Inside the mind of India’s chief tech stack evangelist

Earlier this month a flurry of newly created Twitter troll accounts began heckling me about Aadhaar. Who were these people, and what had I done to upset them? (For context, I’m a co-founder of both HasGeek and the Internet Freedom Foundation, named here.)

All screenshots link back to the original tweet.

The very first tweet from this account. What an auspicious start!
So much for nuance
Observe who liked it. It’s important
This troll does whataboutery
This one is a stalker
How did I get dragged into this?

Enter the boss

I had my lightbulb moment when the following exchange happened:

For those not quite familiar with Twitter: @sharads doesn’t follow any of the people in this conversation and would not have seen this on his timeline, so the only way he could have wandered in is if alerted to it. Both he and the troll made the same argument, but the troll made it first. Could they possibly be related?

Who is Sharad Sharma and what does he do?

From his LinkedIn profile, Sharad is Co-founder and Governing Council Member of iSPIRT Foundation. He’s also a director of the company. iSPIRT is the Indian Software Product Industry Round Table and describes its origin story thus:

To transform India into a hub for new generation software products, it is crucial to address government policy, create market catalysts and grow the maturity of product entrepreneurs. An integrative approach is fundamental and vital.
Since the stakes are high and industry is moving very fast, a reactive ivory tower approach cannot succeed. In addition to top-down policy recommendations, the hive mind of the industry must be leveraged to support conversations for grassroots involvement and actions. David Weinberger said it most aptly: the smartest person in the room is now the room.
With this context in mind, about 30 product companies and individuals joined hands together to form iSPIRT — the Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable in early 2013.

It is common knowledge within the industry that iSPIRT was formed by volunteers who previously organised NASSCOM’s annual Product Conclave (NPC) and felt an independent organisation better represented their needs.

iSPIRT’s two big initiatives are ProductNation, their founding project, and IndiaStack, a collection of APIs for large scale tech infrastructure projects, including Aadhaar and UPI. By virtue of involvement with these initiatives, Sharad is a widely respected figure in the tech industry. His enthusiasm and energy for his causes are unparalleled.

Also by virtue of his reach into various organisations represented by IndiaStack and its volunteers, including UIDAI, NPCI, SEBI, MeitY and GSTN, Sharad is a powerful figure, perhaps the only one with a reach spanning from small, unfunded startups to the upper bureaucracy of government. You want to be on Sharad’s good side.

The alter ego

Who is @Confident_India, who levelled the same charge at me as Sharad, but before him? Could this be Sharad’s anonymous alter ego, saying the things that Sharad wouldn’t put his name on? He or she even issued a challenge:

Challenge accepted. Twitter isn’t a very good platform for being anonymous, so I checked using Sharad’s phone number. They matched. (I posted a tweet with this image earlier today and the number was subsequently removed from the account, but not before a number of others confirmed the match.)

Armed with this confirmation, I spent a few days observing what Sharad Sharma and his coterie say when they don’t have their real names attached to their words.

Note: Sharad has denied involvement with this account moments before I published, but I’m not buying the denial. You’ll see why as you read on.

Inside the minds of Aadhaar evangelists

Sharad Sharma believes The Centre for Internet and Society has committed a crime with their research on #AadhaarLeaks

Earlier this month CIS published a report about 135 million Aadhaar numbers being publicly available from various websites. CIS notified all sources and gave them a reasonable window to take down data before the report was published.

Clearly, the report has rattled Sharad and his correspondents enough to allege that it is funded by ISI.

He sure seems serious about the ‘mafia’ in ‘Aadhaar mafia’.

He is obsessed with the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) and its co-founders

iSPIRT offered some crucial support to the SaveTheInternet campaign in 2015–16. Several of the campaign’s volunteers formed the Internet Freedom Foundation to carry forward the work. However, a subsequent discussion between iSPIRT and IFF on campaigning for privacy did not go through as the two groups disagreed on fundamentals.

