India’s Prime Minister Rocks Silicon Valley

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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SAN JOSE — The SAP Center, the San Jose arena that will host concerts from Madonna and Black Sabbath in the coming months, featured a different kind of rock star on Sunday night: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi is frequently compared to a rock star, although the white-haired senior citizen (he turned 65 earlier this month) doesn’t exactly look like one. A lot of people treat him that way, however. Wherever Modi travels around the world, raucous crowds of adoring Indian expatriates pack large arenas to hear him speak. In Dubai, they couldn’t find an indoor arena large enough — so they filled an outdoor stadium with 50,000 fans. And local dignitaries, both in politics and industry, clamor to be seen with him.

Sunday night’s event in San Jose was the Silicon Valley sequel to Modi’s star turn at Madison Square Garden last year. Like last year’s rally in New York, the seats were filled to capacity with (mostly) Indian-Americans and the stage was filled with American political big shots. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce led a parade of members of Congress that took to the stage before Modi’s arrival. None of them received a more enthusiastic ovation than Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who, although of Samoan descent, is the first Hindu elected to Congress. Gabbard was cheered even more heartily than Congress’s only Indian-American, Ami Bera (D-CA), who is also the only Unitarian Universalist in Congress.

When Modi finally arrived onstage, he predictably received a roaring reception. After opening his speech in English — “Good evening, California!” — Modi quickly switched to Hindi. He is compelling to watch as a speaker, even if one does not understand Hindi. Working without notes or a teleprompter, he effortlessly keeps his audience engaged and enthused for over an hour. When he speaks, he exudes a natural energy and charisma that is not apparent from his stoic appearance in repose.

Modi paid tribute to the great impact that Indian-Americans have had on the high-tech industry. (Google, Microsoft and Adobe all have Indian-American CEOs, and Indians are the most significant immigrant group in the Silicon Valley startup culture.) He also spoke with pride about India’s Mars mission last year, where India became the first nation to successfully place a spacecraft into the Red Planet’s orbit on the first try. (India also accomplished that feat more economically than any other country ever had — with a budget that was less than that for the Hollywood movie Gravity.)

Modi met with a whole host of tech industry titans during his visit to the Silicon Valley, and they were clearly susceptible to his charisma. Mark Zuckerberg even changed his Facebook profile photo, superimposing the colors of the Indian flag over his face. (China’s President Xi Jingping also met with American tech leaders in earlier in the week, but his tour did not generate the buzz that Modi’s has.)

Modi is enlisting the Silicon Valley’s help for his “Digital India” initiative, which aims to use technology to make government more efficient and responsive. Modi also wants U.S. tech companies to play a role in promoting economic development in India. In his speech on Sunday, Modi asserted that India’s 800 million young people will help ensure that the 21st Century will be India’s century. Modi recognizes, however, that India will need to create enough jobs for all of those young people. He is looking to American companies — in technology and otherwise — to help.  

Although Modi’s visit to the U.S. has generated a lot of excitement, it didn’t receive nearly as much coverage as Pope Francis’s visit during the same week. Modi’s visit, however, will tangibly impact the lives of a greater number of people — in India and in the U.S. as well. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, in dismissing the Vatican’s input on the fate of Eastern Europe, famously asked: “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” One might similarly ask, albeit without the malevolence of Stalin, “How many jobs does the Pope create?” Modi, perhaps unlike the Pope, understands how free markets can drive technological innovation, create jobs, and lift people out of poverty. Modi’s ability to harness those markets for the benefit of his people will determine whether he remains a rock star.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.