Guest post by Joyojeet Pal
Why the Silicon Valley (Generally) Loves Narendra Modi
“Indians are the most prosperous group in the United States of America,” said comedian Rajiv Satyal, the compère of the Narendra Modi speech at the San Jose Arena in the Silicon Valley on Sept. 27. No flash of Gandhian embarrassment stood in the way of the booming cheer that followed. Later on when repeated technical bungling (ironic next to the tech bombast of the setting) led the compère to step back on stage, he kept repeating this idea alongside “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” to keep the ardor up among the 17,000-strong crowd. There appeared to be a few thousand more outside, either supporting or protesting the event. Several U.S. legislators were present, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Outside, dissent was equally spirited. The days leading up to the rally were marked by a series of billboards on major highways protesting Modi’s visit and a widely circulated website and social media handle #ModiFail. A host of leading South Asian studies scholars wrote a letter denouncing the visit, which was countered by another group of academics. The jostling crowd outside included a motley crew of citizen activists, academics, and Sikh and Nepali groups who faced off with a saffron-clad group of the Indian prime minister’s young supporters. Roughly 1 of every 20 people of Indian origin in the Silicon Valley is estimated to have been involved in that evening.
The atmosphere inside the San Jose Arena had the electricity of a Rajinikanth first-day first-show film. Modi learnt well from Thalaivar, making a perfectly crafted entrance. A group of U.S. legislators was called out first to the stage; they stood in a straight line to welcome the man as roars of “Modi, Modi!” echoed in impatient unison. Modi finally walked down the red carpet to deafening screams the likes of Beatlemania. His first words were a salute to the state of California, reciprocated appropriately with a prolonged ovation by the giddy crowd.
The venue had all the elements of a well-planned spectacle — massive banners of Modi’s face unfurled alongside t-shirts and merchandise, people lined up to take selfies with cardboard cutouts of the prime minister spread throughout the venue. Although organizers managed to ban booze at the event, beef hot dogs had slipped through the cracks and were available for $5 each at the concessions stand for anyone willing to dare.
With his mix of shout-outs to technology, entrepreneurship, and the new India these very NRIs helped to build, Modi got a standing ovation nearly every minute of the speech, for which even the expected reactions were scripted.[i] “Whoever I have met here [in California] has had a shine on their face, dream in their eyes, and the desire to do something. The world has been forced to change its view of Indians … and the reason for that [applause, pause] is your fingertips” (applause — jiggles fingers, referencing keyboards).
Rethink the Independence Day Doordarshan staple, Upkaar. This was no Manoj Kumar elegiacally crooning “Mere Desh Ki Dharti.” Modi’s speech was reassurance that the emigrant Prem Chopra was the true modernist patriot.[ii]
Modi’s hour-long speech could be assigned to public speaking classes. Rotating slowly on the dais, he spread his eye contact generously throughout the audience. His pauses were charitably timed, and his anecdotes were sized to vocal crescendos. His cues for audience reaction could not be snubbed without inviting the imputation of unpatriotism from the neighborhood of those giving standing ovations. Any demagogic posturing was released in small doses, such as thinly veiled references to who “the real terrorists in India” are or aren’t. He gently reminded the crowd that the history of his exile from the states is revisionist and deeply flawed, and that back in the 1990s the Americans themselves came to him to seek help with terrorism. His opening salvo — that spectators at a cricket stadium are less aware of the game’s progress than a home television viewer — may chill an IPL ticket scalper to the bone, but the metaphor was meant to suggest that by viewing India from a distance, non-resident Indians know the country better than the citizens on the ground.
Modi allayed any fears of guilt-tripping the expatriates by dropping the traitorous connotations of a “brain drain” and rechristening the phrase a “brain deposit” that would one day be brought back with interest to India. He congratulated the NRI population for forcing people to change, noting that those who did not change would be irrelevant in the next century. At the end of the speech, he tapped on another NRI pet topic — “systematizing” India, such as the opening of bank accounts for rural Indians or the issuance of Aadhaar ID cards. Social media reverberated euphorically after his visit. The first Facebook post about the Modi’s interaction with Mark Zuckerberg was “liked” by more than 1.7 million users on Facebook, replete with public comments from a mix of NRIs and resident Indians confirming the leader’s electric appeal:
“Sir whenever you meet people’s in foreign we really get goose bumps the way they treat you and India”
“The nationalists is running the country n all Indians r with him…..The hair stands on end to hear the sounds modi modi modiiii.”
“MODI means Man Of Developing India….”
I left the event just as Modi finished his speech with a wave to the audience, willingly giving up the extra moments of precious proximity to avoid the traffic clusterbomb awaiting those who stayed till the end. Outside, I bumped into fellow pragmatists who pliantly waited at a traffic light to cross. Everyone was quiet, aware of the divisive potential latent in a conversation on Modi among anyone not openly flaunting a saffron shirt. Praise for the prime minister could be met by derision, and derision could be met by attack. Finally someone broke the awkward silence with a noncommittal, “interesting talk; let’s see what happens.” The light did everyone a favor by turning green.
