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Former bureaucrat Ashwini Vaishnaw now chief of MeitY, Anurag Thakur elevated to minister in MIB

While Vaishnaw has been a part of several parliamentary committees, Thakur was previously the Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance. 

Former IAS officer-turned entrepreneur, Odisha Rajya Sabha MP Ashwini Vaishnaw has been appointed as the new Union Minister for the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). The new appointments, which come as part of a major Cabinet reshuffle, also saw the elevation of former Minister of State (MoS) Anurag Thakur as the head of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), and Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar as an MoS in MeitY.

The 43 new appointments were directed by the President of India, as advised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While many key ministries such as Defence, Finance, Home, External Affairs, Commerce and Industry did not see a change in their leadership, the appointments of Vaishnaw and Thakur in ministries which have been responsible for the much-deliberated upon Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, has piqued the interest of many.

On Wednesday evening, former Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad and former Minister for Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar resigned from the Council of Ministers ahead of the cabinet expansion.

Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister, MeitY

Vaishnaw, a native of Jodhpur, and a former alumnus of IIT Kanpur and Wharton Business School, has earlier been an IAS Officer and served in the capacity of Collector in various districts of Odisha. He has also worked in the Prime Minister’s Office when the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. After the BJP’s loss in the 2004 General Elections, he was appointed as Vajpayee’s private secretary.

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According to Indian Express, Vaishnaw after four years attended Wharton to complete his MBA and joined a private sector company as a senior level officer. As part of his work, he set up manufacturing units in Gujarat. It was in 2019 that he took a step into the political arena, and joined BJP.

  • June 2019 – Elected to Rajya Sahba
  • Sept. 2019  onwards – Member, Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change
  • Oct. 2019 onwards – Member, Committee on Petitions Member, Consultative Committee for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting
  • Nov. 2019 – Feb. 2020 – Member, Select Committee of Rajya Sabha on Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019
  • Dec. 2019 onwards – Member, Joint Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019
  • July 2020 onwards  – Member, Committee on Rules
  • April 2021 onwards – Member, Press Council of India

IT Rules: Vaishnaw will be heading the MeitY at a time when the Union government is tackling several legal challenges regarding the IT Rules from big tech giants such as Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Twitter. Several provisions of the rules which bring in more regulatory oversight in the functioning of social media platforms have been disputed by social media companies.

While WhatsApp has challenged the IT Rules, specifically the traceability mandate of the Rules which indicates that the platform may be required to break its encryption to reveal the originator of a message, Twitter has gone on record to voice their concern regarding the appointment of a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person, and resident grievance officer.

The RS Prasad-led MeitY was unwavering in their stand that all companies have to comply with the rules, and the matter had taken a turn for the worse when Prasad’s Twitter account was locked for a while by the company due to alleged copyright issues. Prasad had publicly criticised the platform for its non-compliance with the Rules. Now, it will be interesting to see how Vaishnaw tackles the legal and policy quagmire.

PDP Bill: Significantly, Vaishnaw, from 2019 to his appointment as the minister of MeitY, was a member of the Joint Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019. As a member, Vaishnaw has been witness to the deliberations regarding the bill. According to an Indian Express report, various ministries such as IT, Law, Home Affairs, etc and private sector officials from MasterCard India, Visa have deposed before the panel.

Anurag Thakur, Minister, MIB

Former BCCI chief Anurag Thakur who recently retained his Lok Sabha seat in Himachal Pradesh’s Hamirpur has been elevated from his post as the Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance to the Union Minister of MIB. Thakur comes from a political family, his father Prem Kumar Dhumal was a two-time chief minister of Himachal Pradesh. Thakur was first elected to the Lok Sabha in May 2008.

Positions held

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  • May 2008  – Elected to 14th Lok Sabha in a by-election
  • 2009 – Re-elected to 15th Lok Sabha (2nd term)
  • Aug. 2009 – Member, Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture/Member, Consultative Committee, Ministry of Power
  • May, 2014 – Re-elected to 16th Lok Sabha (3rd term)
  • June 2014 – May 2019 – Member, Business Advisory Committee
  • Aug. 2014 – May 2019 – Member, Committee on Public Accounts/Member, Consultative Committee, Ministry of Power and Ministry of New and Renewable Energy
  • Sep. 2014 – May 2019 – Chairperson, Standing Committee on Information Technology
  • Jan. 2015 – May 2019 – Member, General Purposes Committee
  • May 2015 – May 2019 – Member, Joint Committee on the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015
  • May, 2019 – Re-elected to 17th Lok Sabha (4th term)
  • May 2019 – onwards Union Minister of State, Ministry of Finance; and Ministry of Corporate Affairs

As the chairperson of the Standing Committee on Information Technology, Thakur had asked Twitter to depose over ‘how to safeguard citizens rights on social/online news media platforms’ in 2019. The meeting was called a day after protests were held outside Twitter India’s office accusing the platform of being biased against the right-wing.

The same year, the panel headed by Thakur had also expressed concern over Facebook’s ability to prevent misuse of its platform during elections in India, said a report by Economic Times. One of the sources told the publication that the sense of committee members was that “despite all the apologies for past mistakes that Facebook has made, it still seems unwilling to be properly scrutinised and transparent.”

In 2018, he had also asked former MeitY minister RS Prasad to restart Aadhar services across Common Services Centers (CSCs). Village Level Entrepreneurs help facilitate the operations in CSCs. Thakur argued that the discontinuation of services was causing them significant financial stress as they had invested in equipment and manpower to carry out Aadhaar work.

Key issues

  • As Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Thakur will be immediately facing legal challenges regarding the IT Rules (Digital Media Ethics Code). Several news organisations such as The Quint, The Wire, The News Minute, and the digital arm of traditional media outlets under the aegis of Digital News Publishers Association have filed multiple cases in various high courts of the country against the rules.
  • The Javadekar led Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) had earlier said in a letter to streaming services and news organisations that traditional news organisations with an online presence cannot be exempted from complying with the IT Rules.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, MoS MeitY

Three-time BJP Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar has been on record a long-time proponent of privacy and internet rights. Born in Gujarat, he grew up across the country as his father was in the Indian Air Force. He completed his engineering from Manipal Institute of Technology and obtained a master’s degree from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Chandrasekhar has held several positions, including that of —

  • 1999 – 2002  – Member, Advisory Committee, Ministry of Information Technology, Government of India
  • June 2006 – May 2009 and Sept. 2010 – Aug. 2012 – Member, Committee on Information Technology
  • Oct. 2019 – Member, Consultative Committee for the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and Ministry of Communications
  • Dec. 2019 Member, Joint Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill/ad-hoc Committee in the Rajya Sabha to study the alarming issue of pornography on social media and its effect on children and society as a whole

It is important to note that both Vaishnaw and Chandrasekhar have been members of the Joint Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill.  Apart from that, as evident from the committees that he has been part of, Chandrasekhar is not a stranger to IT-related developments and issues in the country.

In fact, in 2011, Chandrasekhar had tabled a Private Member’s Bill titled ‘The Right to Privacy Bill, 2010’. The bill lapsed in April 2012. Apart from that, Chandrasekhar’s website describes him as, “For causes, he believes in and supports, he has – apart from raising these in Parliament, actively approached the courts to intervene on behalf of citizens as in the case of Sec 66A, Aadhaar privacy issues and voting rights for Armed Forces.”

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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