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Big Tech Rolls Out Red Carpet for Indian Prime Minister, Lobbies Behind Closed Doors

Modi, the Valley's cause célèbre.

Kevin Frayer | Getty Images

Tech adores him. He poses for photos with (then-) Twitter CEOs, and can shoot selfies on Twitter over the firewall in China. Silicon Valley execs sing his praises here and when they visit his country. When he comes to town, he commands meetings with corporate chiefs from Apple, Tesla and Google. He gets his own town hall with Mark Zuckerberg.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, is the prime Valley celebrity this weekend during his diplomatic trip to California, the first in more than three decades for a leader of the world’s largest democracy. On Sunday, after visiting a wave of marquee campuses in Northern California, Modi will join Facebook’s CEO for an event billed as being filled with “candid and insightful conversation.”

On the surface, the reasons for his rapturous welcome are obvious: India is huge. It will host an estimated 236 million Internet users by 2016, and maybe twice that the following year. For many U.S. tech companies, it is the second-largest market next to China; for those barred from China — Google, Facebook, Twitter — it is the largest. A wave of innovative (and not back-office) Indian startups, such as Flipkart, Snapdeal and InMobi, are eying international expansion and attracting U.S. investors and acquirers.

That attraction is growing but still paltry: Indian group iSpirt estimates the nation’s tech industry has generated $2.3 billion in mergers and acquisitions since 2011, although three-fourths of that is domestic. During his visit, Modi may push Valley giants to up their financial investment in Indian companies. “I bet it’s easier to raise money in Bangalore now than in Sand Hill Road,” said Raina Kumra, co-founder of Mavin, a Palo Alto-based mobile startup that works in India.

Modi, who was elected in 2014, ran his campaign with a heavy reliance on online platforms, and has instituted a campaign called “Digital India” to support tech initiatives that he is coming to the state. to promote.

His arrival coincides with the arrival of fellow Indians among tech’s top ranks. The CEOs from Microsoft, Adobe and Google are all Indian-born. Google’s Sundar Pichai, the latest, offered Modi a warm welcome this week before their meeting, noting Google’s multi-pronged effort to improve access (and users) in the country. “The bond between India and Silicon Valley is strong,” Pichai said.

For Internet companies, Modi’s visit offers a chance to curry favor and lobby for eased restrictions in India, which lacks the government restraints and domestic competition of China. (Google was noticeably absent from the tech confab earlier this week with China’s visiting president, Xi Jinping.)

Because here is what’s happening behind the surface: All is not so easy for tech in India. Facebook has hit a significant roadblock there with, its access program, as Indian critics consider it in violation of net neutrality. Google has put some of its access efforts on pause in response, according to sources. And the search giant is fending off a potential antitrust investigation.

Publicly, Modi has expressed an openness to U.S. tech, but his party — whose base mixes pro-business groups with hard-right Hindu ones — can lean nativist, expressing a weariness of foreign companies. U.S. tech has long had a presence in the country, but some in the government do not see the latest giants, like Facebook and Google, as “good corporate citizens,” one Indian tech veteran and investor told me.

Expect the chats between Modi and tech CEOs behind closed doors to address that. There are far smaller odds that they will discuss another issue that has made their esteemed guest a cause célèbre: Last year, Modi was awarded a U.S. visa, after a nine-year ban for his role in deadly anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat when he was the state’s chief minister.

Tech companies have stayed silent on that, as well as the ruling from India’s Supreme Court banning same-sex relationships.

Some 100 American academics who study South Asia penned an open letter to tech companies in advance of Modi’s visit. They wrote: “We urge those who lead Silicon Valley technology enterprises to be mindful of not violating their own codes of corporate responsibility when conducting business with a government which has, on several occasions already, demonstrated its disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions.”

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