India & U.S.

Modi in Facebookland

Print edition : October 30, 2015

Narendra Modi with (from left) Cisco executive chairman John T. Chambers, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Qualcomm executive chairman Paul E. Jacobs and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, in San Jose, California, on September 26. Photo: PTI

People protesting against Narendra Modi raise a large banner in front of his supporters ahead of Modi's appearance at the SAP Center in San Jose on September 27. Photo: Jose Carlos Fajardo/AP

Narendra Modi draws Indian Americans in large numbers, but diverse people also got together to put on record their frustration with his government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi descended upon Silicon Valley en route the opening of the 70th United Nations General Assembly. He went hastily to the world of digital production, making Facebook his main destination. Huddled around the Prime Minister and his entourage were the barons of the Internet—Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Shantanu Narayen (Adobe), Satya Nadella (Microsoft) and Sundar Pichai (Google). It helped that three of these men are Indian American. Feeling left out, Zuckerberg had to say that Steve Jobs had sent him to visit “this temple in India” where he got inspiration for Apple.

A town hall meeting with Zuckerberg at Facebook’s Menlo Park (California) headquarters was the centrepiece of the trip. A side note was the rally with 18,000 Indian Americans in San Jose’s SAP Center. “Modi, Modi,” they chanted in the arena, just as they had outside Facebook’s office. India, said Modi, “has moved from scriptures to satellites. The world has started to believe that the 21st century belongs to India.”

Within the United States, however, media coverage of Modi’s trip was minimal. Others had stolen the spotlight. Pope Francis made his major tour of U.S. cities (Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.). All eyes were on the Pope, whose gestures towards the homeless and the immigrants won him widespread support. Piety rent the air of the U.S. Congress when the Pope arrived there to speak.

But the U.S.’ representatives do not mirror the general public’s attitude towards religion. A quarter of the U.S. population says that it has no religious affiliation. Meanwhile, 99 per cent of the Congressional representatives claim a religious denomination. For many who went on the streets to greet the Pope, it was his message of compassion and equality that drew them, not his religious tradition. So few American politicians carry the kind of moral charge against poverty and oppression; it was the Pope who carried that mantle.

Meanwhile, also keeping out of the Pope’s way was Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, who, like Modi, decided to spend his time before the U.N. on the United States’ West Coast. Xi went to Seattle, where the major aeronautics and technology firms hosted him. Xi, who prefers a low-key environment, did not receive the kind of rock-star adulation that Modi enjoys. A few Chinese Americans held Chinese and U.S. flags, with signs reading, “Welcome to Our President.” Alongside them stood protesters from the Chinese religious group Falun Gong. During Xi’s visit, Boeing sold the Chinese $38 billion worth of aircraft. It was the kind of muscle that only the Chinese—at this time—can wield. It was this sale that brought Xi’s visit to the front pages. When Alexis De Tocqueville travelled the Americas in the 19th century, he found that for this young democracy “nothing is more great or more brilliant than commerce”. Ideas of Indian democracy thrill the American public less than purchase orders from the Chinese.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s understated speech at the U.N. taking the spotlight for his comments on Syria, there was little concern with Modi’s presence there. Nothing of what he said made an impact. Perhaps it was for fear of little news coverage that Facebook invited, and paid for, the trip of journalists from major Indian newspapers. At the end of their stories from California, these journalists noted: “The author was in Menlo Park as a guest of Facebook.” That the Facebook town hall meeting was utterly scripted mattered little. A captive media—with obligations to Facebook—had to report the event breathlessly. Ian Sherr of CNET tweeted from the venue: “Questions from the audience are predetermined.” As it turned out, the audience comprised Facebook employees, many of them Indian Americans (who brought their families), and guests of Facebook who had been flown from India. Their questions had been predigested and seemed stale.

Digital divide

The first question came from Vir Kashyap of Babajobs, a company that is a Facebook partner for its Indian ambitions. Facebook had launched a portal called Internet.org, which it suggested would help bridge the digital divide. The plan is to draw in the 800 million Indians who are without Internet access into the World Wide Web. That a McKinsey report found the same number of Indians living in utter deprivation did not bear comment. It seemed churlish to question Zuckerberg’s boyish utopianism. “For every one person who gets access to the Internet, one new job gets created and one person gets lifted out of poverty,” he said. How would someone who does not know where his or her next meal will come from find a job merely by getting on the Internet? Neither Zuckerberg nor Kashyap was asked such a question. It would have been out of place in this town hall, which was really the Government of India putting its imprimatur for a corporate product launch campaign.

