confident_india Twitter account @product_nation.”

The tweets were quickly deleted, only for the following to be posted from Sharma’s official account, @sharads, “In fact I’m on US East Coast with a family member for a serious medical situation. @product_nation”

Meanwhile @confident_india, up till now a user of impeccable grammar and punctuation, turned teenybopper. “for d n time. I am not him. Is dis a strategy forcing me 2 reveal myself? I m not falling 4 this”

The meltdown was painful to watch.

The Coverup

“Who are you to tell me this?” thundered Sharad Sharma. His outburst was received in the conference room with a shock first and then pin drop silence.

It was 4.30 p.m. on Sunday, 28 May 2017, and in the room were IGCC members Naveen Tewari, CEO of InMobi; Pallav Nadhani*, CEO of Fusion Charts; NRK Raman; Sanjay Anandaram, angel investor; Aneesh Reddy; and iSpirt’s Avinash Raghava. Another member, Amit Ranjan, had joined in via a teleconference.

They had already been in meeting for about three hours at the InMobi office on Outer Ring Road, Bengaluru.

The IGCC members read out the findings of a report the group had prepared after speaking to various people during the last few weeks. As the findings were read out, the tension in the room could be cut with a knife. Some of them were:

–        that Sharma step down from the SUDHAM team immediately

–        that SUDHAM in its current form was being dissolved

–        that Sharma stay away from any public pronouncements on any iSPIRT matters for a few months

–        that Avinash Raghava become the spokesperson for iSpirt for the time being

Sharma had been waiting outside for over an hour. (Perhaps he was not used to being treated like that.) But he still patiently heard out the findings.

Then he started speaking.

“I created iSpirt and built it brick by brick. Who are any of you to tell me what to do?” he shouted at the people in the room.

There was stunned silence in return. Not one person spoke back.

“Why are you making such a big account of a troll account? Did you not see that these people were trolling Aadhaar too? These anti-Aadhaar activists are bad and need to be countered. People like Kiran Jonnalagadda, Nikhil Pahwa, Usha Ramanathan…”

“We were doing this for the country,” he shouted, livid with rage by now.

In between, Sharma directed his ire at InMobi’s Naveen Tewari, telling him, “I’ve built iSpirt, what have you done? If you don’t like it, you can leave!”

So Tewari said he was quitting, and walked out of the room.

But after Economic Times covered the news of his resignation a couple of days later, some iSpirt members convinced Tewari to withdraw it.

Pallav Nadhani also resigned shortly after.

By now Sharma had assumed the role of the meeting’s chairperson, from starting out as the focus of its investigations. He rejected the IGCC’s findings and said he would tell them what to do. He went to the whiteboard in the room and started writing down the steps.

He shot down Raghava’s name as the new iSpirt spokesperson and said it would instead be Sanjay Jain. In his mind, the role required coordination with the NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The IGCC meekly said okay.

He also told the group that their findings would need to be modified and that a new one would need to be mailed out to the entire iSpirt team.

The report said that “several emails, queries, comments” had come in on “how India Stack fits into the overall Product Nation mission of iSPIRT”. Sharma deleted that entire section.

He deleted a recommendation to create “a more permanent IGCC” to strengthen iSpirt’s code of ethics and compliance.

He deleted the recommendation for the formation of an advisory council formed of senior professionals from the industry.

Most importantly, Sharma deleted references to IGCC finding evidence of “some iSpirt volunteers”, other than him, indulging in the trolling of “those attacking iSpirt and its causes.” By doing this, he ensured that no one else other than him could be blamed.

It was around 7 pm now, and all that the browbeaten and exhausted IGCC members left in the room wanted was for the meeting to end.

Sharma’s last point was about a blog post announcing the culmination of the IGCC process. He wanted closure.

The very next day, he published, “The End Doesn’t Justify The Means: A Public Statement”

“And on that count, I as one of the builders have stumbled. I condoned uncivil behavior by some anonymous handles over a period of ten days. I have owned up to this transgression. It was investigated internally by the iSPIRT Governing Council: Sudham as a team stands dissolved, and I will no longer be communicating on behalf of iSPIRT externally for 4 months.”

Sharma had just given himself a clean chit.

“iSpirt/ProductNation is an important organisation because it gives founders the opportunity to help founders give back to their community. The online trolling via Sudham was one of many things done to stifle democratic dissent against the mandatory-ness and poor implementation of Aadhaar. iSpirt needed to look inwards and re-assess whether this is the kind of behaviour they stand for, develop processes for better governance, transparency, and accountability. This starts with accepting that there is an issue, taking ownership of their mistakes, and addressing it in a manner that shows genuine contrition, without any ambiguity. It failed to do this,” says Pahwa.

The Loss

“As Indian product companies, we at iSpirt were the underdogs. Then how did we end up building platforms to offer to the very entities we said we wouldn’t touch?” says a product founder and iSpirt member since its inception.

He was referring to the use of Aadhaar and India Stack platforms by large American tech MNCs like Microsoft, Facebook and Oracle.

“Ultimately, we can only watch from the sidelines for the scraps left for us,” he said.

Many of iSpirt’s most experienced, passionate and talented volunteers have either resigned or completely disassociated themselves from it. Of the five members of its Governing Council—Bharat Goenka, Vishnu Dusad, Shoiab Ahmed (former President, Tally), Jay Pullur (CEO, Pramati Technologies) and Sharad Sharma—only Pullur and Sharma remain.

Another product founder, also an iSpirt member since inception, pointed to lost opportunities for the Indian software product sector, because iSpirt became fixated with Aadhaar and India Stack. “It will have an impact on “what India could be”,” he said.

“The world is moving so fast that as a nation you have to identify the next big opportunity. And it’s not chat. Maybe it’s blockchain or augmented reality. That’s where India has to select and nurture its ecosystem. It needs strategic focus. Without that guidance, lots of startups will chase things the West has already done five years ago. We will always be behind the curve. That is what China did for manufacturing,” he said.

“The government does not understand the impact of automation and AI. We’re still stuck on ‘Digital’, while the world has moved on,” he said.

Another founder reminisces about listening to Sharma criticize NASSCOM (where he worked as the head of its Product Council) one night over a beer in 2012. “Sharad was frustrated and angry and said that NASSCOM doesn’t understand products,” he said.

Months later at another meeting, some of iSpirt’s early founders discussed the contours of the new body and how it would be different from NASSCOM. “We said Bollywood is India’s soft power. How could we make Indian products the same? IT services had screwed India’s image because the government now only cared if an industry was big and had lots of employees,” recollects one of the people at that meeting.

“It’s ironic that iSpirt has become what it set out to defeat (NASSCOM),” says another founder.

Disclosures:

*Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder of Paytm, is an investor in The Ken.

*Pallav Nadhani, the CEO of Fusion Charts, is an investor in The Ken.

*Sumanth Raghavendra, one of the The Ken’s co-founders, is an iSpirt volunteer.

*Rohin Dharmakumar, the author of this story and one of the co-founders of The Ken, was a member of STI and is a member of IFF. He is also the co-founder and CEO of The Ken.

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