Modi’s US Visit and the Drama of Digital India

Newsclick interviewed Prabir Purkayastha, Director of the Society for Knowledge Commons on the motives behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. and his conversations with the CEOs of Facebook and Google.

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Story Transcript

RISHAB BAILEY, NEWSCLICK: Narendra Modi has just completed his second trip to the U.S. in just over a year. As our media goes crazy over the fact that he spoke at the Google headquarters, we’re joined by Prabir Purkayastha, editor of Newsclick and chairperson of the Society for Knowledge Commons to discuss the prime minister’s latest foreign trip. Hi, Prabir, and thanks for joining us.

Now, while this trip, as with his previous visit to the U.S., has got Modi lots of media attention, has it achieved anything tangible? For instance, have we seen greater investment from the U.S. into India after his first visit?

PRABIR PURKAYASTHA: Question of how much investment will come is a much longer term one. People make all kinds of promises. We’ve also made promises to buy I think about $4.5 or $5 billion of military hardware from the United States. We have to see which way these promises are fulfilled.

So it’s only a matter of intention, or announcement of intention. We’ve seen earlier in the Gujarat [bailout] that Modi used to do that there were lots of promises and very little really transpired. So I think all of this will have to be seen with a pinch of salt. We’ll have to see what really happens before we can conclude on that.

BAILEY: Now, Modi’s trips abroad seem aimed more at the Indian diaspora. Why is this, and do you think it’s a good strategy in terms of getting more economic investment into India? Does it make sense to target this community?

PURKAYASTHA: I don’t think it’s a matter so much of investment as much of good PR and good media management. In India Modi somehow seems to be running out of steam in terms of his public campaign. That he’s going to change India, is going to do [inaud.] the various other things that he has promised till now. None of it seems to be moving. So in that sense he needs good PR exercises to keep this momentum going. And the diaspora, the Indian diaspora, seems to be an obvious target for him because they love what he’s talking about. They’re distant enough from what’s happening in India to not really see what the current policy [impasse] is. And therefore it seems that his publicity campaign runs better with the Indian diaspora than it runs in the Indian people.

So this seems to be the sum total of what he’s trying. And it’s also interesting what he’s doing in Egypt. These places are really events not so much speaking to the diaspora is having an event. You have song and dance shows, you have really good master of ceremonies who are beauty queens and figures like that.

BAILEY: They’re more celebrity appearances.

PURKAYASTHA: Celebrity appearances. In Madison Gardens as well as in Australia. He had really pageant beauty queens come and compare his show. So you have all these elements which are really what creates a media event, rather than a very serious interaction with even the diaspora.

BAILEY: Now, this trip has focused on two of the governments’ flagship schemes which are [inaud.] Digital India. Now, do you think foreign technology companies, who Modi has spent a lot of time with on this trip, can actually contribute to these projects in any way? Or is this all just another instance of PR, as you were saying?

PURKAYASTHA: I think the Digital India campaign has seen its problems. And the way Modi has pitched it, the way those companies have reacted, it does seem that we are on two different, shall we say, wavelengths.

As far as we are concerned, the bulk of the Indian people, we’d like to see Digital India that does make a difference to our lives. What they, or the Zuckerbergs or the Pichais, who is the Google CEO at the moment, they seem to be pitching for is give us access to your digital market. Which is what Facebook is arguing for, we’ll give you connectivity, just be on our platform. Which has changed its name from Internet.org, which came with a lot of criticism from net neutrality proponents, to now I think they’re calling it FreeServices.org. So similarly, Google has also talked about that they will give connectivity to the Indian railways in terms of WiFi installations in about 500 stations.

Now, all of it is today–personal data has become valuable. It’s a commodity of commerce. And digital commerce really means personal data being procured and used for selling to advertisers. So what essentially it means, that if you provide access but you do not control who uses the personal data through this digital access, you’re really empowering the market grab by foreign companies in the Indian digital sphere. And this, unfortunately, is one of the implications of what Modi has concluded with either Google or Facebook CEO.

And these are all geared to thinking, which is really a 20th century slogan, of only access without understanding that access can act both ways. It can lead to your being enslaved by the digital market, or it can lead to your also empowerment. Which way this access is provided, who controls the access, who owns the data once this access is given, is a critical issue. And on that Modi seems to naively believe that if these companies come it is very good for us. And if we just look at what China has done, protected its digital market. And the result of the top ten companies in the world, three today are actually Chinese companies. And all others are American companies precisely because they have been able to protect their digital market. Not therefore justifying the Great Firewall of China. But nevertheless, the value of protecting the digital market is visible here.

BAILEY: So do you think there is merit in placing so much emphasis on technological solutions to what are broadly social economic problems? I mean, because that is what this government is trying to do. They’re saying, we will provide you better services because we have Digital India, we have access to these sort of technologies. So how does that work, then?

PURKAYASTHA: The whole set of slogans like Smart India, et cetera, et cetera, all of it seems to believe provide technology, we’ll have a tech fix to every social problem. All those who have tried, have tried and failed. It’s very clear that tech solutions are being driven by tech companies. And they’re being driven because they wanted to sell their technology. That’s the primary instance. And in the case of Google and Facebook it’s also getting a hold of basically the personal data of the people. Because that’s the commodity they want. This is what’s called, today’s 21st century oil is personal data. That’s really what it was all about.

So neither tech fixes nor this kind of data grab are going to help Indian people. If we want to make a people-centric investment in technology, yes, technology can solve problems. But you have to see how it is to be used, who is going to use it, and for whom this technology is going to be used. That’s really going to determine whether technology will be a solution or technology will also be the problem of what we face currently.

BAILEY: Now, how do you view the engagement of these foreign companies in the creation of digital infrastructure itself? We know that they’ve all been complicit with the U.S. government in terms of spying on the entire world, including on India. There’ve also been complaints and problems raised about the role of various U.S. companies and say the [inaud.] ID project, as well, and what it will mean for sensitive data.

So what sort of role do you think these technology companies should have in building infrastructure? Particularly given our government’s stance in the Supreme Court that there is no right to privacy in India?

PURKAYASTHA: I think the essential problem that we have is this government, as well as our previous government, did not put a high price on Indians’ privacy, A. B, was willing anyway to offer our data to the NSA and others. India is a signatory to the agreement with the NSA that they would give access, India would give access to the NSA for–.

BAILEY: Yeah, by the third party agreement.

PURKAYASTHA: Yeah, the third party agreement is we had a lot of, I think 33 countries, who have given such access. So we don’t seem to have bothered about this, anyway. And it’s interesting. One of the targets of such access was the [BJP], who was also being monitored as one political party. Very few political parties globally were targets. BJP was one of them. But after Modi has come to power, the BJP government doesn’t seem to have taken any stand on it and is continuing on exactly the same set of policies giving access to NSA. By all accounts the same policies continue.

So we have this problem that the government of India believes that the NSA is their ally against what they considered as the war on terror, and India wants to be a partner in that sense with the United States. So this is one problem we anyway have. And as you know that the U.S. government also has access to all the data that Google or Facebook has, because under law Google and Facebook have to provide access to them. And they do provide privileged access to their data to the NSA and other intelligence agencies of the United States. So that’s the de facto status that we all know about.

The question is, is the Indian government bothered about it? The answer at the moment is no. It seems they are quite happy to collaborate in the belief that India’s strategic interests coincide with the U.S., and that’s really the larger geostrategic issues which we need to examine.

End

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