En route to my car I saw someone I knew, a lawyer and two-decade resident of the valley. On seeing me, he instinctively offered a caveat — “I am not a BJP supporter, but …” He didn’t have to finish. Others, like him, grapple with the desire to distance themselves from the social conservatism a priori — the starting point to which is, ironically, distancing Modi from the BJP.
To make a point of the diversity in the audience, the comperes kept calling out names of states, and having people cheer when their state was called out. Attendees (and protestors alike) ranged from significant numbers of elderly long-settled Californians, tech boom professionals turned out with their families, and fairly significant numbers of young students. Obviously there isn’t one prototype of a Silicon Valley Indian — Modi himself started his speech with a tribute to the century-old Sikh community in California. As coverage of the event also noted, California had much larger protests against Modi than the East Coast, attributed ostensibly to the large population of “left-liberals in the West Coast, drawn largely from Berkeley and Stanford universities.”[iii]
Much scholarly work has looked at the growth of Hindutva-related organizations and thought in the United States, and particularly California.[iv] Indeed the traditional base of Hindu organizations, temples, and groups with ties to the BJP is at the frontline of support for Modi. But as suggested by the visible outpouring of support for Mr. Modi at the event, his reach extends well beyond that traditionalist base. Unlike Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, who emerged post-Ram Janmabhoomi with the baggage of social conservativism but without a resumé of governance, the Modi of today offsets his social history with a well-publicized economic-success narrative of development and stability in his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat.
More important, unlike the quiet bureaucrat in Manmohan Singh, the ostentation in Modi is projected as a willingness to wield India’s “hard and soft power.”[v] As the organizer of the event put it, there was a clear business reason for why nationalistic Indian-Americans ought to be interested in facilitating Modi’s vision, “an ambitious agenda for India including Smart Cities, Digital India, [and] renewable energy, [and recognition] that these goals can be achieved only through innovation and that there is no better place to see innovation at work than Silicon Valley.”[vi]
The dynastic alternative to Modi makes most educated, empowered Silicon Valley-based Indians squirm. Claiming allegiance to the Californian ethic of meritocracy, yet affiliating with a party led by a young scion of political nobility, would present an indefensible paradox. Modi himself used the Gandhi name effectively against the Congress on social media. He referred to Rahul Gandhi as a “Shahzada,” attacking his political legitimacy (and emphasizing using the non-Hindu term) rather than confronting him on policy. The suggestion is that if you stand with this man, you automatically stand for a brand of patron‒client, or in Indian terms, Mai‒Baap, politics.
Rahul Gandhi didn’t do himself any favors with this population through his awkward interview with Arnab Goswami, or for that matter most of his televised appearances. His lack of braggadocio combined with the infantilizing Shahzada tag came together to craft the figure of both a superior aristocrat and potentially a political spokesperson of a powerful female figure — not the “Durga Maa” of his grandmother,[vii] but a pawn-running foreigner, like a purportedly mute predecessor in Manmohan. Indeed, this ties in with deeper issues run on portrayals of female politicians including Mayawati, Jayalalitha, and Mamata Banerjee, but that one for later.
At heart is the question of merit. This, if anything, is one of the few senses of entitlement that bring us together as Valley NRIs. An American libertarian mythology that is constantly part of the public discourse here is that of “making it on one’s own”. We all did. Rahul didn’t, Sonia didn’t. But Modi did.
Neither for that matter do any of the other major political alternatives – parties that pander to a rural or specific interest group constituencies which likewise lack neoliberal appeal for a global audience. Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party came closest to offering a palatable alternative vision of India to rival the status quo of the Congress, and arguably the AAP is still significant for a large part of the expatriate population, particularly the younger, more recent transplants to the Bay Area.
But Kejriwal is fundamentally different — with a Gandhian style of self-abnegation and a normative righteous positioning, he demands you change your practices. Modi, on the other hand, calls out to the fact that NRIs are special. He represents the possibility for us to enjoy the status of NRI exceptionalism with easier access to services, residency cards, and one-stop windows for opening businesses. While Kejriwal speaks the discourse of the common man, Modi celebrates the special. Modi does not need to sit in Dharna with a monkey cap on, he’s been there — he served tea on trains.
Through his narrative of tenacity, Modi awakens in the NRI supporter an empathetic history of near-subaltern pain — getting bruised on Mumbai local trains, arguing with auto drivers in Delhi, living without air-conditioning in Hyderabad, calling from a payphone in Pune, finishing all the food on your plate in Chennai; these are the foundations of middle class toil on which the promise of the American dream are now based. Like Modi, we’ve worked to deserve more than the anarchic vision; we shouldn’t have to put up with the agony of a Dharna.
