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Modi Calls Silicon Valley's Indian-Americans a 'Brain Gain'

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India's digital-driven Prime Minister Narendra Modi connected with Silicon Valley's Indian-American community in a big way Sunday, as he continues to rehabilitate his own reputation in this country after being banned for nine years.

At San Jose's SAP Center, he drew close to 18,000 people -- mostly Indian-Americans. The audience included House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and a host of congressional members, including Mike Honda, John Garamendi, Ami Bera, Tulsi Gabbard, Jerry McNerney, Loretta Sanchez and Eric Swalwell. Earlier in the day, Modi discussed climate change with Gov. Jerry Brown at the Fairmont Hotel, held a town hall meeting at Facebook with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and visited Google.

India's Prime Minister Modi walks onto the stage at San Jose's SAP Center
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks onto the stage at San Jose's SAP Center (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Modi's visit to California was the first for an Indian prime minister in 33 years. The United States denied Modi a visa in 2005 over allegations that he failed to intervene to stop Hindus from killing hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat state, where he was chief minister. He was eventually cleared of complicity by India's Supreme Court.

Modi told the cheering crowd in San Jose that he doesn't see their exodus as a brain drain but as a "brain deposit." Many engineers and other educated Indians flocked to Silicon Valley in the 1980s, because they felt that innovation was stifled by political and social forces in India. Modi said their success and the magic of their fingers in Silicon Valley forced the world to change the way it looks at India.

"India's brain drain came to be brain gain," said Modi, 64, speaking in Hindi with English subtitles on a jumbo screen.


Modi wants Indian-Americans to invest in India, said Seema Sirohi, a columnist for the Economic Times in Washington, D.C., after she heard the speech in San Jose.

"He called them not a brain drain but a brain deposit that he can cash when the time comes. With opportunities growing in India, he wants them to come back," said Sirohi. "He said India is on a growth path with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world now and it's a huge market, so it's a great opportunity for entrepreneurs."

Modi drew many Indian-Americans in their 20s who are planning to make careers in tech. Jeet Shah, a Cal Poly graduate student in electrical engineering, drove all the way from San Luis Obispo to hear Modi speak.

"I want to hear the different kinds of changes he plans to bring into India and how he plans to connect people in America to India," said Shah. "I plan to work in the Silicon Valley next year and would like to invest in India someday. And hopefully Modi makes it a little easier for us Indians in America to invest and hopefully he brings a lot of reforms."

But not everyone who turned out Sunday was pleased with Modi's plans for "Digital India" or his economic reforms. About 500 demonstrators were outside SAP with signs about climate change and human rights issues, including gay rights. San Jose police tried to keep protesters and supporters apart, but yelling matches often broke out before Modi's speech began.

"In India it is a Modi-cracy, not a democracy," said Bajin Singh outside the arena. "There are forced conversions, there are genocides. It is a nation that wants to have one religion, one identity and one look."

One climate change protester said Modi can't have it both ways on energy.

"Modi is talking about the largest rollout of solar power anywhere, but he's also talking about a massive increase in coal burning. And there's no point in increasing solar if you're just going to increase coal burning," said Neil Tangri of Palo Alto.

One Indian gay rights activist, who did not want to be identified, said Modi needs to legalize homosexuality, which is considered a crime in India. The activist moved to San Francisco eight years ago because he is gay but remains a citizen of India.

In the morning, Modi answered questions at a town hall meeting hosted by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the headquarters of the world's largest social network. Modi said social media is a powerful tool for democracy, and world leaders should not run away from it.

"There is a big gap between the Indian government and people," said Modi. "The strength of social media is the government knows where it is going wrong."

Mohit Agrawal, a product manager at Facebook, came to the United States a decade ago. He said Modi has arrived in the United States -- but so have Indian-Americans.

"It's a moment of pride for all the immigrants who work in the valley and have not seen this kind of excitement for any statesman in a long time," said Agrawal.

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