The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi seemed at home at Facebook headquarters on Sunday, in a town hall event seen by many as an attempt by Facebook to gain much-needed support for its expansive ambitions in India.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was certainly in a welcoming mood, changing his profile picture to include an Indian flag and writing: “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.”
At the 50-minute event, both men became emotional. Modi told the audience women were vital to the future of his country, and came close to crying when he discussed his mother’s role in his life. She had struggled when he was younger, he said, in order to “make ends meet”.
“A mother will never want you to become something; she will think about how you will achieve that,” he said. “I am from a very ordinary family, a very poor family. I sold tea in railway stations.”
For his part, Zuckerberg told Modi about a little-known incident several years ago when, he said, Facebook “wasn’t doing so well”. The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, he said, urged him to take a spiritual trip to India and visit a temple there.
The journey, Zuckerberg said, cleared his head and helped reaffirm Facebook’s mission to connect billions of people around the world.
Modi and Zuckerberg’s conversation turned, inevitably, toward economics and the role of the internet and technology in India. That was why many of the Facebook workers present showed up.
“We have been hearing from a lot of people here at work that India is a top priority, like China, and to have the prime minister here speaking it shows that there is a lot of excitement for us,” Paresh, a 37-year-old Facebook employee who declined to give his surname, told the Guardian.
“I think we all, and especially us Indians, are looking forward to the opportunity to get moving in India.”
Speaking to an audience of around 1,000, Modi said: “India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world today. My dream is to become a $20tn economy.
“India at this point needs both physical and digital infrastructure,” he added, highlighting his government’s efforts to offer cheaper, localized internet services, an effort which has largely been made with the help of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative.
Given criticism in India of Facebook regarding its alleged promotion of its own applications and services over Indian equivalents, Zuckerberg and the Internet.org team hoped Modi’s visit would attract support.
Gary Hopkins, 30, a web developer who has worked with Facebook on and off for a number of years, told the Guardian he was “interested to see what not only Modi had to say, but how Facebook would work the political game into trying to get more backing for their India efforts”.
“It’s a huge market and we all know the importance of that,” he said.
Gaurav Patel, a coder at Facebook, said the tech world and Facebook were uniquely capable of addressing challenges unique to India, due to the large number of Indians working in Silicon Valley.
“I think we are heading in the right direction and have a ton of potential in India and we shouldn’t really talk about something that we don’t really know that facts,” he said.
“This is why Modi is here, so he can show his support for us Indians who have come to America to work, and now that there are chances for coming home and helping there, it is very hopeful.”
Modi said social media had first been a personal interest and he had not expected to become prime minister when he started using Twitter and Facebook, platforms on which he now has tens of millions of followers.
“It was about my curiosity towards technology,” he said.
That curiosity has helped Facebook push into India. Modi said on Sunday that the internet helped him to govern. In the crowd, a few spectators mumbled about recent attempts by Modi’s government to censor and curtail internet viewership.
The lead-up to the event was marked by a PR effort from Facebook. Chris Daniels, vice-president of Internet.org, discussed the role the company could have in India.
“In April, I went to India and we heard the feedback from the community there that they felt that the platform was not as open as it could be to developers,” he told the Economic Times. “Both Facebook as a whole and Internet.org have a big role to play in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of India.”
While Sunday’s event did not reveal any specifics about increased connectivity between India and Facebook, Zuckerberg was all smiles throughout.
“I am personally impressed by the way PM Modi has used social media to connect with [the] people of India, be it women’s issues or to spread messages of peace,” he said.
Outside the event, a small group of protesters demanded that Modi take responsibility for a 2002 massacre in Gujarat, the state of which he was then chief minister.
Modi was due to complete his short California visit with an event at San Jose’s SAP Center, where 20,000 people from the Indian diaspora were due to attend. On Saturday, the prime minister toured electric carmaker Tesla and met top tech CEOs, including Google’s Sundar Pichai and Apple’s Tim Cook.
On Monday, Modi was scheduled to return to the United Nations in New York, where he was expected to meet President Obama.