What happens when a country has an alliance of socio-religious revivalists and textbook free-market proponents at the helm of its politics? Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government in India is striving hard to establish itself as a regime that successfully marries neo-liberal economics and ethno-nationalist majoritarian politics. Such a project requires the state to perform the twin tasks of fashioning and projecting a brand identity for the nation on the global stage to attract investments, and asserting that the nation-state is sacrosanct.
In Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First-Century India (Stanford University Press, 2020), Ravinder Kaur, associate professor of modern South Asian studies at the University of Copenhagen, traces the genealogy of this project to create a brand identity for India overseas. She does this by unpacking the marquee publicity campaigns launched by the government of India at the turn of the 21st century, and by the mainstream media in the last decade, that feed into the citizenry’s collective fantasy of “capitalist dreamworlds. In doing so, the author illuminates our understanding of post-reform India, whose citizens are being made to believe that nation-branding is indispensable for nation-building. Turning people, nature and culture into income-generating assets is a precondition for constructing a brand identity for the nation because such a transformation facilitates the projection of a nation as a coveted investment destination on the global stage.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi says at investor summits that India has “democracy, demography, decisiveness and demand”, he is doing precisely this by highlighting the untapped potential of this “emerging market”. Drawing our attention to this phenomenon, the author argues, “The project of branding via global publicity has always been the proverbial tip of the iceberg, the most spectacular aspect of massive structural transformations that refashion the nation into a commercial enclosure.” (p. 29).
The neo-liberal world order is one where national borders matter only insofar as they can be used by capital as a bargaining chip for entry into a nation’s territory, and as a threat of exit in case its demands are not met by the state. It is tempting for the discerning reader to draw the inference that in a world of globalised footloose capital, a democratically-elected government is forced to subserve itself to the needs of investors, domestic and foreign, in the quest for rapid economic growth—though it is, many a times, neither democratised nor diffused. The obsession with improving the country’s position in the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” rankings, adherence to fiscal “discipline” and concessions to big business are overt indicators of such compliance.
But this is only one part of the story. What we have witnessed in recent years, chiefly but not exclusively in India, is the emergence of a notorious variant of nationalism that is strengthened by the state under “strongman” politicians who promise to restore the ancient glory of the land, and simultaneously embark on efforts to capitalise it. Therefore, it is safe to say that the state has maintained its relevance and legitimacy by claiming the (exclusive) right to speak for the nation as guardian of its culture. In the process, it has become a supplier of hope that the nation can taste economic success by virtue of its cultural superiority, which has now become an integral and irreversible part of the nation’s brand identity. This brand identity is built and publicised by the state in partnership with India Inc., with state actors working in the mould of corporate executives, and players in the private sector claiming to perform the task in service of the nation.
In Chapters 3 and 4, which make for a compelling read, the author examines the aesthetics that animate the Incredible India and India Shining publicity campaigns launched by the government of India in the early 2000s by poring over the “smart” images that were developed by branding experts. The choice of smart images in the Incredible India campaign was not an innocuous exercise; what was at play was a conscious cultural politics that sought to present India as “a timeless being”—“the ancient modern” with incredible “capacity to dress-up in ever new garbs of modernity without losing itself.” (p. 91).
But who are the representatives of this modern India that aspires to realise its destiny as a global economic powerhouse? Only that class of citizens who are both “atmanirbhar” and “aspirational” in economic terms, possessing purchasing power to consume, surplus funds to invest and sufficient wealth to take entrepreneurial risks seem to be the flag bearers of New India. If we may explicitly put forth the caste composition of the representatives, the ones who mattered largely belonged to the ritually and socially dominant/upper castes. They were the faces of the infamous India Shining campaign that was launched by the BJP months before the general elections of 2004. The India that was not shining—the toiling farmer steeped in debt, the migrant worker without social security, the severely underpaid woman running the Anganwadi centre and the malnourished child—did not fit into the frame of smart image. It was a telling commentary on who the state considers to be “productive” and “wealth-creating” citizens.
However, the author’s counterintuitive reading of the India Shining fiasco nudges us to reconsider what it portended for capitalist dreams and the future of economic reforms in India: “Even as the India Shining controversy brought out the tensions at the heart of the economic reforms, it helped firmly establish the reforms as the prime strategy of social mobility and prosperity in India. It is in this controversy too that we witness the lack of alternatives to the capitalist visions of prosperity” (p. 125). In other words, notwithstanding claims of erasure from collective public memory, the discredited campaign served as a vehicle for disseminating and popularising the idea of liberalising economic reforms among the people.
In Chapter 5, the author problematises the usage of Adda (which conventionally denotes a casual gathering of people and site of relaxed dialogue) to explicate the reinvention of the meaning of the word, within the milieu of global circuits, to denote respectable social gatherings marked by “openness, hospitality and warmth”. She notes that the revival of “Adda” and its performance at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos attempted to establish India as a civilisationally and culturally open nation that promotes innovation—factors that investors look for. However, such reinvention erases the association of the word with common public, and all informality and intimacy attached to it.
The author deftly analyses the making of the trope of aam aadmi (common man), and the concomitant ramifications on the re-imagination of New India rooted in exclusion in chapter 6. She notes that decades of affirmative action led to the inclusion of people from socially and educationally backward sections of the society that were hitherto denied such opportunity. Such inclusion was regarded by the socially privileged elites to be a constitutional compromise that sacrificed merit, and in response, they increasingly started viewing the private sector as a space that fostered merit. At the heart of this, the image of an innocent aam aadmi, fighting for his space from the “corrupt” political system, is paraded. The author discusses a campaign by the Times Group in 2009 under the title Lead India, which revolved around themes like “corruption, criminal politicians, lack of merit in recruitment, reservation policies, and communalism” (p. 200).
She notes how the campaign was not just an exercise run by the editorial office but equally aided by advertising professionals who sought to change the newspaper’s image to one that cared for society. Talking about such campaigns she writes, “If the Lead India images foreground the woes of the aam aadmi deceived by cunning politicians, Bleed India sets the focus on the ‘money-eaters,’ the politicians and their modes of deception.” (p. 229). One can argue that the current times are a crucible of a prolonged disenchantment among the privileged (though they may call themselves “aam aadmi”) over the entry and mobility of the subalterns. The studied silence over the decay of “merit” in response to the legislation granting quota to economically weaker sections (EWS) of the unreserved communities (read upper castes) is a telling testament.
Apart from conveying the idea that exclusion is being reinforced, the author cautions us about the emergence of a new moral code that legitimises exclusion of subalterns while simultaneously selling the promise of a glorious future to the millions who are perpetually toiling, without the means, but in hope. However, the average performance of the BJP in state Assembly elections over the years raises a pertinent question: how far can an exclusionary paradigm be pushed given the electoral compulsions to deliver welfare?
Brand New Nation is a glimpse into the aesthetics of nation-branding and the role played by non-economic affective factors such as “nationalism” and “hope” in convincing people about the virtues of market economy. In the process, it traces the evolution of India from a post-colony with grand developmental aspirations to an emerging market economy with superpower ambitions, but situated in an exclusionary socio-political setting.
Raghunath Nageswaran is an independent researcher based in Chennai. Vignesh Karthik KR is a doctoral researcher at King’s College London. The views are personal.