Modi’s Internet followers, national statistics & global vacuum of leadership places him in a premiere position to become the world’s face, & India a destination, to discuss the future of global Internet and social media.
Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visits to Brazil & the US are his first exposures to the big league of global diplomacy - BRICS, United Nations and the United States. It doesn’t get any bigger. Without doubt, his speeches and positions will help the world see him in the right light.
While there are several deals which he will need to close, dialogues that he will need to enhance and discussions that he will originate, there is at least one that provides Mr. Modi the opportunity to rapidly, in the not-so-distant future, be acknowledged as a global leader, who represents not just the aspirations of 1.2 billion people, but the citizens of the world at large. This is the issue of Internet Governance (IG) – which impacts all 7 billion citizens on the earth – 3 billion online and 4 billion yet to be connected to the Web.
The fact that Mr. Modi thinks of the Internet space carefully and uses it strategically, is clear from his various statements about the Web; 19 million Facebook and 5 million Twitter followers. Above all, the quality of discussions that he held with the Facebook COO, Ms. Sheryl Sandberg, for over an hour recently.
Contrary to the sentiment that he would beat up on the US social media giant on issues of surveillance – which I am sure have figured in our diplomatic dialogue with the US Government – Mr. Modi chose to concentrate on the positive aspects of social media. He discussed, amongst others, the ways to utilize Facebook for running a national cleanliness campaign on the eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth centenary. His mindset, focus and personal experience perhaps places him in the best position to seek global leadership on an issue where the world, particularly the US, lacks both leadership and direction. This is a rare opportunity to gain global recognition by placing India front and center as the country which can provide a neutral platform for global dialogue on all aspects of IG. This, in turn, catapults Mr. Modi, within the next two years, as a global statesman who thinks strategically on an issue that impacts every global citizen, and especially, the poor, unconnected and youth. If corruption and governance were the big platforms for the national elections – IG equals that, beyond climate change, global trade & disarmament at an international level. This because, every global citizen feels about this issue, unlike other challenges, with unparalleled passion and a sense of personal involvement.
However, there are several steps that need to be taken for Mr. Modi to be recognized as a statesman who the world can trust :
1. India needs to change from its hard stance that has painted it into a corner along with countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and to an extent, China.
2. Like Switzerland acts on several contentious issues, India should become the ‘go-to’ country for discussions. To be seen as a consolidator of voices, rather than be seen as divisive through any extreme position on IG.
3. It needs to engage in a full-scale, merit-based, multi-stakeholder consultation within the country. This should be without attributing motives to those advancing their positions. Everyone should be invited, and only merit-based arguments should be accepted.
4. Further, forensically separate issues of cyber crime that require inter-governmental mechanism and cooperation and seek a resolution on those, without mixing it with IG in general. Cyber crime is a significant, but very small part of cyber security, which in turn, is one of the many important aspects, along with access, multilingual content, critical Internet resources, Internet for growth, e-governance and emerging issues such as IPv6, Cloud and M2M. Do not confuse the small but important cyber crime space with the enormous and complex aspects of the IG dialogue.
5. As a parallel step, pick the most articulate, influential, nationally and globally recognized resources working in tandem with the Department of Information & Technology as ambassadors to position India at global fora.
6. Finally, give the world the confidence that by becoming a neutral destination for discussion, India will not sabotage the dialogue with its own agenda or preconceived positions. Remember, everyone else who has attempted this, has failed. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff achieved some minimal success at Netmundial earlier this year, but it was still a very small conference as compared to the number of voices that need to be included in the IG space. Mr. Modi needs to think bigger. Much bigger.
India’s concerns about the US-based, NSA-led surveillance reports cannot be undermined. Those need to be firmly taken up with the US Government. But any attempt to paint the global IG dialogue either with surveillance colours or an anti-West tirade where India hopes to lead the global South, is misplaced and does nothing for the Prime Minister. Sure, the MEA could leverage this as a negotiating strategy for diplomatic brownie points and make things difficult for a global consensus, but that’s all we can get in following such an approach. Such an approach makes India the world’s tallest dwarf, and not a global leader that Mr. Modi has every opportunity of becoming.
If the world can trust us for not taking sides, for being benevolent and a neutral platform, we have every opportunity of stating our piece after attempting a national consensus. We do not need to sacrifice our national interest, but it would be a pity to allow the definition of national interest to be captured, either under the prism of cyber crime or leave it in the hands of a few bureaucrats whose work since Independence, has left us as a struggling, developing country playing catch-up, rather than a global powerhouse of which the world should sit up and take notice.
The task is complex, but doable. Thankfully, we are positioned well and Mr. Modi has personal credibility as one of the leading political authorities who uses the Web for his personal communications. With 800 million mobile subscribers, 220 million Internet users – a half of whom use social media such as Facebook - no one is better placed than Mr. Modi to occupy this space. All it needs is clear, decisive and non-confrontational stance, of the kind that he has demonstrated during elections and a vision that he demonstrated during his meeting with the Facebook COO. This is his time.