Zuckerberg’s Facebook, like other such social media sites, is under relentless pressure to increase the number of its users. Business plans to make profit by these vehicles are obscure. In the last quarter, Facebook’s profits fell and its growth slowed to the lowest point over the past two years. India’s hundreds of millions of potential Facebook users have lured the company and Zuckerberg to woo Modi. From Facebook, Modi got the patina of cool, while Zuckerberg got to showcase his product to the Indian market through his journalistic guests. Modi spoke of India’s unique strength, the Ds—“Demographic dividend, democracy and demand. I have added another D: deregulation.” It is the last D that appeals to the tech world, where a seam of libertarianism excites the magnates. They want a world without boundaries for their products. Modi wanted to deliver India to their dreams.

Enthusiasm for Digital India could not overwhelm genuine questions about its efficacy. The government has declared an end to the banking divide by opening 180 million bank accounts—mostly empty —for Indians who did not have them. In the same way, the Internet.org approach could very well open 800 million email accounts or Facebook pages—and leave these empty. Questions have been raised in India and the U.S. about Internet.org’s violations of the principle of Net neutrality. Sensitive to these criticisms, Zuckerberg told the media: “We believe in Net neutrality very strongly.”

Evidence for this sentiment is not available. “Zuckerberg is just trying to fool people,” Nikhil Pahwa, editor of medianama.com told me. “It is hypocritical for him to say that Facebook strongly believes in Net neutrality, and still run Internet.org’s Free Basics service, which clearly violates Net neutrality. Net neutrality means that all sites on the Internet are treated as equal by the telecom operator. By zero rating Internet.org’s Free Basics, Reliance Communications, Facebook’s partner, gives a competitive advantage to Facebook and its partners over the open web.” Data show that only a fifth of those who have signed up for Internet.org have come to the Internet for the first time. The putative goal of breaking the digital divide is not satisfied by this mechanism, which seems more like harnessing consumers from other providers.

Modi, Modi, Modi

The chant “Modi, Modi, Modi” echoed across large sections of Indian America. What is it about Modi that attracts this population with an average median income of $88,000 a year (the largest of any ethnic group in the country)? Unlike Manmohan Singh who struggled with his lack of personality, Modi has considerable charisma. But the enthusiasm for Modi is not merely about his personal allure. It is also for Modi’s politics. A small hard-core section is magnetically drawn to Modi for his Hindu chauvinist politics. They are the ones who make the effort to organise the massive rallies on his behalf, whether in New York last year or in San Jose this year. Chandru Bhambhra and Khanderao Khand of the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) helped put together this year’s event in San Jose, while the New York event was organised by the OFBJP’s Chandrakant Patel and Bharat Barai as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) Ramesh Shah and Yelloji Rao Mirajkar.

These few stalwarts of Yankee Hindutva cannot fill the arenas. Something else about Modi draws the people. At a Digital India banquet, Modi said: “The most fundamental debate amongst our youth is to choose between Android, iOS and Windows.” They are not interested in politics, he suggested, only consumerism and commerce. Part of the appeal is Modi’s talk of deregulation in India and business opportunities for the Indian diaspora. Another is Modi’s open embrace of the old hierarchies and traditions of Hinduism.

When Ranjana Kumari, director of Delhi’s Centre for Social Research, asked Modi in California about women’s rights, he answered with a paean to Hindu goddesses. It is the kind of answer that appeals to the largely dominant caste constituency of Indian Americans. Dislike of regulation and bureaucracy is not merely for the corporate barons, but also for many of their high-tech employees whose dominant caste backgrounds oddly made them feel discriminated by the social justice measures in India. Modi is a man of “merit”. He does not pay heed to historical inequities, except when these are needed for electoral mathematics.

Protests against Modi

Protests against Modi’s visit to California began with digital billboards with the hashtag #UnwelcomeModi and #ModiFail. Activists sent thousands of bottles of hand sanitisers to Facebook headquarters with a note to Zuckerberg asking him to “cleanse your hands after shaking the blood-soaked hands of Prime Minister Modi”. The reference was to the 2002 killing of Muslims in Gujarat. A protest organised by the Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA) outside the SAP arena drew 3,000 people, according to San Jose police. It was a vibrant demonstration that brought diverse people to put on record their frustration with the Modi government.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the turnout,” said Bhajan Singh of the AJA, “which was much higher than we anticipated”. Sabiha Basraj of the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action saw through the virtual nature of Modi’s trip. “It is important to compare Narendra Modi’s words to his actions,” said Basraj. “This is a man being praised for tweeting #SelfiewithDaughter, even though he actually slashed funding for the Ministry of Women and Child Development by 50 per cent just months before.” Basraj and Singh were not to be taken in by Digital India. They had their eyes—as well—on the bricks and mortar, the real living people of India.

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