Modi offers a libertarian vision of a self-made man, one who knows to enjoy a good suit when needed, yet stays to a social station. Unlike Vajpayee, whose high origins emerged in his pristine Hindi, Modi frequently lapses into Bambaiyya or Gujarati colloquialisms that make him more of a people’s speaker. His speeches’ plain-spoken approach resonates with urban middle-class exports, who dominate places like the Silicon Valley. Yet Modi never addresses any of the more divisive contemporary issues in a speech. While notes of Har Har Mahadev rang from the placard-carrying saffron squads outside the arena, the astute leader chose the irreproachable “Bhagat Singh Amar Rahe” to resonate through the ticketed audience.
Among Modi’s supporters in the Silicon Valley, the elephant in the room is the odd role of technology. For several years now, a discourse of technology as a pathway to development in India has grown powerfully out of a Valley “geek ethic” of do-goodery, among those confident that “one laptop per child” or Internet.org would serve as a silver bullet to solve the problems of the world. [viii] The entire field of Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICTD) has been heavily underwritten by political actors in India since Chandrababu Naidu started posing with laptops, and Karunanidhi and Mulayam Singh started donating away laptops both pre- and post -election.[ix]
In the run up to the election, Modi did an excellent job of incorporating social media into his campaign — and he is now the world’s second most followed politician. Alongside exceptionally well maintained Facebook and Twitter accounts, he mirrors his speeches on Mann Ki Baat online, offers yoga advice on YouTube, pins pictures on Pinterest, runs a Google+ page, and even shows up in much-publicized 3-D holograms through much of the hinterland.[x] Like much of the young professional population, he even has a LinkedIn page, offering publicly his resumé as a nod to the credential-driven discourse of achievement.
For people in the Valley, technology represents the infrastructure that enabled their own success stories from middle-class India to global affluence. The extension of that logic would suggest that technology enables the same for the population of the vast majority of the country. The ethic thus engendered defies the need to rethink public services and welfare, in favor of a libertarian “teach a man to fish” argument. This position assumes technology is both the infrastructure and the endgame of development. Modi does not throw dying farmers at his audience; he instead proposes a bright tomorrow riding on technology.
This leapfrog logic — that technology will solve the problems of poverty and underdevelopment — is much maligned in academia but remains a convenient and attractive trope in the Silicon Valley. The belief that a reservation-ridden state has failed and continues to pain competent elites in India is vastly accepted as the cause, not a symptom, of underdevelopment. The consequent escape that technology offers for people to achieve their potential in California is not only sympathised with, but fully endorsed by a prime minister who speaks to that pain.
Technology’s potential effect on development offers a seductive if flawed logic, and an excellent one to offset the guilt of having left India behind. It offers a rare infrastructure that we can see replicated in India, just as it is here in the Valley. The roads and factories may be insurmountable, but we can reasonably expect mobile signal anywhere or a software company that operates much the same in India as it does in San Jose. That the mobile device is now an accessory of the auto-driver or domestic worker is celebrated as evidence of our inclusive modernity as a nation. Modi captures this spirit brilliantly – he offers us a leader who repeatedly calls out to this, whether by letting his fans affiliate selfies with a hashtag or paint Facebook picture in tricolor, or by being seen on the same stage as our celebrated heroes – Nadella, Zuckerberg, Pichai or Schmidt.
To hear a leader who keeps his discourse positive is blindingly reassuring. The rousing banality of the political speech engages the goosebumps and effectively crafts a picture of a leader separate from the system that dictates when Kashmiris can use the Internet, who we can partner with, or what we can eat. This is, quite simply, the man who will lead through the 21st century with a mobile in one hand and an invisible stick in the other. Anything else seems only a “pseudosickular” conspiracy by “AAPtards” and “presstitutes” by the time the speech ends.
[ii] Upkaar (1967), Director Manoj Kumar, VIP Films
[iv] See Indian Transnationalism Online: New Perspectives on Diaspora Indian Transnationalism, edited by Ajaya Kumar Sahoo and Johannes G. de Kruijf, for a summary of key discussions.
[vii] See Steinberg, B. S. (2008). Women in power: The personalities and leadership styles of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher (Vol. 4). McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.
[viii] Toyama, K. (2015). Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. PublicAffairs.
[ix] See Pal, J. (2012). The machine to aspire to: The computer in rural south India. First Monday, 17(2)
[x] See several essays in Chakravartty, P., & Roy, S. (2015). Mr. Modi Goes to Delhi: Mediated Populism and the 2014 Indian Elections. Television & New Media, 16(4), 311-322.
Joyojeet Pal is an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He can be contacted at email@example.com