September 29, 2015

Unlike Rahul Gandhi who trots out the now well-worn suit-boot jibe at every occasion, Narendra Modi’s speeches are tailor-made for his audience. His triumphal tour of Silicon Valley was no exception as he charmed the titans of technology by speaking their lingo. There’s nothing that tech whiz kids like better than technological silver bullets for seemingly intractable social problems, attacking poverty, as the Indian prime minister said, by the power of networks and mobile phones. If an American president once promised a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, Narendra Modi served up a digital version of that promise – JAM for all, Jan Dhan bank account, Aadhaar cards and Mobile governance.

Free wi-fi at 500 railway stations. 600,000 villages linked by optical fibre network. What was not to love, or at least Facebook-like, about this vision of the future even though it does not mean women’s rights are ensured or that healthcare is truly accessible. And Modi, a master of social media, was clearly in his element laying out a no-call-drop picture of the other India –where Maharashtra farmers have WhatsApp groups and the existential choice is about iOs or Android. No wonder Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said “I changed my profile picture to support Digital India, the Indian government’s effort to connect rural communities to the Internet and give people access to more services online.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in US. PTIPrime Minister Narendra Modi in US. PTI

But FreeInternet does not translate to freedom on the Internet. While Modi tells Zuckerberg “Social media helped me gain knowledge, it broadened my horizon”, the irony is far too many ordinary Indians find out the hard way that that freedom is really a minefield. A university professor in Kolkata forwards a cartoon about Mamata Banerjee and is hauled off to jail. A student in UP posts something derogatory about Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan and faces 14 days judicial remand. Two girls in Mumbai are arrested for questioning the city’s shutdown for Bal Thackeray’s funeral on Facebook. Actually one was arrested for ‘liking’ the post. A small-time businessman in Puducherry was arrested for tweeting about Karti Chidambaram’s wealth. And despite the many blatant abuses of Section 66A of the IT Act, the BJP chose to try and defend it in court instead of junking it and signaling a dramatic break from the UPA days.

The PM spoke ringingly about the power of social media in triggering change. “You get real time updates, we can come to know instantly when something happens in any corner of the world. And if a government is alert it can take this information to take corrective measures." He might have been referring to his IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s recent U-turn on a draft proposal about encryption and data security but the fact is the government, for all its social media proselytization, has rarely walked the talk. Modi might say humbly he found himself being educated via social media, but his fellow citizens like Ambikesh Mahapatra, Shaheen Dada, Rinu Srinivasan, Aseem Trivedi, Kanwal Bharti received a different kind of education thanks to their experiments with social media. In almost all these cases, it took courts to intervene on their behalf. And it is not like the travails of an Ambikesh Mahapatra made authorities think twice before going after a Rinu Srinivasan either.

Given this track record what reassurance is there that where low cost Internet comes, Big Brother will never be far behind? In that sense, Arvind Kejriwal has a point when he says Mr. Modi should focus on making India before telling everyone to Make in India. While Modi charms Silicon Valley by telling them that Twitter has made everyone a reporter and Google has made teachers less awe-inspiring, he does not tell the flip side of that story where the freedom of expression has not kept pace. As the PM basked in the internet freedom of Silicon Valley, an internet ban was extended in the Kashmir valley. Quartz commented that the townhall in the end “reeked of PR-scented hot air” because Modi was not pressed on “key issues including India’s internet regulatory framework and concerns over freedom of expression.”

Google’s Sundar Pichai probably came closest, if inadvertently, to pointing out this gap when he said “It is not just about being online, but what you do online.” That’s where the government has a long way to go if it really aims to live up to the lofty ideals of Digital India that the PM outlined in Silicon Valley.

Otherwise despite his sweet talk about JAM for all, the PM could end up sounding more like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who offered Alice two pence a week and jam every other day.

Alice couldn't help laughing, as she said, "I don't want you to hire me – and I don't care for jam."
"It's very good jam," said the Queen.
"Well, I don't want any to-day, at any rate."
"You couldn't have it if you did want it," the Queen said. "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day."

Sandip Roy is Senior Editor at the popular news portal and blogs for the Huffington Post. He has been a longtime commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio programme in the US, and has a weekly radio postcard for public radio in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also an editor with New America Media. Sandip has won several awards for journalism and contributed to various anthologies including Storywallah!, Contours of the Heart, Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, Out! Stories from the New Queer India, New California Writing 2011 and The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India. Sandip lives in Kolkata. This article was originally published in First Post on August 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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