What Modi didn't tell Zuckerberg about women and digital freedom
As the VHP, RSS redefine sexuality and culture and create a moral policing system, PM's silence resonates longer.
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If Facebook has face value, Modi's interview with Mark Zuckerberg at the Town Hall was an immaculate performance. It was controlled, correct and precise to the point even the tears as lack of control were perfect punctuation marks. Yet, every statement has its silences, every text, a context and if we annotate the speech within the politics of India, doubts emerge. If doubt is an unfair word, especially when the audience is moved, then one must assume a split level existence between policy as stated intention and politics as fact.
The key words were superbly articulated. Zuckerberg merely compered allowing questions smiling benignly when Modi spoke in Hindi. There is an Orientalist beginning where stereotypes provide comfort. Zuckerberg talks of how when he was beginning, Steve Jobs his mentor asked him to visit a temple in India. India becomes for Zuckerberg an opening of the mind and the sense of the mind as market as Facebook is born. Modi pounces on this morsel seeing it as a recognition of the optimistic view of India as possibility that Modi highlights. India is not just the world largest democracy but demographically 65 per cent of India is under 35. For World Bank, IMF, for the rating agencies India is one of the fastest growing economies and Modi promises to transform a eight-trillion-dollar economy to 20 trillion one. Wish and fact work as collaborators to create a strange fait accompli where all one has to do is to connect because IT is the magic word that will transform the economy. Zuckerberg adds that Modi's interview had already received 400,000 hits which he said was extraordinary. The mutual seduction of Indian nation state and the American corporation has begun. Each moves like an acrobat, perfectly balanced ready with all the right lines.
Modi is presented as a Facebook exemplar, one of the early enthusiasts of internet as a tool. It is a recognition that almost makes him blush. He rises to the occasion and observes that internet creates an even field for a man with a disadvantage, for someone not too literate. Internet provides access and information; it becomes textbook and guide to a new entrant. Internet was also a democratic tool easily available to an aspiring citizen. Earlier elections allowed feedback once in five years.
Today the digital age allows daily response, creating the daily voting of democracy. It is revolutionary step and Modi presents it textbook style, a perfect sales pitch. He presents the right brand pitch when he tells world leaders not to run away from social media but to understand it. It provides real time information for a real life democracy. Modi observes earlier one waited 24 hours to read about events in a newspaper. Today one receives it in seconds allowing governments to take immediate corrective measures. Even language is not a barrier as you can send your birthday greeting in any language. The IT audience smiles as Modi presents the internet fables. The audience asks its questions. Vir Kashyap from Babajob asks what the government plans to do to consolidate connectivity and productivity. Modi explains. Modi argues like a schoolteacher that there is digital and physical infrastructure and India needs both. One needs both highways and I-ways and Modi plans optical fibres for 2,50,000 villages in five years. It reminds one of an older era where Lenin claimed Soviets plus electrification equals to communism. Here made sales roadways plus optical fibres equals to connected development. Silicon Valley salivates at the prospect of such a world.
Zuckerberg reminds him of women and Modi has his answers pat as if he knows the quiz. He talks of real decision-making, not choosing the colour of a wall but deciding about the nature of the house. Modi argues that women are the majority in the health and teaching industry. He is promising them 30 per cent representation is local self-government Modi's answers are clear and correct and summon immediate approval. Between connectivity and women's empowerment, a nation can move a long way.
Then Zuckerberg throws him the last act. He asks as a family man what Modi thinks of his family. Modi's eyes turn moist, the sentences freeze as he talks of his mother. It is not just gratitude for her sacrifice but a restatement of values. It is a very sentimental movement. The mother as a public symbol almost seals the agreement between Facebook and India. The lines are immaculate, the performance impressive.
Yet, watching from India the context intrudes and a sceptical punctuation marks the text. Modi talks of digital power and yet seeks to tame freedom. He confuses innovation and creativity, technology seems to have a leeway that cultures and people don't. He talks of women's representation but not women's freedom, their definitions of sexuality.
As the VHP, RSS redefine sexuality and culture and create a moral policing system, Modi's silence resonates longer. The mother is esteemed but the wife, the independent women is lost in silence. Is sacrifice the only synonym for a women, or is freedom, sexuality, difference a part of the glossary? What looks like clarity abroad adds to the ambiguity at home. The Town Hall performance is facile, clear but the shadows are cast at home. The NRI is happy but the Indian citizen is left with the questions. One realises that performance as spectacle is not a conversation, that a Q&A is not a dialogue. The lesson is clear. Technology can create connectivity but it is only communication that creates meaning. The limits of Modi-Zuckerberg are clear: democracy needs more than a Facebook, it needs a face, a conversation of faces. That we do not have as yet.