Indian Prime Minister Takes California, Courted By Tech Industry Titans

Sep 25, 2015
Originally published on September 27, 2015 12:55 pm
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Just days after China's President Xi Jinping held high-profile business meetings on the West Coast, now it's India's turn. Prime Minister Narendra Modi flies to California this weekend to court and be courted by America's tech industry leaders. NPR's South Asia correspondent, Julie McCarthy, reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: In his second visit to the United States, India's social media-savvy prime minister meets Silicon Valley. Narendra Modi will hold a town hall with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, dine with Apple's Tim Cook and visit Tesla Energy, headed by electric car innovator Elon Musk. Modi wants the Valley's tech giants to help with his ambitious plan to expand the Internet to all Indians.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup.

VIKAS SWARUP: So Prime Minister's visit to California is to see how we can tap into energy, the innovation and, above all, the genius of Silicon Valley and align it with India's own governmental priorities.

MCCARTHY: Almost all of the big American technology firms have pioneers of Indian descent.

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SUNDAR PICHAI: It's an honor to be welcoming Prime Minister Modi to Silicon Valley this coming weekend.

MCCARTHY: Indian-born Google chief Sundar Pichai took to YouTube this week to say there was no more important role for tech companies today than to help connect India's next billion Internet users. Inexpensive smartphones have introduced millions of Indians to the Internet, and American tech companies looking for a piece of India's digital transformation could offer even cheaper devices, improved connectivity and finance startups in India.

NEELAM DEO: What Mr. Modi's going to be trying to do is get a big infusion of investment. That will enable India to move up in the value chain.

MCCARTHY: That's Neelam Deo, co-founder of the Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House. Deo cautions that the venture capitalists Modi hopes to woo would want to see market barriers come down, red tape cut as promised and regulations on startups relaxed. She notes the World Bank's ease of doing business index ranks India 142nd in the world.

DEO: Mr. Modi is going to have to work hard at persuading corporations that things in India have changed completely - because they haven't.

MCCARTHY: But one area that shows particular promise is banking. In India, nearly half of a population has no access to banking services, and mobile technology could drastically improve that. Senior IT executive Manish Sabbharwal says directly depositing welfare subsidies alone would reap huge savings.

MANISH SABHARWAL: This innovation of financial inclusion and Silicon Valley and India working together is possibly a game changer for India.

MCCARTHY: Thousands of Indian-Americans have clamored to be on hand in San Jose Monday to hear Modi speak, a man who, for many, embodies modernism in their ancient culture.

Social entrepreneur Harish Hande says the lesson India needs to learn from Silicon Valley is that without risk there is no innovation. In the Bay Area, he says, 9 out of 10 companies will fail, and that's fine.

HARISH HANDE: We are a very risk-averse country. In India, they want 9 out of 10 companies to succeed.

MCCARTHY: Which Hande says is crazy. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.