Interview
Karnataka’s IT Minister spoke exclusively to TNM on a range of issues including its Elevate 100 initiative.
Facebook/ Priyank Kharge

In July, the 'Elevate 100' programme aimed at identifying and promoting 100 of the most promising startups was launched amid much fanfare in Bengaluru. And the man at the centre of it was Karnataka IT Minister Priyank Kharge. The youngest minister in the state cabinet spoke to TNM on a range of issues including the extent of government intervention in startups, creation of a T-Hub (Hyderabad-based) like incubation space for startups, the Infosys CEO exit fallout on ‘Brand Bengaluru’ as well as looking ahead to next year’s assembly elections.

Rs 400 crore has been allocated for Elevate 100, but how is the money allocated across the 100 tech companies?

Elevate 100 gives you access to Rs 400 crore. It’s not like we are splurging Rs 400 crore on 100 companies. If you have seen the Elevate 100 preamble – we do a lot of things for them. If they ask for mentoring, we give them world class mentors, if they ask for transactional advisors, we give them world class transactional advisors, like PWC, EY, KPMG. If they ask for idea validation within the government, we allow them to validate within the government. if they ask for legal help, IP reimbursements, trademark reimbursements, that help is at hand. We provide with networking opportunities.

Should the government involve itself in startup innovation? Also, where does one draw the line?

Not many state governments are doing this, because they don’t know how to handle venture funds. This is our third tranche. The Kitven fund is in its third avatar. We have been there done that. It is run professionally, by industry experts, by financial institutions. It is not run by the government. The government is just giving the money. We are not here to make it a business. We are just here to facilitate so that they (startups) go to the next level.

Is Karnataka considering something on the lines of Telangana’s T-Hub?  

We are doing much better than T-Hub. T-hub started recently, they have one building, one institution which is driving innovation. I have multiple T-Hubs. I have it in Gulbarga, Tumkuru, Hubli, Mangaluru, Bengaluru, Mysuru, Shimoga. It’s just that they have one cluster and branded it. We have innovation across the state.

The Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) is to be held in Hyderabad, with Ivanka Trump leading the US delegation. Is this a loss for Bengaluru?

I didn’t even know we were competing until you told me. The entrepreneurship summit is decided at the central level. When Mr Modi has pitched it, he has pitched it. It’s not that it is a win or a loss. I am okay with the entire entrepreneurial system going there, giving a speech, as long as the investments come here. 

Are there any startups that have caught your attention?

I have over 4000 companies registered with the state government. How many state governments can boast of that? And they are all looking at the government for some kind of support. There are plenty of things- right from agriculture to aerospace, we have a lot of innovation that is happening.

We are also having a separate women entrepreneurship programme. The idea will be to see how we can help women entrepreneurs across sectors, to help them accelerate and accentuate their growth.

Do you believe the Infosys fallout will hurt ‘Brand Bengaluru’?   

Brand Bengaluru is bigger than any of the companies. Brand Bengaluru is not just IT. Brand Bengaluru is about the environment, we have a 480-year history and heritage. We have great weather, we have a progressive government that churns out industrial policies as well. Infosys and Wipro are strong pillars of our success story. And anything that happens is publicly scrutinised because they have been the champions of the industry and they come with high integrity. Which corporate house does not have board room conflicts? Everyone has it.

In light of the layoffs in the IT industry, is there any move to legalise trade unions in the IT sector?

It’s very tricky for me to take sides as a government. I am responsible for the entire ecosystem. it is my job to create employment. I have to look at both employee and employer perspective. I have offered legal help to the association. We are talking to the forums and the employers. As of now, there is no proposal to legalise or formalise trade unions or worker unions in the sector. 

The KDA recently wrote to Apple for using locally developed Kannada fonts and keyboards in iPhones and Macs. Your thoughts?

Nothing is wrong. It’s about adding a keyboard because Kannada is a classical language. But we are too diverse a country. We have multiple languages which have classical status which is 3,000 years old. So, we have just written and when I spoke to their representatives here, they said they’ll be having a look at it. At the end of the day, globalisation is becoming more about localisation. People talk about going ‘glocal’.

In terms of bringing investments to the state, are you looking mainly at Bengaluru or considering Tier 2, Tier 3 cities as well?

See, our industrial policy and IT policy are based geographically as well as sector-wise. So, our incentives are very clear. If you are investing in Hyderabad -Karnataka region, you are entitled for a higher incentive than if you are doing it in Bengaluru. So, if you are having let’s say a green initiative or a green investment, they have a separate incentive. So, we are sector agnostic as well as place agnostic. We have incentives and progressive policies for all.

Elections are less than a year away. The BJP has already created around 5,000 WhatsApp groups. When it comes to Congress, how are you going to deal with this blitzkrieg?

What are they talking about in 5,000 groups? They can create 50,000. But what is the content they are putting across. They have nothing to speak against us. So, there’s no major scandal plaguing us. There is no major misgovernance they can talk about. They cannot say that infrastructure has not improved. So, even if they create 50,000 groups, probably they will be sending just memes. We don’t know what their strategy is.

So, are you pretty confident of winning the next assembly elections?

Absolutely. We have got the kind of progressive policies which are reaching the bottom of the pyramid. We have got the highest FDI. We have created the highest number of jobs in the country. We have ensured that real estate does not fall down in the state. More than an online strategy, we have an offline strategy.