He came to Santa Clara like an Indian messiah, rose up on stage, folded his hands in humble supplication, then stood straight and tall as he let his voice ring out exhorting the jubilant, worshipful crowd to repeat phrases after him at the SAP center on a hot, packed September day. It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his persuasive best.
Yet the western media hardly paid Mr. Modi much mind. At the Facebook event, framed as a conversation between Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Modi, the press section was woefully under-occupied. I was present at the event and I met a reporter from CNN’s online technology bureau, a tech reporter from Inc’s SF bureau, and a reporter from the Mercury News. There were a few I did not meet, including a reporter from the Financial Times who wrote a piece which seemed to miss the point that Mr. Modi was in the United States to drive up investment in India and not to entice Indian Americans back to India.
Mr. Modi’s visit coincided with the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit. Both leaders met with the founders and titans of the technology industry. Both ostensibly for the same purpose: to recognize the buying power of the countries they represented. Mr. Xi more than likely did not receive the kind of reception from Chinese immigrants in the United States that Mr. Modi received from Indian Americans. Yet there was much discussion before and after the Chinese leader’s visit across U.S. media platforms, and barely a stirring of subtitles about Narendra Modi.
Go ahead, do a quick search on “Xi Jinping’s US visit,” you’ll discover reports from The New York Times, Time, Financial Times, BBC, NBC, and if you do a search on “Narendra Modi’s US visit”: NDTV, the Indian Embassy and Mr. Modi’s own website narendramodi.in are the leading results.
So what does Narendra Modi’s lack of international media visibility signify?
It may have something to do with the contradictions that India and its leader both present.
When it comes to India, the contradictions are all too well known and well documented: spiritualism and materialism, the worship of goddesses and the lack of respect for women, abject poverty and obscene wealth, democratic elections and autocratic power-mongering …
And, too, with Narendra Modi, there is much to applaud and caution. I admire Mr. Modi’s awe-inspiring work ethic; his ability to break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable subsets; his foresight and vision when it comes to India’s economic growth; his impatience with corruption and bureaucracy; his social media savvy; and his ability to make quick decisions.
It is likely true that no one leader can undertake all the issues that India presents. It becomes a question of priority and compromise. And with those two inadequate words, there ends up being much to dislike and disapprove.
On stage Mr. Modi is convincing. He tells you that he is an effective administrator, and a passionate nationalist. He is not ashamed of calling himself a Hindu and for bringing up (Hindu) heroes who have fought for India. He asks, no, demands validation, and the arena echoes with exuberant support.
And yet Mr. Modi fills me with apprehension. While I marvel at his grandiloquence on stage, it seems too much like a mind-altering marketing exercise. For all of Mr. Modi’s volubility when it comes to his areas of strengths-technology, business, bureaucracy-there is not one ameliorating word spoken on those areas of sensitivity: India’s cultural, religious and social diversity. And I wish he had the kind of bravery, that Abraham Lincoln-like bravery that would compel him to explain his failures as well as his successes, his worries as well as his victories.
So it is no surprise that the imagination cannot come to grips with these contradictions. And hence, it seems, there is a cautious calibration of Mr. Modi’s popularity on a guarded “wait and watch” cycle.
In spite of these contradictions though, maybe the lack of headlines is a testament to Mr. Modi’s successful Silicon Valley sojourn. In the media’s quest for titillating titles, phrases like crisis in crimea, civil war, cyberwarfare sometimes take front page. And hence, as the saying goes, “no news is good news.”