Meeting point: here's why Zuckerberg, Modi need each other

  • N Madhavan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 09, 2014 15:07 IST

In the hurly-burly of Indian politics dominated by dynasties and towering figures, Narendra Modi was an outlier, who emerged from his humble origins as a Vadnagar tea seller to become the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy.

In the class-conscious world of high-achievers and Ivy League snobbery called Harvard University, an outlier Jew of simple origins from the small town of Dobbs Ferry, Mark Zuckerburg founded a company that put him in the global league of billionaires at the young age of 23.

Both of them are connected by Facebook.

The social network that Zuckerberg, now 30, used to gather fame and fortune in a short time-frame was used by Modi to acquire power and prominence in a nation of one billion people in an equally short time.

How many people do we know who are welcomed to the White House by the President of the United States after being denied a visa by Washington for his alleged transgressions in religious violence?

As it happens Zuckerberg, on a two-day visit to India, and Modi are set to meet – and in fact, need each other. Here’s how.

Modi swept to power with help from Facebook and Twitter, aided by hundreds of millions of young voters who tracked his moves and cheered him on social media sites. But he needs these people, and hundreds of millions more, to be galvanized into action for him to fulfill his electoral promises.

Zuckerberg needs the same millions, and even more people, to fulfill the promise he has made to Wall Street. He has to turn them into consumers whose eyeballs serve advertisers.

Facebook has 108 million active users in India, second only to the US, where it has about 180 million.

Zuckerberg, 30 years old and having an estimated wealth of $30 billion (about Rs. 180,000 crore) is expecting to ride partnerships with telecom service providers and makers of cheap Facebook-enabled smart feature phones to convert more and more of 900 million mobile phone subscribers into Facebook users as part of his initiative.

Modi may use the very same base to get across his messages on policies and politics --- such as his pet Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Movement).

This is no easy win-win agreement.

Modi has to prove that Facebook has to be free from hate speeches or campaigns (including from his own overzealous supporters). He also has to ensure that hardline provisions such as Section 66 of the Information Technology Act ( which prescribes 'punishment for sending offensive messages through communication services), are not used to curb freedom of expression – as it seems to have happened now and then. At the same time, there have also been unruly protests against Facebook posts in some parts of India. Modi has to ensure protection to this freedom.

Zuckerberg needs to convince Modi that a US company can act in Indian interest, and Facebook will not be used to snoop into the privacy of users or conduct questionable market research. Facebook, as the world’s top social network, needs to be sensitive to Indian security concerns as well as address critcism that its orientation is merely consumerist, and not social.

As famous small town outliers who made it big in a tough world, Modi and Zuckerberg have a lot in common – but will also need an uncommon bond to make their relationship fruitful.

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