Nikhil Pahwa (@nixxin), a co-founder of IFF, has been on sabbatical from IFF since January 2017. IFF has not assumed a position on Aadhaar yet, but Sharad doesn’t believe it.

A sidebar: you know the Internet Freedom Foundation is doing good work when one of the most powerful men in the tech sector rants anonymously like this. Support IFF so we can continue our good work.

He really hates smartcards

He also hates the white man

Pretty ironic then that Sharad Sharma was once CEO of Yahoo! R&D India (see LinkedIn bio). What must he think of his former white employers?

He sure likes the white man’s endorsement of Aadhaar

Spot the white man’s endorsements

He believes only seven failures happen in a billion attempts and anyone who disagrees is spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt

UIDAI itself disagrees.

He doesn’t like both Lutyens and JNU types

Nevermind that they represent entirely different ideologies.

Critics are stooges

A critic is a CIA stooge, unless they keep alleging Aadhaar is a CIA scam, in which case they’re an ISI stooge. How convenient.

Apparently there is no coordinated play and trolls like his coterie should be tracked

We’ll come back to this. It’s important.

Except there is an army

He has a wall with our names on it

He’s confident we have no supporters

He can’t quite handle life with a split personality

Sometimes making the same statements from both accounts, sometimes switching accounts when replying (as in the original tip-off tweet).

He has mixed feelings for Usha Ramanathan

The “seatbelts” reference is ironic. We have seatbelts in cars today thanks to the work of American political activist Ralph Nader, whose 1965 publication Unsafe at Any Speed shook up the automobile industry. Nader has been a recurring candidate for US President since 1971. Since there are now rumours of Nandan Nilekani’s name circulating for President of India, maybe we should campaign for Usha Ramanathan instead.

But let’s get to the juicy stuff.

Introducing Sudham

iSPIRT’s team page refers to a project named ‘Sudham’ with no further details available anywhere on the site (that Google can find). The word is Sanskrit for ‘purify’. What is Sudham? I asked an iSPIRT donor who’s generally clued into the organisation. He didn’t know.

Someone else did. Here are a few pages from an internal slide deck dated 28th April describing Sudham:

Pay attention to the lower right quadrants titled “Informed yet Trolling”. What do you think it is?

That’s right! iSPIRT has an officially sanctioned trolling program where the trolls coordinate on WhatsApp and attack together on Twitter, exactly the behaviour seen in all the tweets above—and I’ve only covered the leader’s tweets. There are at least a dozen known troll accounts that attack in packs.

These people launched a formal program to troll critics, gave it a public name, held a meeting to announce the program, styled themselves ‘archers’ and ‘swordsmen’, mailed this deck around to their members, and then proceeded to anonymously harass critics on Twitter. What did they think was going to happen?

iSPIRT’s website includes the following mission text:

We came into being as iSPIRT — the Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable — because we believe in the cause of the Indian Software Product Industry. We believe that with focus, investment and indeed encouragement, the software product industry can become a multi-billion dollar force to reckon with in the future.

Does that “encouragement” include trolling critics into silence or submission, threatening jail and alleging corruption?

Let me be clear here: Sharad Sharma is a powerful man and has the blessings of Nandan Nilekani, an even more powerful man. A few strategic whispers are enough to ruin my career. He has power beyond my means to resist. I fear retaliation from this man. My business partner and I have lived in this fear for months, because this is not the first time we’ve been the target of his ire. And now I’ve painted a bigger target sign on myself.

iSPIRT is an organisation built on the credibility of its volunteers, donors and partners. It was begun to help startups grow and build better products. Here are the people powering iSPIRT. Are you an iSPIRT volunteer, donor or partner? Were you aware of this happening? Did you sanction this? Is this an organisation you want to lend your support or credibility to? Is this the kind of behaviour you support?

Nandan Nilekani has been named as the organisation’s mentor. Nandan, did you sanction this? Is this an organisation you want to lend your support or credibility to?

iSPIRT has a governance crisis. Do something.