MENLO PARK, Calif. — On Facebook’s campus on Sunday, two of the world’s most powerful men used the high-tech company’s pulpit to promote a mutually beneficial platform: the growing power and influence of social media and the future of the digital economy in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg received a warm reception from a friendly crowd of about 1,000, many of them Indian immigrants and Silicon Valley workers who support his “Digital India” initiatives which call for more high-speed Internet access and tech jobs to raise the standard of living in a country where so many still live in poverty.
“We are an $8 billion economy today. My dream is to become a $20 trillion dollar economy,” Modi said during his hour-long appearance at Facebook alongside Zuckerberg.
Modi and Zuckerberg had a one-on-one meeting before the event, yet more evidence of the deepening ties between India and Silicon Valley and of their increasingly entwined fortunes.
Facebook is wooing Modi as it looks to expand in the potentially lucrative Indian market. Facebook has launched an effort to connect Indians to the Internet through Internet.org, but that has met with resistance from some in India who say the project unfairly favors the giant social network and other services.
Modi’s two-day swing through Silicon Valley — the first time an Indian head of state has been in California in 33 years — has commanded the attention of top tech CEOs. Modi met with Google’s Sundar Pichai and Apple’s Tim Cook to seek investment in India, part of his push to lift the country out of poverty.
Silicon Valley has been only too happy to host Modi. India is the world’s fastest-growing major economy, representing a potentially lucrative opportunity for U.S. companies as smartphone and Internet access begins to spread.
The visit has also brought out Modi’s critics, some of whom protested outside Facebook’s headquarters. Critics say Modi’s digital push could impinge on the privacy and the rights of Indians, others allege his government suppresses dissent and religious freedom.
The Facebook event was carefully scripted and the audience handpicked. The PA system played Bollywood songs and the crowd of Facebook employees and invited guests chanted “Modi! Modi!” Modi addressed the audience in Hindi.
Zuckerberg opened the 50-minute town hall recalling how he visited India, and a certain temple there, on the advice of one of his mentors, the late Steve Jobs who had sought inspiration there. “This was early in our history,” Zuckerberg recalled. Facebook had hit a rough patch and Zuckerberg was fielding offers to sell the company.
“(Jobs) told me that in order to reconnect to what I believed was the mission of the company, I should visit this temple that he had gone to in India early on in his evolution of what he wanted Apple to be,” Zuckerberg recalled.
In India, Zuckerberg says he witnessed the power of millions connecting online. Modi was visibly delighted that India played a role in the early history of Facebook, saying the “daily bonding” with the Indian people on social media has helped bridge the gap between the government and its citizens, swaying policy and diplomacy and keeping officials on their toes.
Social media allows people to constantly vote, Modi told the crowd. “We used to have elections every five years. Now we have them every five minutes,” he said.
Modi is the world’s second most popular elected leader on social media after President Obama with more than 15 million Twitter followers and more than 30 million Facebook likes.
“It’s fitting,” Zuckerberg said, that the leader of the world’s largest democracy is setting the example of how governments should connect with their citizens.
Modi touched on several topics, pitching his “Digital India” agenda and vowing to improve education for girls and open up more opportunities for women.
“If we want to achieve our economic goals, then we cannot do that if we imprison 50% of our population inside our homes,” he said.
At Zuckerberg’s prompting, Modi who grew up poor recounted in an emotional, halting voice the sacrifices his mother, now in her nineties, made to raise her children. He also recalled selling tea in railway stations to help his family make ends meet.
“It’s hard to imagine that a tea seller has become the leader of the world’s largest democracy,” he said.
In honor of Modi’s visit, Zuckerberg changed his profile image to “Support Digital India.”
After Facebook, Modi paid a visit to Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters where Pichai showed him demos of Google technology such as Street View and Google Earth. Modi also secured a pledge from Google to provide Wi-Fi in hundreds of Indian railway stations. Google will also debut Android keyboards in 10 Indian languages next month.
On Saturday Modi visited with Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and rode around the Fremont, Calif., facility in a battery-powered cart.
Other tech companies answered Modi’s call for investment in India. Modi dined on Saturday night with a who’s who of tech CEOs including Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Cisco’s John Chambers. Nadella pledged Microsoft would help India bring wireless Internet to hundreds of thousands of villages. Chip maker Qualcomm promised $150 million to fund Indian start-ups.
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