Sheryl Sandberg fetes new Indian Prime Minister, big tech's favorite ultranationalist
On July 3, when most Americans were preparing their illegal home fireworks shows, or battening down the storm hatches, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was paying a well-publicized visit to India's controversial new leader, Narendra Modi, the ultranationalist who recently swept to power.
Sandberg's appearance came on the same day as Sen. John McCain's visit to Modi, pitching for America's weapons industry in case Modi follows through on plans to open up India's arms market to foreign investors.
In theory, technology is not supposed to be a violent reactionary's best friend, but in the case of Narendra Modi and his Hindu supremacist BJP Party, that is exactly the case. Modi boasts of having 19 million Facebook followers, second in the world among politicians after President Obama. On twitter, Modi is the world's third most popular politician with 5.09 million followers, after Obama (43.9 million followers) and the Pope (14 million followers). Last month, Modi ordered his ministers to open Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The tech community both in India and in Silicon Valley has carried on a woefully underreported love affair with Modi, despite his violent past and authoritarian tendencies. As PandoDaily reported in May, eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar's top man in India from 2009 through early this year, Jayant Sinha, simultaneously worked to help elect Modi and his BJP Party in 2012-13, according to senior BJP officials. While Sinha was serving as head of Omidyar Network India Advisors, Omidyar Network's largest single country operation during the past few years, Sinha also served as a director in a murky but highly influential BJP security and economics think tank, the India Foundation, whose founder, Ajit Doval, is now serving as Modi's powerful National Security Advisor. Many see Modi's NSA behind recent government threats to crack down on progressive NGOs like Amnesty and Greenpeace, and in prioritizing waging a domestic war on terror against landless peasant insurgents.
Today, Jayant Sinha, former head of Omidyar Network India, is a member of parliament in Modi's ultranationalist BJP Party.
Along with Omidyar, Google and Eric Schmidt have helped promote Modi as the technology world's favorite. At home in India, techies helped fund and run Modi's hi-tech campaign, featuring a 3-D hologram of Modi appearing in dozens of campaign rallies at once.
All this in spite of Modi's notorious dark side: In 2002, when Modi was the chief minister ruling the state of Gujarat, deadly anti-Muslim pogroms broke out under his watch, killing and wounding thousands, and leading to the internal displacement of over 200,000 Muslims. Modi was condemned by Human Rights Watch and others, including the US State Department, which put Modi on a visa blacklist until his recent election. One of the Gujarat riot's victims, a 72-year-old Muslim MP named Ehsan Jafri, repeatedly called Modi for help from his compound, where dozens of Muslims took refuge. Modi's people were unreachable for hours until mobs ripped up the telephone lines; no one came to help. A Hindu mob tore down the gates, demanded Jafri come out on his own — then cut off his fingers, arms, and legs, tore open his belly, and burnt his corpse. Dozens more Muslims in compound were murdered and raped. His widow, Zakia Jafri, failed in her long campaign for justice when a special investigative committee ruled that her husband had "provoked" the mob into dismembering and murdering him.
Modi himself rose up through the ranks of India's fascistic paramilitary, the RSS, which has played a key role in organizing several sectarian mass-killings in India over the years. It was an RSS member who assassinated Gandhi in 1948. Since taking power in a landslide election, Modi has appointed to his cabinet one minister implicated in inciting last year's deadly anti-Muslim pogrom in Uttar Pradesh that killed 60 people, mostly Muslims, and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes; Modi's minority affairs minister already declared that Muslims are not a minority, reasoning that India has too many Muslims to qualify as a minority.
Which brings me back to Sheryl Sandberg's meeting with Modi. According to the Economic Times, Facebook has 100 million users in India, which sounds like a lot, but represents "only" eight percent of the population. To Facebook, that means hundreds of millions of potential users yet to be Facebooked, and that is why Modi, the most social media-friendly authoritarian in the world, is someone Silicon Valley can do business with.
As Sandberg posted on Facebook after meeting with Modi:
"Meeting Prime Minister Modi gave me the opportunity to express my personal appreciation to him for making the education of girls and women a priority as equal opportunity is essential for strengthening all economies and creating a just world.
"...We look forward to working together to bring the next billion people online. Access=opportunity—creating more economic, social and political opportunities for the people of India." Silicon Valley seems to think it knows what it's getting into by investing so much in Modi — not just cash investments, but identifying tech values with Modi's values. Everywhere, it seems, including in India, techies are convinced that Modi is their politician. A rude awakening is coming when the ugly side of Modi reveals itself.