Saturday, May 28, 2022

Branding India

A choice between India as Brand Software or as Brand Saffron, between the promise of Bangalore or the threat of Gujarat. And yet the alternatives are in fact more complicated and especially since Sept 11 the calculus of choice must be more nuanced...

Branding India

I recall shortly after the publication of The Idea of India, and at the height of the 'cool Britannia' phase in Britain, being invited out to lunch by the doyen of British corporate identity design, Wally Olins of Wolff Olins. He had recently acquired as a client one of India's largest companies, and Olins wanted to discuss the image problem faced by Indian companies with real global ambitions, seeking export markets: how to erase the image of India as a producer of cheap, poor quality goods, ridden with bureaucratic inefficiency, and what sort of image should they seek to project?

It is not only companies that need to be concerned with this: countries too have to project themselves, to represent something. In the current debates about the future of the international order, the values and principles that nations embody and seek to project have once again acquired great importance. Today, we live in a world where what has been called the 'battle of ideas', and of images, is a crucial terrain of action. Even countries that have great economic and military power require what Joseph Nye has called 'soft power' - and this is especially true, as Mahatma Gandhi - an early exponent of such soft power - long ago recognised, for countries that do not have such material power.

It's somewhat ironic, therefore, that at the moment when India wishes for a more active presence on the world stage, the world's sense of India, of what it stands for and what it wishes to become, seems as confused and divided today as is India's own sense of itself.

Let me put it in short hand. Is India's future direction embodied and indicated by the present reality of Bangalore? A fortnight ago (December 1, 2003), Businessweek, in a rather lyrical portrait of Bangalore's research centres, put it thus:

"Except for the female engineers wearing saris and the soothing Indian pop music wafting through ... this could be GE's giant research and development facility in the upstate New York town of  Niskayuna."

Or, is India's present and future reality captured by the appalling horror unleashed in Gujarat last year?

In Bangalore, one senses the enchanting promise of technology to transform and uplift lives, to take India forward into the global economy. In Gujarat, one feels the brute fact of technology at the service of state-sponsored massacres, which threaten to drag India back into a dark world of religious bloodshed. 

Till its recent implosion, Gujarat epitomized a newly emerging India: its aspirational middle class, with strong links to the outside world and to the large, successful Gujarati diaspora, wore proudly a reputation for industry, entrepreneurship and civic-mindedness.

The conventional wisdom is that economic progress and the emergence of a middle class promote moderate and centrist policies, and as such provide the conditions for a liberal democratic politics. But in Gujarat the murderous Hindu gangs were led by the rich and educated: doctors, advocates, shopkeepers roved in cars, punched mobile phones and used government-supplied computer printouts of Muslim addresses to conduct their systematic mayhem.

If we allow that Bangalore represents a possible India, so too does Gujarat. Contrary to some views, I would stress that Gujarat is not an 'aberration' - it would be foolish to try to reassure ourselves in this way: for many it represents the first step in the creation of a Hindu rashtra, and what is happening there shows that economic development seems to be entirely compatible with extremist politics.

India seems on the face of it poised between such choices. On the one hand, there is a shrink-wrap, software-package India, where 'brain arbitrage' is the new spice trade and where India is a global brand-name advertising the world's electronic 'back-office'. On the other hand, there is a self-inflated, venomous redefinition of India in terms of the ideology of Hindutva - where, with mobile phone in one hand and trishul in the other, we see modern technology and medieval weapons turned to lethal ends. A choice between India as Brand Software or as Brand Saffron, between the promise of Bangalore or the threat of Gujarat.

And yet the alternatives are in fact more complicated and especially since Sept 11 the calculus of choice must be more nuanced. In my remarks, I'd like to explore the nature and stakes of this choice, a political choice, since I think there is one to be made. It has of late become fashionable to believe that political choices and conflicts are ceding way to economic ones: that economics will integrate and pacify divisions and disagreements.

As India strives to achieve the higher global status it has so long aspired to, it is certainly true that economics will be an important medium for accomplishing that task: it is the ultimate and long-range basis for all state power, and it enables the state to pursue its interests.

But we cannot rely on economics, and economic development of itself, to do our political thinking for us, either in the short or long term. For several reasons:

  • First, we are only at the beginning of a decade-long process of economic development, given the scale of the problems. There are no quick fixes, and in the meantime, we will have to decide what we stand for, and what we wish others to see us as standing for: i.e. economics is not going to define Indian identity in the short run. (In fact, economic success will depend on clear political vision). 

