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Silicon Valley Enthralled By Modi Magic

Updated: October 17, 2015 7:00 am

In public relations terms, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious “Digital India” campaign is a world conqueror. Few national leaders can pull crowd of 20,000 or more at home, let alone overseas. Recently, Modi attracted a crowd of 18,000 at San Jose’s SAP arena in Silicon Valley. Officials estimate that 75,000 will show up to hear him speak at London’s Wembley Stadium in November

Enough has been, and is being, written and said about Narendra Modi’s visit to America coinciding with the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly. While it is true that in the American media and popular imagination, the Pope is the real star, followed at some distance by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the buzz created by Modi is entirely friendly and non-controversial. Further, his other activities–meetings with global CEOs and later visits to high-tech companies in Silicon Valley–have been fruitful in helping strengthen the new Brand India built around modern education, technology and entrepreneurship.

In public relations terms, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious “Digital India” campaign is a world conqueror. Few national leaders can pull crowd of 20,000 or more at home, let alone overseas. Recently, Modi attracted a crowd of 18,000 at San Jose’s SAP arena in Silicon Valley. Officials estimate that 75,000 will show up to hear him speak at London’s Wembley Stadium in November. Last year, New York’s midtown ground came to a halt when he generated the political equivalent of Beatlemania in Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping, China’s president, had to make do with dutiful lines of flag-waving expatriates along his route into Washington last fortnight.

Yet leaders are not measured by the number of Facebook “likes” they attract. In contrast with the visits of Mr Xi and Pope Francis, Mr Modi’s US visit was mostly commercial. Along with his digital theme, his “Make In India” campaign aims to emulate the level of manufacturing investment that has created millions of jobs in China. In this respect his brilliant marketing is a double-edged sword. Unlike China, which has few well-known figures in US business, the boardrooms of Silicon Valley and Wall Street are replete with Indian success stories. Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, is Indian born. So too is Sundar Pichai, who recently took over as Google’s chief executive. Indians also head Adobe, MasterCard, Pepsi and many other companies.

The executive suite gap was clearly evident at the White House state dinner for Mr Xi. No fewer than three Indian chief executives were on the guest list—Indra Nooyi of Pepsi, Satya Nadella and Ajay Banga, chief executive of MasterCard.

Here are the five top announcements from the Digital India dinner


Sundar Pichai-led Google will help bring wireless Internet or WiFi to 500 railway stations across the country “in a short time,” PM Modi said.

  1. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella shared the company’s plan to help the government take low cost broadband to five lakh villages.
  2. Microsoft will also announce next week the availability of its cloud services operating out of Indian data centers. “We believe low cost broadband connectivity coupled with the scale of cloud computing and the intelligence that can be harnessed from data can help drive creativity, efficiency and productivity across governments and businesses of all size. This is turn will create global opportunities for India,” Mr Nadella said.
  3. Qualcomm has promised a 10 billion rupee fund for startups in India. “We share Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy,” Qualcomm executive chairman Paul E Jacobs said.
  4. Qualcomm also announced that it will set up a number of ‘design houses’ for product innovation in India.

In contrast, there were no Chinese-born S&P 500 leaders. Mr Xi was feted in Seattle by US business leaders, such as Apple’s Tim Cook and Amazzon’s Jeff Bezos, en route to his summit with President Barack Obama. Yet it is hard to imagine him receiving the adulation Mr Modi received at Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters few days back. The Indian Prime Minister’s Town Hall conversation with Mark Zuckerberg began with chants of “Modi, Modi” from the company’s Indian-born employees. Indian-Americans are thriving in the US. They are now the richest ethnic group with a median household income of about $88,000. That compares with economic output of less than $1,600 per person in our country..


Indian-Americans are also starting to make an impact in American politics. Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, is of Indian origin, as is Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana and a Republican presidential contender. They are also thriving in education. Nine of the last nine US national spelling bee contests were won by children of Indian origin.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, Asian-Americans will overtake the Hispanic population to make up the largest share of US immigrants by 2065. A growing number will be Indian.

