Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley, technology capital of the world, home to the likes of Apple and Google, has been widely deemed a resounding success. CEOs of some of the most innovative companies anywhere rolled out the red carpet in welcome, promising new investment in Digital India, the government’s ambitious plan to connect each citizen to the internet and harness its potential to improve public services. Google confirmed plans to launch free WiFi in 500 railway stations across India; Microsoft pledged its help in bringing low-cost broadband to villages; and Qualcomm promised to invest $150 million in Indian startups. Modi engaged the tech community, many of whom are Indian or of Indian origin, with humour and anecdote. Of course, his reputation as an enthusiastically tech-savvy, social media-enabled PM had preceded him.
At the townhall-style discussion at Facebook HQ, India’s PM spoke disarmingly of how social media was “like a guide” and an “easy textbook” for him, filling in for a “lack of education” and broadening his perspective. He acknowledged, too, its potential to radically transform the compact between governments and citizens — with Twitter and Facebook, with all their limits, acting as instant barometers of the public mood. He spoke of the ways in which social media can inject informality in starchy, protocol-obsessed diplomatic relations, describing how a “happy birthday” message for the Chinese prime minister went viral recently.
But the heartwarming tableau at Silicon Valley seemed at odds with the increasing parochialism and narrow-mindedness on display back home, be it the meat-ban contagion or ministerial talk of “cleansing” cultural areas that have been “Westernised”. Clearly, Modi admires the entrepreneurial spirit and vivacity of Silicon Valley — as he put it, California is “one of the last places in the world to see the sun set. But it is here that new ideas see the first light of day”. But if Silicon Valley exemplifies the virtues of creative disruption, it does so because it tolerates — no, celebrates — diversity and difference. The new ideas Modi praised so effusively are made possible in an environment that nurtures defiance and dissent and individuality. Insubordination is encouraged, not muzzled, and the blunt instrument of an internet block is not used as the knee-jerk retort to every perceived security risk. Modi may not be responsible for this strain of illiberalism that seems emboldened in his regime, but he has failed to forcefully distance himself from it, or to subdue it. Also, given his flair for technology, the prime minister must know that the internet respects few territorial boundaries — what happens on, say, Facebook in India, does not stay in India.