Indian PM Modi launches ′charm offensive′ in Silicon Valley | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 28.09.2015
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Indian PM Modi launches 'charm offensive' in Silicon Valley

On his second US trip as India's PM, Modi made a stop at Silicon Valley to lure US tech giants into bolstering their presence in the Asian nation. Analyst Michael Kugelman talks to DW about the highlights of the visit.

Narendra Modi's tour of Silicon Valley marks the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the US West Coast in more than three decades. As part of his trip, Modi met top leaders in the US tech industry: Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Apple's chief Tim Cook and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, along with Indian-Americans Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella and Shantanu Narayen, who are respectively the bosses of Google, Microsoft and Adobe.

The tech-savvy Indian premier - who regularly uses Twitter and Facebook to communicate with millions of his followers - aims to increase US tech investment in India and encourage tie-ups between technology companies in both countries.

Furthermore, Modi has expressed his desire to bring all of India's villages online by expanding Internet connectivity across the vast country. The PM has called on the US corporate sector to seize the market opportunities offered by India and pledged to carry on with his efforts to reform the economy and reduce bureaucratic red tape.

PM Modi is also set to meet US President Barack Obama in New York on Monday, September 29. The two leaders are scheduled to hold talks on sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting. The discussions are expected to include issues related to climate change and India's willingness to set targets to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.

Michael Kugelman

Kugelman: 'It's hard to think of any other recent heads of government having so many star-studded encounters on a trip to the US'

In a DW interview, Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, says that PM Modi saw his trip to Silicon Valley as a charm offensive and a business opportunity at the same time. There are also some substantive achievements to speak of from the visit, he adds.

DW: What have been the highlights of Modi's second US visit? What has he been trying to achieve?

Michael Kugelman: As has often been the case with Modi on his many international forays, the highlights have been less about substantive achievements and more about symbolic victories. Modi met with some of America's biggest names in the corporate and IT worlds, and on Monday he was to have had another meeting with President Obama - their third meeting in less than a year.

It's hard to think of any other recent heads of government having so many star-studded encounters on a trip to the United States. But for Modi, this was all part of the grand plan. Modi wanted this trip to amplify that India's global profile, and the global profile of Modi himself, is large and growing. And on that front, I think he succeeded.

Why was the Indian PM so keen on visiting Silicon Valley?

Silicon Valley represents arguably the world's foremost bastion of IT and innovation success stories. IT and innovation are success stories in India too, but there is still much work to be done, and India needs help in figuring out how to scale up these fields and in broadening the entrepreneurial environment needed to sustain IT and innovation.

USA Narendra Modi und Sundar Pichai Google

'Many IT workers in Silicon Valley are Indian-Americans and Modi never likes to waste an opportunity to engage with the diaspora'

And there's no better place to go for help than Silicon Valley. In effect, Modi saw his trip there as a charm offensive and a business opportunity at the same time: an opportunity to showcase what India already has to offer, and to make a pitch for new partnerships to help make what it has back home even better.

And on this front, there are some substantive achievements to speak of - giving the lie to the view of Modi's critics that these trips abroad are more about the glitz than the substance. For example, India has apparently secured a major investment, to the tune of about $150 million, from the US firm Qualcomm to provide venture capital funds for Indian start-up firms.

Finally, it bears mentioning that there is a strong Indian-American contingent in Silicon Valley. Many IT workers in the area are members of the diaspora. And Modi never likes to waste an opportunity to engage with the diaspora, which in the US is generally pro-Modi, with some notable exceptions.

What can India offer US tech companies that, for instance, rival China cannot?

Two major advantages: political and demographic. India is a democracy and can therefore provide US tech firms with more freedom and autonomy than they would enjoy in authoritarian China.

To be sure, India's democracy is messy and its investment climate is quite challenging for foreign investors, who are unhappy about the rampant inefficiencies and corruption they run into in India. Yet the freedom is still there - and that's a critical factor for innovation firms.

Additionally, India offers a large and young labor force, whereas in China you have an aging population that simply cannot provide as many young IT workers as India can.

Was any progress made in the area of environmental issues?

India has made quite clear that it is not interested in concluding a major carbon reduction deal along the lines of the one that Beijing inked with the US earlier this year. This isn't to say India isn't taking steps to address environmental concerns; it simply wishes to do so in ways that don't necessarily involve close cooperation with the US.

Modi is certainly a strong proponent of renewable energy; it is he after all who developed one of the largest solar parks in Asia, which is located in the Indian state of Gujarat where he served as chief minister for more than a decade.

For Modi, environmental issues were not a core priority during his trip. The main focus was on high-tech issues and IT, along with broader international issues such as UN reforms and relations with the United States.

What are the key issues on Modi's international agenda?

UN reform is a very hot-button topic for India, and one of Modi's goals on his trip was to build some momentum for some serious talk about reform. Specifically, he wants India to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which will entail expanding the institution.

The meeting that he hosted in New York with the leaders of Germany, Brazil, and Japan was arguably one of the most important of his entire trip to the US.

USA Narendra Modi und Mark Zuckerberg

'India needs Silicon Valley's help in figuring out how to scale up and sustain its IT sector'

It was meant to bring together the main countries wishing to be added to the security council on a permanent basis, to signal that these countries are very serious about this; that they could offer a whole lot on the council; and that the shifting dynamics of global affairs make it increasingly wrongheaded not to have these countries added to the council.

Modi must realize that expanding the UN Security Council is a very ambitious goal, given the glacial pace at which the UN bureaucracy moves, and a big-bang reform like this one would be hard to pull off. Also, he realizes that China may not wish India to become a permanent member.

Still, having that New York meeting was meant to send a loud message that India is ready to start talking about this possibility, at the very least.

Following this second US trip by PM Modi, how would you assess the state of US-India ties?

US-India ties are in a very good place right now, and the sky is the limit. By meeting with Obama three times in a year, Modi has made very clear that he is ready to engage on deep and high levels with Washington. The US is also clearly ready, and has been ever since the US combat mission ended in Afghanistan, which enabled the US to scale down its major focus on the AfPak region and look further east to India.

There was a very successful strategic and commercial dialogue in Washington prior to Modi's trip, and a joint statement underscored the growing bilateral friendship. Modi's meetings in New York and California also underscored how US-India ties are further strengthened by connections with two key demographics - the Indian-American community and the US corporate world.

That said, the two sides still have a whole lot of work to do, as there are still tensions on a variety of issues, ranging from climate change policy to global trade and views about Pakistan.

Narendra Modi in den USA

Modi will engage in talks with US President Obama on sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting

Finally, in the grand scheme of things, India is still not a top-burner issue for Washington. The Middle East remains the top US region of concern, and many other issues will continue to trump India.

Consider that even as the Indian media provided blanket coverage of Modi's every move in the US, the US media was silent. The American media, and US policymakers, were much more focused on the visits of the Pope and of China's president than that of Modi.

In effect, Modi is a big draw, but as far as America is concerned, he's nowhere near the biggest draw. And neither, alas, is India.

Michael Kugelman is a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.