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PM’s US visit traverses two worlds: Silicon Valley and the UN

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States will traverse two locations, the United Nations and Silicon Valley. If one signifies a status quo, especially in terms of reforms of the UN Security Council, the other is about change being constant.

columns Updated: Sep 19, 2015 01:15 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times
Narendra Modi,Silicon Valley,Modi US visit
Sundar Pichai, the new CEO of Google. Pichai will be among a number of high-level software executives that Modi will meet during his visit to Silicon Valley later in September.(AFP Photo)

In about a week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will return to Banistan. No, this isn’t a domestic departure from his global travels (some unkind critics have said the only way to keep him going on foreign trips is to get him non-skid shoes). Rather, it’ll be his second consecutive visit to the UN during its general assembly session, lead, of course, by secretary general Ban ki-Moon.

New York isn’t his only destination. He’ll also be in Silicon Valley, moshing with the crowds at yet another public reception, while campus-hopping to the sprawling HQs of Facebook, Google and Tesla.

His destinations won’t just be on the opposite coasts of the country, but will cross two opposing mindsets: From a digital heartland to a bureaucratic wasteland, as different from each other as chalk and chips. Ironically, that place of slow-moving objectives is in a city that’s vibrant, while the swift-mode centre is situated within America’s suburban dreariness.

It may just be ironic that the headquarters of the United Nations in midtown Manhattan is in a locality that’s known as Turtle Bay. Here, change is as distant as it can be instant at those locations on that other coast.

Obviously, the prime minister’s agenda will include lobbying for reform in the UN Security Council. Nineteen seventy-one marked the last change in composition of that body, when China replaced Taiwan on the UNSC. In that year, computers with the power of your smartphone would need to occupy a space as large as the UN headquarters. The current CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, wasn’t even born.

In fact, the current clamour for reforms commenced in the early 1990s and the collective period of the process is almost equal to the cumulative age of Google, Facebook and Twitter. If Silicon Valley had been a UN enterprise, we would probably still be debating 18 different versions of proposals for upgrading of telex machines.

There is, we are told, much reason for optimism about UNSC reform during the 70th anniversary of its parent organisation. A text has been adopted for negotiations on that issue. Formally, the UN noted: “The Assembly, by the text, decided it would convene the Open-ended Working Group on the Question of Equitable Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters related to the Security Council during the seventieth session, if Member States so decided.”

In UN-speak, there was disagreement over whether Rev2 or Rev3 were being discussed. That’s just about the only time the term rev appears in the context of this global body. The alphabet groups that comprise pressure points within the UN system were souped up: The C10 wanted one version, the L69 another, G4 (of which India is a part along with Germany, Japan and Brazil) a third.

Uniting for Consensus, a group that includes Pakistan, doesn’t even want more permanent members, just that the UN keep its own caste system in place. That’s perfectly fine with permanent members, China, Russia and the United States, which didn’t even want their views cast into that context. So much for textual healing of an ailment afflicting the UN for seven decades.

Let’s be real, however much the prime minister may campaign for expansion of the permanent seats, that’s not happening without the P5 being on board.

Only in the United Nations can such a negotiating instrument be described as ‘historic’. In Silicon Valley, a document that comprises ideas, many outdated, generated over generations of failure, would be described as prehistoric.

Modi will arrive at the UN after completing his tour of the Valley, speaking to another fawning audience in San Jose, talking to frothy tech leaders in places like Santa Clara and Fremont. This is where digital initiatives will gather momentum or a renewables thirst receive a thrust.

It will take the prime minister’s plane about six hours to traverse the breadth of America, from northern California to New York City, but in terms of the venues for his visits, these places are light-years apart: From a broadband corridor to a centre of narrow concerns.

(Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs. The views expressed are personal)

First Published: Sep 18, 2015 22:00 IST