  • Second, as I've already said, the case of Gujarat makes clear that economic growth is compatible with extremism. 

  • Third., economic growth and development is an instrument/tool, it cannot of itself provide the rationale for a nation to hold together, nor endow it with a distinct identity. There is an independent realm of political values, where we have to make choices. And the choices that are made about how we arrange our domestic matters will have direct impact on how we are seen internationally, and so on our global status. 

  • Finally, in fact as economic growth kicks in, we will in fact face more real and potential conflicts, and have to confront more urgent and difficult choices about what sort of nation we are.

These domestic political choices will seriously affect how India is perceived internationally, and its global standing and influence. We need to be able to define clearly what we stand for, to live this consistently, and to project this forcefully.

In this respect, clearly India does possess one vital and immediately available resource, which has imparted a distinct identity to it, and which is the global currency of political legitimacy: it is a form of political capital, that has been amassed over the past five and a half decades. This is represented by the steady operation of constitutional democracy, in a liberal and non-majoritarian form, over this period. We need both to preserve this democratic capital from erosion (at the hands of extremists of whatever hue), to enhance it, and to make wise use of the 'democracy dividend' which it yields - to be willing to play a role in the global 'battle of ideas', rather than squander this currency.

Let me just restate the philosophical roots of this form of political capital, in order to clarify how it is distinct from the political ideology that is being propagated by some today.

These roots lie in the founders commitment to freedom, as expressed in the value of choice, over and against the acceptance of the authority of the past. It entailed a commitment to cultural and intellectual openness, the nurturing of a tradition of free inquiry, rational discussion and argument, toleration of different beliefs and values, a willingness not to sentimentalise about the past, and not to nurture a sense of victimhood and resentment, but to be self-critical about one's inheritance.

Those commitments were all expressed in the ideology of the national movement, in what I have elsewhere called a tradition of public reason as outlined by Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru, and they also were and instantiated in the formal architecture of constitutional democracy as well as in the informal practices that have sustained this.

It aligned India with the great project of social modernity set in motion by the critical spirit of the European Enlightenment. And it resulted in the creation of institutions designed to acknowledge the presence of real differences in Indian society, but which also aimed to provide contexts that could transform potentially violent conflicts into moderated, negotiable ones.

So, in committing India to a democratic order, the founders committed us to learning to live with conflict. They avoided the authoritarian temptation - associated with ideologies of religious nationalism - which do not allow for recognition of conflicts in their society (more precisely, they wish to suppress conflict, through intimidation and terror), acknowledge that ultimately all politics is potentially about conflict - conflicts about values, about how to achieve those values, as well as conflicts over interests and how to secure these. But they also tried to show - in the constitutional order they established - that a primary art of politics is the ability to moderate and contain conflicts: to transform them from something base to something richer. that is the alchemical promise of democratic politics. The founders saw that by recognising the presence of differences, often deep set ones, one might be able to find ways to contain them, in ways that actually enhance the overall, long-term stability of the Indian project.

A central test of India's international image, its brand, will be how it deals with its own internal conflicts. And be assured, these will proliferate and multiply in years to come. One illusion we should disabuse ourselves of is that the anticipated period of economic growth and development will somehow have a pacifying effect, that it will reduce conflicts, and that politics will become less important, replaced by technocratic solutions. This is at best wishful thinking. As the Indian economy grows, as there is more at stake to struggle for and over, so too will be potential subjects of conflicts. Economic growth and modernity, especially when it occurs within an already complex society such as India's, is not homogenising: on the contrary, it will spawn further differences. And, as Indians gain more autonomy over their lives as a result  of economic prosperity etc, so too we will see more and more experiments in living, sometimes incompatible and in tension with one another.

I see three important lines of division and conflict in the coming decades: those of the regions and regional states, of caste and religion. These represent competing conceptions or visions of India which are challenging the vision set in place by the founders. As such they suggest alternative images of what this nation might hope to be.

Regional and Caste Views

First, the perspective from the regions, and from the rapidly politicising lower castes. This is a powerful and heavily partial view, which takes on entirely instrumental view of the lower castes. This is a powerful and heavily partial view, which takes an entirely instrumental view of the Indian Union. 

Today's regionalism is of course very different from earlier forms (say in the 50s-60s, or 80s): it is not so much threatening of the Indian idea, it is not secessionist. Its leaders: Laloo Yadav, Naidu, Mayawati etc - most drawn from the lower castes, they aggressively defend their own class and regional interests. They do not have a coherent view of Indian identity, they operate with more restricted horizons. 

