It is being called Narendra Modi’s Silicon Valley swing, a two-day visit to California where most of the global tech giants have their base, away from his more political agenda in New York.
Technology entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa says he has never seen this kind of respect for a visiting politician. “Usually CEOs don’t spare time for even head of states, and they also keep a safe distance from Washington DC,” says Wadhwa. But he explains this is also because tech companies have learnt from past lessons, like with Uber’s misadventures around the globe, on how to deal with governments. However, he does not expect any big announcements and thinks the visit will be more about Modi showing his strength to the world and, of course, some feel good for both sides.
“Tech companies are all thinking about the future and that is why they are backing Modi,” Vivek Wadhwa says, recalling that a lot of Silicon Valley techies were behind his campaign.
For Modi, getting a stamp of approval for his Digital India efforts from CEOs of the largest tech firms in the world will be much more than just brownie points. Their support in technology and resources could end up being the big push his pet project needs.
It is also necessary for Modi to get some of these companies to think seriously about manufacturing in India.
“But Modi is not thinking big enough. He should be thinking how he can get the youth of the country to solve stuff. And frankly, manufacturing in India will have to be focussed on automation even with so much human resource around,” says Wadhwa.
For tech giants, India is a large market, one where growth is assured for at least a few more years to come.
“For a start-up like ours, Modi’s visit is very symbolic — today India and the US are (geographically) far, yet they are not (digitally),” says Mrinal Desai, a tech entrepreneur here who has used India’s new ‘visa on arrival’ programme twice so far. For his addappt contact management app, India is already the second largest market, and one of the fastest growing.
Wadhwa says it is this shift to being an app-based economy that will transform India in the coming years.
Beerud Sheth, CEO and co-founder of Teamchat, which has offices in Silicon Valley and Mumbai, says the Indian tech and venture industry has often been held back by archaic rules, excessive regulations and non-transparent decision-making. “For any business to flourish in India with ease, we must streamline regulations and foster entrepreneurship,” says Sheth.
Also, it is hard to overlook India’s contribution to the success of Silicon Valley companies. Two of the giants here, Google and Microsoft, has Indians at the helm. All others have Indian-born executives in top positions.
Modi will be at a dinner with top tech company CEOs Saturday, followed by the town hall at the Facebook headquarters and visits to the Tesla and Google headquarters.
His Tesla visit, where he is expected to take a test drive of one of the company’s pathbreaking electric cars with founder Elon Musk, is particularly interesting. The Tesla car is expensive even by the standards of wealthy South Californian cities and a rarity on the roads. It will be a coup of sorts if Modi can get Musk to even think of a version of his iconic cars that would make sense in the developing world. While the cars might seems a bit out of place, India could be the perfect market for Tesla’s Powerwall solar batteries.
(The writer is in Menlo Park on the invite of Facebook)