By Arjun Soin
Last September was momentous for more reasons than one. It marked the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to the West Coast in a whopping 33 years. Where 33 years ago India’s “iron lady” Indira Gandhi touched down in Los Angeles, this time it was the “marketing man” Narendra Modi right in Stanford’s neighborhood of Silicon Valley. Though his speech at Stanford was a no-show that left the Indian community here fairly disenchanted, he more than made up for it by pitching “Digital India” ardently to tech-industry honchos -– right from Tim Cook to Indian-origin Satya Nadella of Microsoft. A Facebook “Townhall” with Mark Zuckerberg at Menlo Park where he effortlessly delineated approaches to address social and economic challenges was undoubtedly the highlight of his trip for many political pundits back in India. Considering Facebook’s ever-growing outreach and endeavor to make connectivity percolate down to the masses, Modi could not have possibly chosen a better place to be on the morning of Sept. 27. And after all, he is the head of state of a nation with a conspicuous Facebook frenzy -– one that accounts for its third-highest user base across the globe.
Before I delve any further, I find it imperative to cast some light on the man himself: Elected India’s 15th Prime Minister in May last year in one of the nation’s most defining elections, Narendra Modi started out as tea-seller who rose up the ranks of the BJP (the ruling party) and the RSS (the BJP’s religious affiliate) to eventually lead the world’s largest democracy. While the tea-seller story struck the right chord, nationwide anti-incumbency only helped catapult him to the highest office of the land. Thirteen years of administrative experience in transforming Gujarat (a western state) as its Chief Minister, charisma during public appearances, endless rhetoric and an unwavering ability to sway crowds further ensured a landslide victory with the decimation of the Indian National Congress (India’s monopolistic political force since it’s freedom from British rule).
Since being incumbent, Modi has undertaken over 25 foreign trips, ostensibly to seek foreign investment (the project for which is officially called “Make in India”) and reached out to the sizeable Indian diaspora.
But how exactly is this executed? Through his gift of gab, of course! And so, not surprisingly, the standout event of each official visit is an hour-long speech in a packed arena/auditorium filled with immigrants experiencing a myriad of emotions, from patriotism to euphoria. And every time, without fail, his masterful oratory and unscripted language inculcate a profound sense of belonging to the motherland in each of these diasporans. Boisterous chanting of his name is not uncommon at these events. This is precisely what transpired at Madison Square Garden in New York last year and at the SAP Centre in San Jose just last month.
The aura that has sustained Modi in office for 17 months was now palpable in the United States for a second time. Only this time, the mission was California -– a state with an ever-growing Indian population that was longing to get a glimpse of the man who brings with him the vision of a novel India, one that is free of rampant corruption and nepotism (these have become synonymous with Indian Politics). In fact, his visit to the state was hugely bolstered by a welcome video posted by Google’s new CEO, Sundar Pichai (a Stanford alumnus). But even beyond the Indians, California has Silicon Valley, which in turn has everything that is needed to fuel Modi’s pet initiative Digital India – human resource and intellect to dwell upon large-scale online infrastructure and connectivity of government services.
Has he accomplished what he set out to in California? The answer really depends on his goals. If it was wooing a crowd of about 18,000 people in San Jose with unrelenting rhetoric and jibes at the opposition party, then the job at hand was efficaciously fulfilled. But if solemnly furthering the notion of a digitized India and promoting industry were de facto tasks, then a more detailed breakdown is needed. Multiple tours to the headquarters of Tesla, Facebook and Google, as well as personalized interactions with top-notch executives from Apple, Cisco, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Adobe most definitely enhanced India’s presence and vastly increased the prospect of these firms keeping India in the loop for collaborative projects.
While Qualcomm announced a $150 million investment fund for Indian startups, Google announced both a partnership with the Indian Railways to establish 500 Wi-Fi networks and the introduction of a new Indian regional language Gujarati on Android. And these were highly motive-driven, quantitative accomplishments that no one can take away from Modi. But a large chunk of the goal is yet to be manifested. The fervor and intent that was visible on the PM’s part in the United States must prevail even in India. The persistent lobbying with heads of state and industry barons needs to serve as more than an avenue for the Prime Minister’s oratory — it needs to become an avenue for actual sea change within India. Modi’s “startup government,” as he called it at the “India-US startup konnect,” must supplement all that foreign appeal with grassroots-level work. Before worrying too much about molding his own image on the global stage, he should first take India to the very pinnacle of its potential in every sense — the same potential that happens to have made 15 percent of all startups in the valley Indian. Simply put, it is time for words to translate into action.
Contact Arjun Soin at asoin ‘at’ stanford.edu.