India’s Narendra Modi made a rock star appearance at Facebook’s headquarters in California last Sunday (27), calling on governments to join social media networks to gauge vital public opinion.
Standing side by side with Mark Zuckerberg, the prime minister, who has 30 million fans on Facebook and tweets multiple times a day, also choked up while speaking about his mother and his humble origins during the invitation-only event.
Modi said: “To leaders all over the world; you are not going to gain by running away from social media.”
The tech-savvy premier, who answered audience questions, added: “The strength of social media today is that it can tell governments where they are going wrong and give them an opportunity to do a course correction. You will gain from joining it. You need real-time information.”
Modi, 65, used the hour-long townhall ses-sion to plug his Digital India initiative and promote the country as a place worthy of tourism, investments and entrepreneurs with technology start-up visions.
But he also shared candid moments with Zuckerberg, who told of finding inspiration to persevere with Facebook during a journey to India.
The Facebook founder pointed out his parents in the audience before asking Modi about his mother, who is over 90 years old.
The prime minister recounted coming from a poor family and selling tea at a rail station as a boy.
“It is hard to imagine that a tea seller has actually become the leader of the world’s biggest democracy,” Modi said.
“When we were small, what we used to do to get by,” he continued, pausing at times to compose himself. “We used to go to neighbours’ houses, clean dishes, fill water, do hard chores.
“You can imagine what a mother had to do to raise her children.”
Zuckerberg, meanwhile, opened the chat by telling of a time about a decade ago when Facebook was going through a “rough patch” and there were thoughts of selling the start-up.
He said he visited one of his mentors, late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who told him to travel to a temple in India.
“I went, and travelled for almost a month,” Zuckerberg recounted. “Seeing the people and how people connected, reinforced what we were doing and is something I’ve always remembered.”
Points touched on by Modi during the exchange included the hope of connecting all of India’s villages to the internet with fiber optic cable, and the mighty challenge of attaining equality for women in India.
“If we want to achieve our economic goals, we cannot do that if we imprison 50 per cent of our population inside their houses,” he said in answer to a question.
“We have to achieve one thing; to bring women into decision making,” said Modi, who playfully noted that while most religions portray deities as male, India has no shortage of goddesses.
Modi’s stop at Facebook was part of a tour of Silicon Valley, ahead of the UN General Assembly where he met US president Barack Obama, British prime minister David Cameron and French president Francois Hollande on Monday.
It is the first time since 1982 that a prime minister of India has visited the west coast of the US.
Modi also visited Google’s main campus in nearby Mountain View, where the web-based giant announced plans to make the internet accessible to 10 milli-on passengers at 100 of the busiest railway stations in India by the end of next year.
The scheme will later be expanded to 300 other stations, making it one of the largest public Wi-Fi projects in the world, the company said.
“I’m very proud to announce that it’s the train stations of India that are going to help get millions of people online. In the past year, 100 million people in India started using the internet for the first time,” Google’s India-born CEO Sunder Pichai said in a blog post last Sunday (27) after meeting Modi.
Pichai said Google would, however, also like to help the nearly one billion people in the country who were not online so they could access the entire web and all of its information and opportunity.
“That’s why, on the occasion of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to our US headquarters, and in line with his Digital India initiative, we announce a new project to provide high-speed public WiFi in 400 train stations across India,” he added.
“Just like I did years ago, thousands of young Indians walk through Chennai Central every day, eager to learn, to explore and to seek opportunity,” Pichai said in his blog post.
“It’s my hope that this Wi-Fi project will make all these things a little easier.
“It will also be fast – allowing travellers to stream a high definition video while they are waiting, research their destination, or download some videos, a book or a new game for the journey ahead,” the Google CEO said.
“Best of all, the service will be free to start, with the long-term goal of making it self-sustainable to allow for expansion to more stations and other places, in the future,” he added.
“To help make web content more useful for Indians, many of whom don’t speak English, we launched the Indian Language Internet Alliance last year to foster more local language content.
“We have built greater local language support into Google products, including Hindi Voice Search, an improved Hindi keyboard and support for seven Indian languages with the latest versions of Android,” Pichai said.
“And finally, to help all Indians reap the benefits of connectivity, we’ve been ramping up efforts to help women, who make up just a third of Internet users in India today, get the most from the web.”