Take their picture of the economy: they see this as basically a cluster of regional units, each engaged in zero-sum relations with one another, and with the centre (the caste parties also operate with this picture). In terms of culture, they are also parochial - devoted to tending their own vernacular gardens.

Fundamental problem with this view of India: it offers no coherent national conception of what India is.

The Perspective of Hindutva

This of course is a an avowedly national perspective, if also a revisionist one. It does think of India as a national unit, and it is fundamentally committed to the aim of creating a Hindu Rashtra, i.e. to transforming the present character of India. What are the elements of this?

First, to create 'one nation, one culture, one people': where this singular culture is based on a selective vision of the past. And this past consists of a glorious Hindu past, the ancient Vedic age: great attention given to rewriting history, and to rewriting the educational curriculam. It sees Indian past as one disrupted, interrupted, and plays up a sense of victimhood. 

Second, to transform the constitutional and legal order India: to remove legal protections for religious minorities, abrogate the status of Kashmir etc. 

Third, and above all, this proposes to transform the longstanding relationship between state and society. The historical pattern of this state-society relationship is one where the state did not interfere in the religious beliefs or cultural practices which were observed in the society: this is generally true of the Mughal state, of the British, and of the post-47 Indian state. One can of course find some exceptions, but none of these earlier forms wished for wholesale and regular intervention in such matters.

The irony of this: a reversal of the situation we had in the post-independence decades. In the 1950s and 60s, India had a lumbering command economy of sorts but also had an open market in cultural and social identities. Today, we are in the era of free-market economies, but the pressures are towards a command culture, where those holding state power wish for their cultural diktats to prevail. If choice is an axiom of the market, how can this be excluded from the realm of religion, culture and identity?

In the Indian and South Asian context, it is conflicts over the relationships between religious identity and the state which have the most dangerous international consequences.

Those who fantasise about making India a state with a singular, homogenous religion and culture slide over the fact that India is the second largest Muslim country in the world - and that India contains the largest body of Muslims living within a liberal, democratic order. The actions of the Indian state have heavy consequences, both domestically and for the whole subcontinent - which, with Pakistan and Bangladesh, contains the largest concentration of Muslims anywhere in the world. 

At a time when the West is embarked on a fraught and intense relationship with Islam, and when Muslims feel increasingly alienated within the international order, the Indian model established in 1947 is a powerful example of how ancient religions can co-exist within a single political frame. If India can continue to deepen its capacity to integrate Muslims into the democratic system and uphold the democratic right to be different, this will be seen by the world as a major success and it will confirm India as having an exemplary status in this regard (it is not least  from this point of view that the urgency of resolving the Kashmir problem presents itself). But if the Indian model is gradually pushed out of shape and collapses, as many within the Sangh Parivar would like, this will have disastrous consequences both for India and for the region more widely.

The Hindutva definition of Indian identity is in negative terms, contra Pakistan; yet it subscribes to the very two-nation theory that led to Partition, and it aspires to make India into a Hindu Pakistan. A kind of mirror image - another irony. Where once the founding ideas of India and Pakistan constituted a polarity, today they creep toward a parallel symmetry: one where jihadis mirror Hindu extremists.

Since September 11, the stakes of extremism in whatever form - whether it be terrorists sponsored by Pakistan and operating in Indian territory, or terror inflicted by the elected government of Gujarat on its Muslim citizens - are higher than ever. The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has argued that in the post-September 11 world, the crucial polarity is no longer between East and West, but what he terms the World of Order and the World of Disorder. The latter - the failed, rogue and messy states - are the breeding grounds for terrorist and criminal networks, while the World of Order, Friedman has suggested, is constructed around four pillars: the U.S., the E.U.-Russia, China and India.

Yet, will India be able to take and sustain a role as a pillar of the World of Order if it adopts a coarse and exclusivist national ideology, one that would splinter along religious lines India's interconnected diversities and plunge it into internal and international conflict?  India remains the one great modernist political success of the non-Western world, one of the early ones that has amassed the political capital of a democratic state which has to a large degree respected internal diversity. It would be a catastrophic irony - both for its own people and for the international order - if it were now to abandon that hard-won commitment to - and practice of - toleration and moderation. If we were to squander this capital at the very moment it is more valued than ever as a currency of global legitimacy.