Debating India


India > 0

Monday 8 December 2003, by JOSEPH*Manu

Article paru dans Outlok India, ?dition en ligne du 8 d?cembre 2003. There are no full stops here. All we are looking for are quote marks to define us.

When the Rolling Stones performed in Mumbai a few months ago, a delicate white man in a shirt called ’Om’ held a flower in his hand and jogged in circles. Down this route which his marijuana told him was a straight line, he was searching for Woodstock’s India. All around him India stood in contempt, condescension and modernity, looking at him exactly the way Caucasians looked at Naga sadhus. If he is not dead already, he is part of a depleting swarm that comes to India to find answers instead of using Google. The world, as Indians call five-sixth of humanity, has changed the way it looks at this nation.

Perilously close to a Congress propaganda is a deeply entrenched worldview today-India is IT. IT is India. When the growing legend of IITians reached critical mass in the US, Scott Adams in his Dilbert cartoon strip included the super-efficient

Asok, who is "trained to sleep only during national holidays". Despite the large number of ordinary students, who, aided by their father’s high liquidity, rush to the US to do their MBA, it’s the impression India’s brightest leave that seems to stick. If you are from India, you must be smart. Never has the brain of a nation become its brand ambassador. The dramatic transformation of the India brand, from being a misty salvation merchant to a terribly relevant player in the material world, didn’t happen by design. It was an accident. But now the government and the industry are trying to "position" India. Can a nation brand be consciously built? That too, a nation brand called India?

What The Hell Is India?

What is India? Nobody knows until asked to write a book on the subject. India is this and that, and a bit more in the footnotes. India cannot be explained without parentheses. A growing modern nation (with occasional bride burning), a secular country (where Narendra Modi gets popular mandate), a warm tropical land (it snows in the North), an IT nation (with one of the lowest PC penetrations in the world). India is everything under the sun, but Spain has printed brochures claiming it is the one. India is truly Asia but Malaysia already owns the line. India is "incredible," said Ogilvy and Mather finally, while working on a campaign for the tourism ministry. It has images of men contorted in yogic poses and colourful rural Indians who smile shyly at the camera. Mysticism is good for tourism but that’s exactly what Indian industry is desperately trying to shake off. Could there be a single merged image that stands for India? "But is a focused image necessary? " wonders Anand Mahindra, president of the CII. "What’s wrong with a kaleidoscope of diffused images? "

The branding of India makes R. Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Tata Sons, chuckle in his commodious room. "Hitler is a brand too," he says. "Sometimes brands brand themselves. In that sense, India was always a brand. For thousands of years. If we were not a brand, nobody would have taken the trouble to invade us. The question is can we move this brand further? "

For many years India sold itself through its famous legacy. Even Mukesh Ambani, during the Ad Asia summit in Jaipur a few weeks ago, could not help harping on the intangible India of the past. "We can demonstrate how there is a world beyond the material" (rich people always say that). But how long can a country keep saying, look we invented the zero? It’s futile branding. But Ambani did have a clear inspiring vision of a new India brand. "A nation of young people, a reservoir of food for the world, a sea of scientific and technological talent, an ocean of professional resources, a 21st century miracle and a replicable model for all democratic, modern and plural societies". That’s the brief. But how to say it?

How To Say It

Fifty Indians went to Jamaica a few weeks ago for battle. It was a fight against formidable Canada to bag the right to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010. India had defeated other bids in the semifinal round in London. The final contest in Jamaica had nothing to do with sports, but with the question: "Is India capable? " After the 1982 Asian Games, India had never really hosted a truly international sporting event. And Canada was a veteran at it. But India unleashed itself with brute force.

Sanjay Lal, CEO of Percept D’Mark, whose help Suresh Kalmadi had sought in what must be of national interest, remembers that gooseflesh-inducing effect of introducing India. "We showed no snake charmers or naked sadhus." On the screens flashed the sheer wealth of India, a huge quantity, if not divided by one billion people. Modernity was flaunted through malls and restaurants. Tradition was fed in sophisticated ways. India laid out its food for the delegates. Suddenly Canada seemed to introspect, "What’s Canadian food? "

There was no Bharatanatyam. But everybody danced to Hindi pop at the beach resort. Sunil Gavaskar told his audience that India’s bid for the Games was so compelling that even Pakistan backed it. And he saluted the Pakistani delegates who stood up and clapped, not because they have been trained to appreciate military salutes, but because such was the depth of the moment. There were promises of building 55 new flyovers in Delhi and three new stadia. The Prime Minister of India, who was not present, underwrote the entire expense. Over $500 million.

And then the final flexing of the new Indian financial muscles. Each of the 72 countries in the Commonwealth were given $100,000 each for improving their sports infrastructure and training. That India must donate such an amount to a country like Australia may seem ridiculous. Canada rightly called it "bribing". India’s intention was not to do good but to splurge, show off and get the required support. It beat Canada by 24 votes. India will host the Games in 2010, a precious prerequisite to its ambitions of hosting the Olympics. No country that can host such events will ever be called poor.

But, We Are Mysterious Too

From September 11, 2001, through the next year, there were about 15 events that made India one of the worst zones to visit. The world forgot its favourite mystic joint. Fear of death, India’s filth and general discomfort, took tourism to a new low. International tour guides reduced pages on India from about 16 to merely two. Then a campaign called Incredible India was unleashed.

