Globalization in the 21st century is defined by technological connectivity. No country understands this better than India. In 2011, the Indian government founded the National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN) with the goal of integrating rural areas into the global network by expanding the Internet to the 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs) of India. However, due to the project’s weak start and the lack of initiative behind it, NOFN was largely considered a failed attempt at bringing India onto the world stage.
The project remained dormant until 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook rural technological connectivity as his prime ministerial pet project and rebranded it BharatNet, making waves in the media. While the project has expanded Internet access to rural India, BharatNet’s implementation has objectively been no different than NOFN’s, despite being hailed as a technological turning point in India. As a result, BharatNet has reenergized the Indian public’s faith in the government’s ability to manage a large-scale Internet connectivity project, as well as in Modi’s abilities as a leader. The dissonance between BharatNet’s positive reception and the lack of actual improvements it has made is reflective of the Modi administration’s success in turning the project into a political tool for reelection.
Modi’s canny framing of this project is best understood through its name: “BharatNet.” The inclusion of the word Bharat, derived from the official Sanskrit name for India (Bharata Ganarajya), emphasizes an Indian identity under which citizens from various socioeconomic backgrounds can unite. It has a personalizing effect, as opposed to NOFN, which carries a scientific connotation that might alienate rural areas—a large part of the Indian population. The Modi administration’s linguistic choice of using Bharat instead of “India” or “national”—as in the National Optical Fiber Network—is also deliberate. By using an Indian language term, it ties a nationalist sentiment to the connectivity project, implying that achieving rural connectivity is a key step for the advancement of the Indian nation.
Moreover, the decision to include rural entrepreneurs called udyamis under BharatNet’s framework enhances its role as a promotional tool. The project employs udyamis to expand Internet connectivity at the grassroots level with a fifty-fifty revenue share between themselves and the service providers, thereby integrating groups that are directly impacted by the project into the project itself. Udyamis support BharatNet as they believe it represents the Modi administration’s commitment to rural India. Because udyamis are largely considered influential members of rural society due to their intellectual and social standing, other members of rural Indian society are likely to follow their lead. This builds support for BharatNet regardless of its actual welfare effects.
In fact, despite the project’s hype, BharatNet’s history reveals that its implementation remains imperfect. Phases I and II of the project, which were predominantly led by the Modi administration, were stalled due to poor quality of equipment, outdated standards usages, and jurisdictional issues between the state and central governments.
The current Phase III has also had problems. Most recently, between November 2022 and 2023, only 6,000 new GPs successfully received Internet service. With a completion rate of only seven percent of GPs serviced per year, the administration’s 2025 BharatNet completion deadline—which promises full Internet service to India’s 250,000 GPs—is unlikely to be met. Furthermore, the speed and sustainability of service are not measured as metrics of success for the project. As a result, among the 194,000 GPs currently “connected,” a significant percentage still lack usable Internet access.
Realistically, the Modi administration must have already realized that BharatNet cannot achieve its completion goal within the next two years. What is significant about 2025 is that it is only one year after the next major Indian general election. Modi is known for his appeals to India’s rural population, especially in the lead-up to major election years—BharatNet is just one such appeal.
BharatNet and the 2025 deadline thus utilize a dual-pronged approach to gain the rural vote. On one hand, the rhetoric surrounding BharatNet and the inclusion of udyamis in its framework directly link the Modi government’s initiative with the rural population. On the other hand, the 2025 deadline seems to signal that the project goal can be achieved if Modi is elected to a third term. This approach not only garners rural support in favor of Modi, but also implies that the project depends on the Modi administration for its successful completion.
Modi’s tactic of using BharatNet as a tool in the upcoming election remains just that: a tactic. Even if Modi is reelected, the question remains: how will the Indian population react post-election when the project fails to deliver promised results? The weak future of BharatNet will unavoidably test the strength of “Modi Magic,” even in the years to come.
Sanjana Sharma is an intern for India, Pakistan, and South Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.