With a strong emotional pitch, softball questions and Facebook HQ as friendly ground, the PM hits a home run – with one eye firmly on home
San Francisco: It had all the elements of a big, fat Indian wedding: two groups of people shouting at each other, emotional breakdowns and merry Bollywood music.
Indeed, while one might have expected Narendra Modi’s visit to Facebook’s headquarters on Sunday to revolve around more substantive subjects such as affordable Internet access, the controversy surrounding the company’s developmental initiative Internet.org and technology-driven development, the open town-hall nature of the discussion thrust the Prime Minister into a more personal, if carefully orchestrated, spotlight.
When the members of the audience – nearly a thousand people, the majority of whom were Indian-origin employees and their families – started filtering into the centre of Facebook’s sprawling Menlo Park campus, they were greeted with the soundtrack of Chak de India and other songs from Yash Raj Films. The music was not, however, a purposeful choice by the well-oiled Modi PR machine. According to officials, with the large number of television channels streaming the event, the organisers needed to be able to avoid a possible case of music copyright violation; Yash Raj obliged.
The tunes nevertheless set the stage for the main event: a spectacle that proved to be more about Modi and India and less about Facebook CEO Zuckerberg and the U.S.; more about Facebook’s Indian-origin employees and less about Facebook itself.
The first few pre-determined questions from Zuckerberg and the audience were largely softballs, which ranged from whether Modi had foreseen the meteoric rise of social media in governance to the Indian government’s plans for investments in the digital economy. Though the Facebook CEO pointed out that the townhall thread had received over 40,000 comments and questions, the majority of questions raised during the session on Sunday were from well-known personalities. A question on digital infrastructure investment, for instance, was posed by Vir Kashyap, the co-founder of Baba Jobs, a job search website that has been included in the Internet.org suite of applications.
From here, however, the questions and discussions left the realm of technology and moved towards increasingly generic issues such as of gender empowerment and the pace of deregulation in India. To most of these queries, Modi replied with general clichés. Responding to a Facebook employee who asked when the government’s ‘Make in India’ plan would be a success, the Prime Minister said: “If you are driving a scooter it is easy to turn and make it change its course. However, if you have a train with a large number of bogeys, then it takes time. It takes time to steer such a large country like India.”
The townhall discussion hit a crescendo, and appeared most sincere, however, during the final question when Modi choked up while speaking about his mother and the role that she had played in his life. The Prime Minister, whose answer was punctuated by long pauses during which he struggled to hold back tears, said “When I was small, just to make a living we would go to nearby houses and clean dishes, fill the water and do hard chores. You can imagine what a mother had to do raise her children.”
A number of technology industry executives who The Wire spoke to over the weekend placed a great deal of emphasis on how personable the Prime Minister seemed. As a top-ranking executive of a Bay Area-based consumer product company told this reporter: “It may seem strange. While the use of social media may have allowed Mr. Modi to win his mandate, coming to Silicon Valley in person has probably done the most in giving him a very hospitable, human face to our Indian employees here and I’m sure many back home in India.”
While it appeared that the townhall discussion itself would be largely devoid of any political or digital human rights discussion, reporters and Facebook employees streaming out of the company campus after the event ended discovered that the normally sleepy Willow Roads junction had turned into a protest site. Two groups of Modi detractors and supporters had arranged themselves on opposite sides of the T junction.
The protestors, which largely comprised various Sikh groups who followed the PM to his visits at Facebook and Google, held up signs and handed out leaflets that claimed that not only had Modi’s tenure resulted in the deterioration of religious freedom for Indian citizens but that he was “trying to turn the country into a Hindu nation” through the forced conversion of Muslims and Christians.
“Yes Mr. Modi did meet members of the Sikh community yesterday but we believe our concerns have not be addressed. We urge Zuckerberg to read our material and think about this before meeting and greeting the Indian Prime Minister,” said Sukhdweep Singh, one of the organisers of the protest. Modi, Mr. Singh believes is looking to mask “his political agenda” by waxing eloquent about technology and economic development.
Across the street, however, were a group of supporters, who merely referred to themselves as “admirers of Modi and the BJP” and shouted slogans, the most repeated of which was “East or West, India is the best”. One of the supporters, who refused to be named, said that it was their duty to make sure Modi’s reputation and image were not damaged in Silicon Valley.
“He has come all the way here and is being shown such respect by everybody. How can they [the opposite side] say otherwise at a time like this?”