Three million US dollars were spent on electronic, print and internet space. CNN, BBC, Discovery, National Geographic, Time and Vogue said, for a fee, that India was incredible. Strangely, "a young dynamic India" and "an IT India" were also packed in some of the ads. But the essential thrust of the campaign was a request to visit the beloved old ancient India and its timeless real estate, learn its yoga and experience Ayurveda. Carried forward in spirit, during the marketing, was tourism minister Jagmohan’s dramatic vision that India must "physically reinvigorate, mentally rejuvenate, culturally enrich, spiritually elevate and upon return the tourist must feel India from within".

This year, till date, 2.5 million tourists have spent $4 million in India. It’s a 16 per cent rise in number and 23 per cent increase in what India could extract from them. "It’s crazy to sell India," says tourism department joint secretary Amitabh Kant. "Mauritius is beaches. South Africa is wild life. How do you say we have all this and more? That’s what the ’Incredible India’ tried to do. Also, it embraced other brands like Kerala’s God’s Own Country." But 2.5 million tourists is not a flattering number considering that minuscule Hong Kong gets over 5 million and Thailand 11 million. India is a difficult place to visit. Mumbai airport is foreboding. Indian roads and dirt are old stories. "It’s easy to tell people about the sights and sounds of India," said tourism secretary Rati Vinay Jha at a recent economic summit. "But how do you tell them about the smells of India, which is a great disincentive? "

Don’t tell them. That’s branding. But sooner or later they will find out. That’s why Gopalakrishnan is irritated by "the mere optics of branding". While everybody agrees branding must be supported by quality, o&m’s Piyush Pandey says that India must not be too self-critical. "What we must say is, within our adversity, this is what we can offer. Come here." National Geographic called India "an experience of a lifetime". What kind of an experience depends on a tourist’s personality type.

Made In India. What?

There is free advice from all sides that Indians must be proud of themselves. The reasons, apart from the zero factor, have been neatly laid out. From the quaint claim that India has never invaded any country in its very long history, to its contribution to the world’s progress. Most of the claims are bloated by a certain emerging nationalist zeal that’s consuming even respectable industry heads. At the Ad Asia summit in Jaipur, Kumaramangalam Birla could not be faulted for saying that one-third of NASA was made up by Indians. According to Outlook’s inquiries, the figure for Asian Americans in the organisation is less than 6 per cent. The one-third myth is a popular one floating around on the internet. Supporting lies survive when branding is strong. If someone had said Somalians accounted for 30 per cent of NASA, nobody would have believed it. But Indians? Possible.

Indian IT too has survived on such myths. The IT training industry crashed when students realised that they could not find either the rainbow or the pot at the end of it. There were students from elite IT schools who found jobs that paid only Rs 500. Indian IT, despite all its charm, earns less than 2 per cent of the world’s software revenues. Is it good enough for India to merely be the world’s backend office, the Taj Mahal of outsourcing? "There is nothing wrong in being at the bottom of the value chain," says Kiran Karnik, president of Nasscom. "Having said that, the perception of India is not just that it’s cheap but also that it’s gold-standard quality. India has leveraged this image to get high-end jobs here like r&d." Mahindra remembers an American friend who included an Indian on the board of his software firm "because he thought his market cap will go up". It’s this image of "intellectual capital for the world," as Birla put it, that Nasscom is counting on as it tries to sell the idea of made-in-India software.

There is a sense of pride in India when graphics talk elegantly of how one out of every 15 garments sold in Wal-Mart is made here and how Europeans are buying Indian cars. But the point is, who knows? Branding is about saying that it’s made here, so pay a premium. "Although the India brand is talked about," says Carlo Donatti, CEO of Nestle India, "there is no proper reflection on what the India brand means or what it should be."

The ministry of commerce has outsourced a curious fund to the CII. It’s called India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF). It’s a curious corpus because nobody knows what it does. At least two top industry chiefs and a leading brand consultant shook their heads, looking as though they felt they should read more. One executive who knew what it did says, "it does stupid work". At least IBEF knows what it does. "We create a right image of Indian business economics, and promote a positive India outlook," a CII official says. Now everybody knows what it does.

"The made-in-India brand is weak but it’s emerging," says Mahindra, whose m&m tractors have been received well in the US. He feels sport utility vehicles like the Scorpio can be overtly marketed as Indian. "I want to use the image of India as a rugged terrain to sell it. If it can run in India, it can run anywhere." Scorpio will soon hit Italy and Spain. But it will not be called Scorpio. "Should I call it Jaipur? Jaipur is a big brand," he asks. Outlook gives three options, free of cost-Garuda, Hanuman and Bajrangbali.

A) Truth, B) Whole Truth

Must it ever be told that out of the 3,00,000 engineers India mass-produces annually, only a fraction are truly bright, many can be hung for their math and some pawn family jewels to pay capitation fees? Must it be told that India is young, vibrant and all that, but its census report is more depressing than what the country’s most melancholic writers can ever create. Must we admit that on one of the largest rail networks in the world, we squat every morning in open air under the sun? How can India hide what tourism secretary Jha rightly calls "the smells of India"? Nobody in industry is ready to agree that branding is about selling a half-truth. They say branding is about ’a’ truth. But sooner or later India has to do something about its larger grim reality. For eventually, after all the selling is done, enduring perception is built on the whole truth. "And perception," Gopalakrishnan says somewhat philosophically, "is truth".


Pic2: India’s Top 10 Global Brands : Yoga, Gandhi, Bollywood, IIT, Infotech, Darjeeling, Curry, Taj Mahal, Kama Sutra, Gita

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