Can Mr Modi leverage their US success in India? He may have it back-to-front. Companies led by Indian-born executives are no fonder of India’s bureaucratic redtape than any other.

At the US-India strategic and commercial dialogue during Modi’s visits—the counterpart to the US-China annual meetings—US investors read out a depressingly familiar list of complaints.

Foreign businesses must still have to navigate a complex maze of permissions to receive project approvals. Even then, however, they are vulnerable to arbitrary and retrospective tax bills. Amazon, which is putting large sums into its growing India operation, is already mired in a dispute with New Delhi. Its travails are hardly an advertisement to do business in India.

The high point of Mr Modi’s US visit was Mr Zuckerberg’s unexpected confession of Indophilia. Facebook’s chief executive disclosed he had been planning to sell Facebook in its early days but had been advised by Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, to visit the Hindu temple where he had meditated decades earlier. Mr Zuckerberg returned from his month-long India trip with a sense of renewal.

What is Digital India?


The Digital India initiative seeks to lay emphasis on e-governance and transform India into a digitally empowered society. The program is projected at Rs 1,13,000 crore which will prepare the country for knowledge-based transformation. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) anticipates that this program will have a huge impact on the Ministry of Communication and IT. It is to ensure that government services are available to citizens electronically. It will focus on providing high speed internet services to its citizens and make services available in real time for both online and mobile platform. Digital India also aims to transform ease of doing business in the country.

Modi’s government is focussing on providing broadband services in all villages of the country, tele-medicine and mobile healthcare services and making the governance more participative.

Vision of Digital India initiative

Here is what the government of India aims to achieve through Digital India initiative.

Infrastructure: The Digital India initiative has a vision to provide high speed internet services to its citizens in all gram panchayats. Bank accounts will be given priority at individual level. People will be provided with safe and secure cyber space in the country.

Governance and services: Government services will be available online where citizens will be ensured easy access to it. Transactions will be made easy through electronic medium.

Digital empowerment of citizens: This is one of the most important factor of the Digital India initiative to provide universal digital literacy and make digital sources easily accessible. The services are also provided in Indian languages for active participation.

9 major projects under the initiative

Manufacturing of electronics: The government is focusing on zero imports of electronics. In order to achieve this, the government aims to put up smart energy meters, micro ATMs, mobile, consumer and medical electronics.

Provide public access to internet: The government aims to provide internet services to 2.5 lakh villages which comprises of one in every panchayat by March 2017 and 1.5 lakh post offices in the next two years. These post offices will become Multi-Service centres for the people.

Highways to have broadband services: Government aims to lay national optical fibre network in all 2.5 lakh gram panchayats. Broadband for the rural will be laid by December 2016 and broadband for all urban will mandate communication infrastructure in new urban development and buildings. By March 2017, the government aims to provide nationwide information infrastructure.

Easy access to mobile connectivity: The government is taking steps to ensure that by 2018 all villages are covered through mobile connectivity. The aim is to increase network penetration and cover gaps in all 44,000 villages.

e-Governance: The government aims to improve processes and delivery of services through e-Governance with UIDAI, payment gateway, EDI and mobile platforms. School certificates, voter ID cards will be provided online. This aims for a faster examination of data.

IT Training for Jobs: The government aims to train around 1 crore students from small towns and villages for IT sector by 2020. Setting up of BPO sectors in North eastern states is also part of the agenda.

e-Kranti: This service aims to deliver electronic services to people which deals with health, education, farmers, justice, security and financial inclusion.

Global Information: Hosting data online and engaging social media platforms for governance is the aim of the government. Information is also easily available for the citizens. MyGov.in is a website launched by the government for a 2-way communication between citizens and the government. People can send in their suggestions and comment on various issues raised by the government, like net neutrality.

Early harvest programs: Government plans to set up Wi-fi facilities in all universities across the country. Email will be made the primary mode of communication. Aadhar Enabled Biometric Attendance System will be deployed in all central government offices where recording of attendance will be made online.


