COMMENTARY

Modi's US Visit - And Unanswered Questions About 'Digital India' and Democratic India  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used his visit to the USA and especially Silicon Valley to sell India as an investment destination for digital services, in particular the Government’s ‘Digital India’ programme. Beyond the hype and hard-sell of Modi’s interaction with top CEOs, several urgent questions remain unanswered.  

Some of those questions were posed by protesters at Silicon Valley itself during the PM’s visit. Under the banner of Alliance for Justice and Accountability, protesters raised their voices against growing communal, caste and gender violence in India, systematic erosion of environmental safeguards, and above all, the crackdown on freedom of expression and civil liberties, and the purging of diversity and dissent from academic and cultural institutions in the name of ‘cleansing’ foreign (read non-Hindutva) influences. The protesters also included LGBT groups that demanded that the Prime Minister break his silence on India’s shameful Section 377 law that criminalizes homosexuality. Leading academicians from various US universities had also written an open letter raising many of these concerns. It must also be noted that Modi, on his visit to Ireland, chose to use Irish soil to take a dig at India’s secular ethos and concerns.  

Ironically, at the venue, Modi supporters from the Hindutva camp confirmed many of the concerns being raised about the crackdown on dissent by abusing, intimidating and roughing up the protesters. It is indeed significant that while Modi poses with CEOs of social media and Internet-related service companies, the social media in India have become spaces where dissenting voices, especially voices criticizing the Prime Minister, his party, his organization the RSS or his Government are subjected to an organized campaign of intimidation and abuse by a virtual army of Modi supporters. In India, the police under Governments ruled by parties of most hues have been quick to arrest and harass dissenting voices on social media. Section 66A was the legal instrument for such arrests and harassment; it has now been outlawed by the Supreme Court but not before the Modi Government defended it in Court.       

The Modi Government has also, in recent times, been forced to retreat on several policy moves to undermine privacy and freedom of users of the internet and social media. The Department of Telecommunication and IT Ministry of the Modi Government had to backtrack on a proposal to introduce a draft encryption policy requiring users to preserve every WhatsApp, SMS or email message for 90 days and make these available to security agencies on demand, or else face a jail term. Similarly, the Government had to make a U-Turn on a misguided attempt to ban porn sites on the internet. And earlier, the DoT tried to undermine net neutrality in collusion with some Indian telecom corporations, but was forced to retreat.      

Modi’s meeting with Facebook CEO Zuckerberg also raises the spectre of a threat to net neutrality. Zuckerberg’s Internet.org project is already under fire for its proposal to undermine net neutrality (i.e a free internet) by carving up the net into different saleable ‘segments’ or ‘packages.’ This project is being defended in the name of internet access for the poor: but the hidden agenda is to restrict the existing free access to the internet by compromising net neutrality.

In the name of providing important Wi-Fi n railway stations and broadband services in rural India, PM Modi has rolled out the red carpet to Google and Microsoft. But the question is, why can’t such basic infrastructure be provided by Indian companies? Why allow MNC penetration in what is a potentially strategic area? More importantly, why is the Modi Government itself lagging behind drastically in implementing the National Optic Fiber Network plan to lay down the fibre optic cables required to ensure broadband access to 250,000 villages? The deadline for this plan has been delayed and extended several times even in the tenure of Modi himself. The ‘Digital India’ promise can only remain a mirage unless the Government delivers on such infrastructure.   

Another issue on which Modi’s Silicon Valley visit was silent is the condition of the IT sector in India. This sector is today primarily one of brain drain, with Indian IT workers overworked and underpaid in exploitative and repressive conditions.

Modi’s US visit throws up other areas of concern too. On Modi’s past visit to the US and US President Obama’s visit to India, there have been shadowy talks concerning pharmaceutical patents and nuclear liability. Both are areas which have grave implications for India’s poor and common citizens. Yet the details of such discussions and agreements lack transparency and Indian citizens are kept in the dark.   

At home in India, Modi’s graph is declining with his Government increasingly surrounded by questions about steeply rising prices, the control exerted by the RSS and corporations over the Government, meat bans, saffronization, the worrying spectacle of emboldened Hindutva terror groups that are assassinating secular and rationalist activists and intellectuals, and the Government’s own harassment of activists and dissenting voices. Modi’s ‘development’ rhetoric too is being questioned, since the promised ‘good days’ are yet to arrive for the poor and deprived while the corporations and MNCs bask in the Modi sun. The carefully scripted optics of Modi’s foreign tours cannot get rid of these questions that are growing louder and demanding answers.