Modi Places Big Bets for India in Silicon Valley

Published: September 28, 2015 23:40 IST
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Here I am/ Rock you like a hurricane
- The Scorpions

While the Scorpions and Modi have little to do with each other, the lines quoted above would seem appropriate to the Indian Prime Minister, who delivered yet another virtuoso performance in California. Once more references to his "rock star" appeal were made, even if that cliche is now somewhat overused.

It is more important to ask why Modi travelled to California and what he hopes to gain from there. This was not just another trip to the far coast of America, or another meeting with another community of NRIs-PIOs. There was thought and substance that went into the planning of the visit, and both Modi and his hosts were taking some bets. Whether these will pay off is for the future to tell, but for the moment it is important to understand what underpinned Modi's decision to visit as well his reception.

Here a certain context is called for. For a start, while it is true that Modi was the first Prime Minister to visit California since Indira Gandhi in 1982, it is not as if this trip was overdue by 33 years. The more honest answer is 10 years, maybe 15. Frankly, California didn't matter to India - though it may have mattered to individual Indian families - till the technology revolution of the mid-1990s, culminating in the Y2K moment. The success of Indian software programmers in tackling the Y2K bug furthered the outsourcing boom and established the diaspora as the poster child of the tech industry.

It was an inflection point for the Indian community in the United States. The association rubbed off on India and burnished its soft power. It also had an impact on material power as the tech industry tapped into knowledge-based companies in India and enriched India's economy. It emerged, from almost nothing, as a crucial lobby for India in Washington, DC. It was one of the reasons the George W. Bush administration went ahead with the nuclear deal for India.

As such, realistically, the tech industry in southern California was owed a thanksgiving and a visit from the beginning of this century. Perhaps Atal Bihari Vajpayee would have gone to the Golden State had he been re-elected in 2004. Certainly it was a miss for Manmohan Singh not to have made that trip in his 10 years in office. Modi was astute to make up.

However, Modi is also looking ahead, as are the tech and Internet companies for which India has emerged as not just the new frontier but pretty much the only substantial frontier. Take Facebook. The social network has 150 million members in the US, its biggest market. India comes next with some 110 million. This at a time when only about 300 million Indians have access to the Internet.

The other country with such potential is China, but each of the iconic Internet and social media brands that Modi visited or mentioned on his trip - Facebook, Google, Twitter - have faced restrictions in China. There is no doubt India is not an easy country to work in - from taxation issues to content removal requests - but it is nowhere close to being as difficult (if not impossible) as China and holds a lot of promise for these companies.

Given this, when Facebook offers to expand Internet access in India or Google commits to partnering with Indian authorities in providing public Wi-Fi, it is not out of charity. More Indians using the Internet will mean more Indians using products and services offered by these companies and riding on their platforms, from communication to e-commerce. The exponential impact of the availability of these websites in Indian languages, with the ability to translate everything from educational material to application forms, cannot even be imagined.

Modi guesses, and correctly, that these could be changers at the bottom of the pyramid. Technology could allow India to leap-frog stages of development, just as those who never had land lines became avid users of cell phones.

The mobile phone is becoming more sophisticated by the minute. Mobile-based banking and money transfers that take place at the press of a button, with sender and recipient - at distant locations - being informed simultaneously, could do wonders for internal remittances and kill demand for money orders. They could also give virtual bank accounts to those who have never had formal bank accounts, and in some senses this is a corollary to the JAM - "Jan Dhan, Aadhar, Mobile" - model Modi speaks about.

This is where technology developed and made secure and commercially viable in California could actually bring about social change in India. Further, as the Prime Minister pointed out, from agriculture to urban planning to renewable energy - a focus of Modi's visit to Tesla - the traditional distinction between old and new economies no longer holds. The interplay and intersection is enormous.

Modi is alive to this, and that's why he visited California. The tech giants are alive to the Indian opportunity and market and hence laid out the red carpet for him. They are ready to go the extra mile for India and consider moving infrastructure here - in the form of servers and data centres for instance - which they are unwilling to do with other countries. Indeed, at the government-to-government level, the US and India will probably end up doing a bilateral deal on Internet governance.

The transition of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) from a US-driven and run organisation to a multi-stakeholder entity is due to be completed in the next one or two years. If all goes well, India and the US could partner at the ICANN high table, in the sort of Security Council of Internet governance. In engaging with the tech community in California, Modi was bolstering India's credentials for such a role.

(The author is senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at malikashok@gmail.com)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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