Rapturous Welcome

Modi made a splash in New York; even the taxi drivers were discussing his visit. Business leaders queued up for meetings and the Indian media covered the visit extensively. Well-known Indian television anchors were there, building up the excitement both in the U.S. and back home in India. Of course, Leftist academics and malcontents, both Indian and American, made their usual pitch, with vague accusations against Digital India. This time around, there was a strong counter from the right-of-centre group, and an uneasy calm prevailed in the war of words. The techies in Silicon Valley ignored the accusations, making it a non-event

But the Prime Minister’s visit to Silicon Valley was the icing on the cake. There was a rapturous welcome from the largely techie crowd, both American and Indian. Many volunteers had been working hard for the visit, for they saw in Mr. Modi an answer to their long-standing prayer for a strong Indian leader who the world would respect. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella announced many initiatives, including using the white spaces in TV broadcasting to reach India’s six lakh villages, as well as more investments. He also announced Microsoft’s cloud services from data centres in India, a first from a multinational corporation. This will, one hopes, lead to a privacy law in India and the storage of private data here, protecting us from the prying eyes of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

#supportdigitalindia fiasco

24-10-2015Ahead of his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg put up a profile picture emblazoned with the Indian tri-colour to show support for Modi’s Digital India initiative. Facebook also launched a tool to allow its users to change their profile pictures to support the Indian initiative. However, a controversy brewed on social media with internet activists claiming that anyone changing their profile pictures using the tool was supporting Facebook’s Internet.org programme.

Blaming an engineer for the “mistake”, Facebook said the product in no way connects to or registers support for Internet.org. “There is absolutely no connection between updating your profile picture for digital India and registering support for Internet.org,” Facebook said in a statement. An engineer mistakingly used the words “Internet.org profile picture” as a shorthand name he chose for part of the code, it added.

“But this product in no way connects to or registers support for Internet.org. We are changing the code today to eliminate any confusion,” the statement said. Facebook has continued to defend the initiative that offers free access to basic internet services to consumers. India has over eight lakh users under the Internet.org initiative.

Internet activists have criticised the Internet.org platform, which has recently been rebranded as Free Basics, to be in violation of the principle of net neutrality that is against any priority being accorded to an entity in internet traffic flow on account of payments to service providers like telecom companies.

Modi’s meeting with Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook headquarters clearly stole the show. It was an emotional show, with the Prime Minister breaking down when he spoke of the travails and sacrifices of his mother as she struggled to provide for the family. Many in the audience had tears in their eyes, as they witnessed India’s strongman holding back his tears, exposing his soft and human side to the world. Of course, the opposition back home made fun of his emotions, further losing the votes of the many Indian viewers who saw the event on television. Prime Minister Modi’s support base increased further.

Google showed off its technology to a tech-savvy leader, proudly led by Indian-born Sundar Pichai. The power of Google Earth was displayed, followed by a private session to which media had no access, and the Karl Mehta-led ‘Code for India’ hackathon, which built apps for India, stayed up the whole night. Prime Minister Modi was happy that everything was building up for his big show. Mr. Pichai announced Google’s adoption of 500 railway stations for high-speed, HD streaming Wifi, which will set a new standard for wireless in India and show up the pathetic service provided by Indian telcos.

Here one could ask a question as to why Modi is garnering glaring interest from the western world, especially the Americans? It is amply clear that Americans, Indians, and techies saw in him a tech-savvy leader who was pro-business, decisive, articulate, charismatic and who exuded strength. They recognised that India was the last great, unconquered digital market after China and Prime Minister Modi’s Digital India project could empower 1.25 billion people in India digitally. And if this succeeded, there would be a new model to reach the three billion people across the world who are left out of the digital web in a low-cost manner.

They all want their share of the pie. So, all the leading companies of the cyber world, who want to own the whole world digitally, saw in Modi the answer to their dreams. The India brand was at an all-time high, with the world slowly regaining its faith in India after the decline during the dying years of the United Progressive Alliance. The techies were ecstatic, their stock was up, their prayers of a strong India likely to be answered. They could finally boast among Americans of a fast-growing, tech-strong economy, led by a leader who could finally make the future happen in India.

By Nilabh Krishna

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