In the competitive world of ‘emerging nations,' there are limits to how much Brand India can sell itself without actually building an equitable country.
In the past few years, residents and visitors to Davos during the World Economic Forum (WEF) have become familiar with a spectacular annual phenomenon. Streets, buses, cafés and even billboards in half empty parking lots are covered with colourful images of “emerging nations” competing with one another to position themselves as the “most attractive investment destination” in the world. The most prominent players are some of the BRICS — mainly Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa — while China is conspicuous through its visual absence. This year, however, the dominance of these nations was broken by new players such as Mexico, Thailand and even Azerbaijan which mounted dazzling image campaigns to attract investor eyeballs. The main streets of Davos turned in effect, into a site for exhibiting these “emerging nations” in a never ending mobile exposition of seductive images.
While the idea of nation branding to enhance competitiveness in global market has become unremarkable and ubiquitous by now, it is yet to be seen as part of nation making in the postcolonial world. The history of contemporary India offers a keen insight into the shifts that have rearranged the very idea of postcolonial nation making. To begin with, nation building in post- Independence India has for long been linked to the “temples of modern India,” as Nehru tellingly described the massive infrastructure building that was expected to become the backbone of a prosperous nation as it transitioned from an agrarian to an industrialised one. This emphasis on materiality has undergone a fundamental shift in the past two decades of economic reforms. Now the idea of nation-making, first and foremost, has become a matter of “image” rather than concrete in the Nehruvian sense. The strategy of the Indian state is clearly no longer limited to building infrastructure alone; it has moved to a domain where the production and projection of images of a prosperous nation has become as imperative a task as the creation of a prosperous nation itself.
This emphasis on images is no better illustrated than in Davos where the WEF meets every January. The annual meeting is a gathering of WEF members comprising corporations worth more than $5 billion that are said to “drive the world economy forward,” political leaders and established NGOs. In recent years, a new category of people called “social entrepreneurs” has been added to show that more benevolent sides of capitalism exist, especially when the notion of free markets is being challenged in the prolonged aftermath of the financial crisis. The attraction of Davos lies in the fact that corporations gain direct unhindered access to heads of government and policy-makers who in turn covet any possibility of attracting investments. This is not particularly surprising given that success of the nation is now increasingly measured on its ability to attract foreign investments rather than welfare of its people and territorial security alone. Thus, the intense focus on creating attractive images of nations as worthy recipients of the global investor's attention.
In many ways, India has been a frontrunner in this trend of image making. As part of the economic reforms in early 1990s, the state had already set up a specific agency to “brand” Indian products for the export markets. This project of branding “made in India” goods took a fresh turn in the first half of the 2000s when India, the nation, itself was turned into commodity. In 2006 a freshly branded India made a spectacular entry in the world of global corporate investors through a colourful and ubiquitous campaign called “India Everywhere” in Davos. The introduction of a reformed India to the global elite began with dazzling posters, gigantic billboards, advertisement on buses, and facts and figures about “new” India. The effectiveness of this campaign is still recalled by nation-branding specialists. Each year, since then, India has had a major visual presence at Davos through cleverly pitched campaigns designed by highly creative advertising agencies.
The India visible in the branding images primarily exists in the consciousness of the elite. It is a world of neat shopping malls, expensive branded products, happy, prosperous consumers, skilled scientists and engineers, white coats, headphones, smooth highways, high rise buildings, glass facades and green grass that paves one's vision. The images could be from anywhere in the world, while the Indian setting is presented through cultural icons such as bindis, colourfully decorated elephants, Gandhiji's spectacles and Taj Mahal. In short, India is transformed into a global place while still retaining its cultural authenticity and ethnic appeal.
While this vision is a powerful tool to attract investors and tourists, it is also its biggest weakness. The images conjure a world that does not really exist outside the limits of the visual frames. Absent from the frames is the “other” India — the poor, the untouchables, the minorities, and all that is un-beautiful — the ruptured body of the nation that has not only failed to “catch up” with the progress, but in fact is seen as holding the nation back in its journey towards prosperity and global power.
It is not uncommon to hear stories of shock and disappointment upon arrival from the very members of the privileged global class that the Indian state so wants to attract. Not surprising, as the questions of poverty, inequality and social inequity in India remain as much part of the Indian growth story as the middle class prosperity despite their effacement from the image world.
As if to compensate for this gap, Indian political and corporate leaders have begun to pepper their sales pitch at Davos with the agenda of “inclusive growth” and the need for equal distribution in a society. Despite high growth rates over the past decades, India remains at the bottom of BRICS in terms of income disparity and human development of its citizens. These inconvenient facts continue to disrupt the spectacle carefully manufactured for an external audience.
Thus, the simulated image of a world peopled with happy, well-nourished, cheerful and skilled Indians who are ready to work long hours at low wages has its limits. These limits become apparent at a time when India no longer seems to be the only high profile actor engaged in the art of image making. Nations like South Africa and Brazil have been quick to move in to the field, followed closely by yet another newly minted group of nations, the N11, the termed coined by the imaginative Goldman Sachs bankers. The idea of ‘India Everywhere' has instead become a case of “Everyone Everywhere,” as one Indian anchor covering Davos put it. As the novelty of dazzling image campaigns levels out, India might need to rework its agenda — to focus on the actual production of a prosperous and equitable nation, rather than producing merely images of it.
(The author is Associate Professor of Modern South Asian Studies, University of Copenhagen.)