Beyond Bollywood & Yoga: DPGs, India’s new soft power, about to be on show

Last month, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) issued a press note ( It identified the priorities of the next G20 forum, the powerful global high table that frames the collective responses to challenges impacting the world economy, once India inherits the presidency on December 1.

G20 is composed of both developed and developing countries, which between them account for 85% of the global GDP, 75% of international trade and two-thirds of the global population. Given the dysfunctional state of most multilateral bodies, G20 is now the go-to institution in the world.

Among other objectives, the walk-up identified a very interesting priority, ‘Digital public infrastructure and tech-enabled development in areas ranging from health, agriculture and education to commerce, skill-mapping, culture and tourism.’ Clearly, the emphasis here is on India’s new calling card – digital public goods (DPGs) – that is rapidly gaining eyeballs and expanding its global footprint.

This was not an isolated reference by the foreign office. Earlier, addressing a gathering hosted by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), former foreign secretary and serving G20 coordinator Harsh Shringla made a strong pitch for the need to showcase India’s success with DPGs. He began by highlighting the innovations, ‘Our startup sector, a world beating digital public goods and industrial policy, focused on technological innovation and growth show that we are capable of creating tech models that balance the need for global integration and priorities at a national level .’

And then he signalled India’s plan during its upcoming presidency, ‘At the G20, this model must be internationalised… The world needs new and innovative approaches to tackle today’s complex challenges. Digital technologies present us with the tools to deal with some contemporary challenges.’ Implicitly, Shringla and the MEA are acknowledging that India’s soft power arsenal has a new inclusion: DPGs.

Traditionally, India’s soft power has been defined around yoga, cuisine, Bollywood and, more recently, contemporary Indian art. Little over the last decade, with the launch of Aadhaar, India has begun to acquire international attention for its prowess in creating public digital infrastructure to deliver public good.

CoWin-Win Platform

It has successfully created digital building blocks using Aadhaar as the foundation to create a public digital rail – on which anyone, government or private sector, can build applications to scales as staggering as one billion.

These protocols have been used to create the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), which powered the fintech revolution in India and democratized payments – from a mere 1,000 in 2016, the average transactions a month have grown to a little under 7 billion.

Similarly, CoWin was used to deliver 2 billion jabs using the principle ‘One Nation, One Jab’. Not only did it permit an orderly rollout of India’s vaccination project but it also ensured that no one, particularly migrants, was excluded. Its phenomenal success in delivering 2 billion vaccines has led to 50 countries showing interest in signing up for a similar system to roll-out their vaccination drives.

On September 30, India launched its most audacious digital economy plan to reimagine digital commerce when it rolled out the Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) in Bengaluru. It seeks to hit the reset on digital commerce, similar to the manner in which UPI completely upended the payments business by allowing interoperability – by which we can pay each other in real time using any wallet as long as each of us is on the UPI network – at an extremely low transaction cost.

In short, ONDC seeks to revisit the way sellers and buyers connect with each other in digital commerce, making it that much more accessible and inclusive. At present, these cohorts can engage with each other only by being on the same platform, which are closed and dominated by few.

India has also soft-launched two other initiatives that seek to:

  • Catalysis credit through the Account Aggregator framework.
  • Democratize credit through the Open Credit Enablement Network, such that even sachet loans can be availed at bank rates. At the moment, these are procured mostly by those at the bottom of the pyramid at usurious rates.

India’s unique concept of digital commons, as opposed to the walled garden approach adopted by most global platforms that make users captive, is rapidly finding takers, especially in Europe. Of the nine platforms in the world with billion-plus users, five operate from the US and the balance from China. The idea of ​​DPGs is to ultimately make all these platforms interoperable, thereby democratizing the ability of customers to discover, engage and fulfill their needs.

Plucking the Digital Fruit

All these projects allow for scale by lowering the entry cost and barriers. Now, other countries are looking to adopt the same strategy to deliver public goods without depending on proprietary software systems. India has already begun to institutionalize its play on DPGs. Earlier this year, it joined the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), a multi-stakeholder initiative seeking to accelerate the use of DPGs to achieve sustainable development goals in low- and medium-income countries.

G20, therefore, would be the next logical step to cement and showcase India’s new soft power.


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