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Young Indians play increasing role in India-China relations

The banning of Chinese apps is part of PM Modi's plan for India to become self-reliant in technology

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Updated: September 08, 2020 03:52 AM GMT
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Young Indians play increasing role in India-China relations

Indian soldiers pay their respects during the funeral of special forces soldier Nyima Tenzin in Leh on Sept. 7. Tenzin was killed in the latest border showdown with Chinese troops on their contested Himalayan border. (Photo: AFP)

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The world is changing fast. In the new emerging world, it seems that youth power and cyberspace are emerging as primary tools for political maneuvering and international diplomacy.

Two of the most powerful armies in the world — of India and China — are engaged in a border tussle. But along with traditional skirmishes, New Delhi has acted on the internet as well. 

On Aug. 2, India banned as many as 118 China-linked mobile apps, including the widely popular game PUBG, leaving Chinese companies bleeding. In June, New Delhi outlawed 59 other social media mobile applications, saying they threatened India's national security.

India’s establishment also seems upset with Facebook. The social network giant and its three associated social media platforms, including WhatsApp, have some 600 million users in India. The issues with Facebook are hate speech and political bias.

Incidentally, both the opposition parties and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are accusing Facebook and its officials of being biased against them.

Modi's party won two successive parliamentary polls in 2014 and 2019 by investing huge amounts of money, planning and time in social network platforms. Before 2014, only the BJP used social media to reach out to voters — mostly Hindus — in this country of 1.3 billion people.

At least 30 percent of Indians, about 400 million, are young people aged 10-24. With the internet now available in remote and poor villages, most young people use social media. Every government move on social media is an instant and personally affecting message for them.

The war now is on how Facebook favors political parties in the general election four years away. Opposition parties say platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow BJP leaders to spread hate against religious minorities. Social media do not act against them because they are forced to support the ruling party for their businesses. But the BJP says these platforms have been pro-left liberal and generally anti-Hindu.

"The power of Indian population size and the IT-savvy younger generation ought to be understood in order to get a grasp of the power of cyberspace on the subcontinent," says Naga politician Thomas Ngullie, a Christian.

"It is a market-driven new economy and India as a market matters. That is why the Modi government's decision to ban popular apps has affected Chinese companies hard. Facebook-like big guns are also anxious that nothing happens to disturb their goodwill and market. This is an inherent advantage with India today," adds Ngullie, himself a Facebook enthusiast and a regular blogger.

Those in the information technology sector agree. Muhammad Ishtiaq, who owns a mobile phone shop and cybercafé, says that by the end of 2019 Chinese apps dominated a whopping 60 percent of downloads. In fact, the share of downloads of Indian apps dropped to 8.4 percent from the 14.3 percent share they had in 2015, he said, quoting industry statistics.

Some 30 percent of users of the popular Chinese app TikTok — a staggeringly high 600 million — are in India. Ishtiaq also says Chinese apps have penetrated into rural India and local language space, winning over children and homemakers and other women's sections.

Indian-language internet users numbered around 230 million in 2016 and that figure is expected to jump to 536 million by 2021. So much is the market's potential that perhaps nine out of 10 internet users in India are likely to be Indian-language users.

Prime Minister Modi insists on India becoming "Atmanirbhar” (self-reliant) regarding technology and production for socioeconomic development. The banning of Chinese apps would certainly open up fresh business avenues for indigenous apps. 

That's an easy way to pass the message that the BJP has done its part to develop the economy. It would also add to PM Modi's "strong leader" image among the less educated Indian masses too.

The banning of popular applications on Aug. 2 also coincided with Indian armed forces taking an advantageous position in their latest conflict with China along the border.

Millions of young internet users have become a bargaining tool in the market. Considering that only 48 percent of Asia's population uses the internet, the Indian market, where 57 percent of people are online, remains a huge market because of its 1.3 billion population. Other countries are minor markets because of their tiny population. Although China is more populous than India, it is a service seller than a buyer.

Students of international relations and diplomacy may research the "securitization of internet apps" in India-China relations. Modi's government seems to be popularizing a new theory and practice in international relations with apps. 

Market, diplomacy and politics — all are important in the statesmanship of national leadership. Young Indians, knowingly or unknowingly, are playing a big role in the game.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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