A Conversation with Santosh Desai

One of the country’s leading social commentators talks about why our instinctive prickliness in the face of negative stories on India is not really helping.

In any conversation about Brand India, what is missing is a framework to place the idea in perspective. In some ways, the branding principles that apply to a country are the same as those for any brand but there are several other variables involved here. It is hard to control the kind of images and stories that go out and very difficult to predict how these will be consumed. For example, if a natural calamity were to hit the country tomorrow, or a political scandal were to break, it is likely to affect perception, at least in the short term. But this is something over which we have little control.

So it is simplistic to think that Brand India, as a construct, can be managed. By that token, any strong reaction to a negative portrayal of the country is overblown. If we cannot control it, should we expend energy on attempting to do so?

Our reaction to any slanting of a desired portrayal is driven by feelings of both entitlement and injury. However, in being largely concerned with how the external world views us, this reaction causes us to miss an opportunity for introspection on the issue at hand. Instead of examining the systemic factors that led to the problem in the first place, we become caught up with what will inevitably go out and looking at how to shape or frame it in a way that preserves the desired image.

This was certainly true with the 2010 CWG controversy when the public reaction was largely fed by the view that the negative publicity was putting more dents in the country’s image. A movie like Slumdog Millionaire triggered another kind of extreme reaction, one that rested on the notion that slums and slum dwellers are not good for India’s external marketing.

Such responses don’t always stem from small groups with a specific agenda. Instead, they comprise a mainstream reaction from members of the educated middle class who believe that the India they live in and experience is the real India. Any depiction that goes against this ‘reality’ offends them. It is a reaction driven by both bewilderment and resentment against a portrayal that is not in sync with their country view. In essence, they are conflating their personal reality with the image of the country.

The problem is that this touchiness, in and of itself, feeds into the negative narrative. It is difficult to sustain and push this propagandist  view on to the rest of the world. It is impossible to stipulate that there are only four things you can say about India (or any other country, for that matter) when there are so many things that go into creating that

composite picture. Despite everything we say or do, there is an implicit narrative for the country, one that is a mix of both good and bad elements.

Existing public perception is a big part of this picture and that is not easily shifted. For example, each of one of us has a certain view or image of a country like the US or like Thailand that is not always or completely influenced by what is currently being reported about them in the media.

So talking about India as a brand is akin to appropriating a small part of this picture – a piece of the country that does not necessarily represent the whole.

It is interesting (and disappointing) to see that the prevailing notion of Brand India has centered around the experience visitors from other countries have as they enter the country. So, it has been largely about having great airports, great roads and a welcoming and hospitable environment for them wherever they choose to move around.

That approach is what is wrong with the whole exercise. What we are looking at then is the advertisable part of India. It is not the whole story or even the real story that we should be looking to project.

Still, there is nothing wrong in aspiring to a newfound narrative – one that has more positive than negative aspects to it. At the stage of development that India is in, it is a perfectly natural desire to want to be seen in a good light by the rest of the world.

But reacting to and trying to beat down negative stories is counterproductive. We are more likely to get there by building on some of the other pieces that are part of the narrative. Take pop culture, for example. Even if Bollywood is currently overdone, there are several aspects to Indian pop culture spanning food, literature and entertainment that can impart freshness to the Brand India story.

Businesses can certainly be at the forefront of this effort but not always in the most obvious ways. Following its 2008 acquisition of Jaguar, Tata has been lauded for its management of the new company, providing a shining example of an Indian company handling its international role with sensitivity. Correspondents, documentary makers and others at the forefront of information dissemination can help with their balanced and nuanced depiction of change and progress – in the social, political and economic spheres.

All of these together will serve to elevate the stature of Brand India (if it can be treated as one) over a period of time. What will not work is a press release version of branding and image management.

Santosh Desai is an author, social commentator and the MD...