“India’s politicians and elites have shed the Gandhi cap and the rhetoric of “serving” the nation (forget dying or sacrificing for it) to don the business suit and turn themselves into brokers for international capital.”
Can a nation be branded, packaged and sold? This is certainly not a rhetorical question for the Indian state which has, since 1991, despite changes in political parties at the helm, enthusiastically marketed India to global capital, eroding barriers in its way by deregulating and privatizing several key sectors of the economy and tearing down its labor laws. It is against this backdrop that a commodity called Brand India can be launched in the global market. Born out of an unabashed union between business and government, Brand India is the brain child of the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), which was set up by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in collaboration with the Ministry of Commerce to “position India” as “an attractive place to do business with and business in.”  While Brand India is the favored term of the Congress I, the party that is currently in power with Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister, it is just an avatar of India Shining, the marketing concept developed by the BJP, the political party previously in power with an openly Hindu fundamentalist agenda. Moreover, Manmohan Singh has been a key player in India’s turn towards neo-liberalism. It was under his leadership as the finance minister that the policy of structural adjustment was inaugurated in 1991.
With a rapidity astonishing to those with historical memory, India’s politicians and elites have shed the Gandhi cap and the rhetoric of “serving” the nation (forget dying or sacrificing for it) to don the business suit and turn themselves into brokers for international capital. The symbiosis between the state and commerce was clear at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2005 where the CII put up an India Everywhere campaign to market India’s culture, market, and labor force; putting everything up for sale. For a country, whose memory of throwing out the British Empire is as recent as 1947 and kept alive in a generation whose children and grandchildren are being socialized as subjects of another Empire, to sell the nation is a travesty and betrayal of the honest and heroic sacrifices of several generations who won India its freedom. Seen from the perspective of that history there can, perhaps, be no worse indictment of those who wield power on behalf of the Indian nation than the charge that they are selling it.
But first, we need to understand how India is being packaged for global capital. The essential elements of Brand India are: First of all, a pliant government wedded to the free market in spite of changes in political parties at the center. Second, a large English-educated, technically proficient labor force that promises to reduce labor costs and add value. Its added advantage, according to Jairam Ramesh, member of the Rajya Sabha (Congress I) is that it operates in a time zone advantageous in relation to the U.S.: “You are working when America is sleeping, and when America is working, you are still working!”  The IBEF website charmingly touts this round-the-clock factory for carrying India forward as: “from the snake charmer to the mouse.” Third, a large market for global consumer goods comprised of a middle class apparently ready to shed its earlier thriftiness and Gandhian-inspired embarrassment around conspicuous consumption.
The second question we must ask is, what is it that is really being sold here? In the end, whichever way you look at it, what is really being offered for sale here by the business and policy makers are our children, i.e., India’s so-called “new generation.” After all it is this generation – from child to youth – who provide the labor to work the call centers and the IT industry; who are being socialized to turn into intellectual labor for the global market through massive changes in the education system which now emphasizes computer training over all other areas; and who are the promised consumers for the global brand names that have made their appearance in the Indian market. The two faces of India’s “new global generation” are the child consumer and the young worker, the little Indian Harry Potter and the young IT worker:
As expected, the strongest celebrations of the global generation have come from the advertisers and marketers of children’s and youth consumer culture who don’t tire of speaking about the size of the Indian youth market calling upon global corporations to “imagine a country with a population of kids twice the size of the entire population of the United States.”  Calling them, the “children of liberalization,” Arvind Singhal, chairman of the retail consulting firm KSA Technopak extolled the virtues of the new generation, who, according to him, were “exposed to global trends through TV and the Internet and not spending-averse as the previous generation.”  Checking up with its own survey, Disney estimated that there were more than 100 million children below 10 years of age. 
Now India does have the youngest population in the world and it is expected that there will be 550 million under the age of 20 by the year 2015. However, it is only with neo-liberalization that India’s long-lamented high population density has been turned into an asset. It has enabled the Indian collaborators of global capital – those who manage the market and the labor – to position themselves as intermediaries with access to both the “culture” and economics of India. In contrast to the Indian collaborators of the British Empire, who were always aware of their second-class role in an Empire based on apartheid, the contemporary collaborators of global capital see themselves as part of a transnational professional bourgeoisie, owning a commodity the global bourgeoisie cannot have – Indian-ness.
It is this class that has interceded with McDonalds to bring us the masala veggie burger and with Pizza Hut to bring us the tandoori chicken pizza. The culture that neo-liberalism has brought is both contradictory and dynamic. It is at once “pure” as it has to protect the profits and cultural capital of “authentic” foreign brands in a market filled with resourceful cheap imitations. For instance, Barbie can cost up to six times its cheap Indian imitation, Babie, which can also be quite easily found in the market, much to the anguish of Mattel which then calls upon local law enforcement to police local imitators. See for instance, this seized counterfeit Barbie t-shirt – clearly, the only people who’d care for the “real” item would be the Mattel executives or the adults for whom the foreign product serves as a class marker.
Photo of confiscated Barbie Counterfeit.
The other side of this new emphasis on “purity” is a resurgence of tradition, of Indianness, ranging from a revival of traditional rituals around weddings to a virulent nationalism based on religious fundamentalism. Indian-ness is the bourgeoisie’s assertion of identity, a way to retain patriarchal and authoritarian power against the certain autonomy and individualism that consumer culture brings to the young and women. Individual expressions of identity and sexuality are the lures that consumer culture offers in return for our money – and it opens up traditional hierarchies. What is more, when religious fundamentalism is presented as a reaction against McDonaldization it channels the anger against global capital inwards, against an internal enemy – the Muslim, the Sikh or the Christian – leaving the class structure intact.
At the very same time, the culture of globalization is also playfully hybrid as elites consume a mish-mash of the local and global, ironically and self-reflexively – going for instance, from reviving traditional wedding rituals to global travel. This hybridity can also be whimsical and autonomous of the jealously guarded brand identities of the multinational firms. Just a couple of years into neo-liberal reforms, when Nike had made its first appearance in the Indian market and on street hoardings, I noticed on a visit to Bombay that the Nike sign had become immensely popular among cab drivers. Cabs were decorated with the Nike sign which was not just imitated directly but often inverted or occurred in pairs or triplets. When I asked what the symbol actually meant, not one identified it as Nike: I was told that it was a hockey stick even if it looked like the Nike sign. So, the branding of public space and imagination is a process that is neither smooth nor ever complete. Capitalism has not succeeded in killing our imaginations or the ability to transform its culture.
Yet, it is all too easy to get carried away noting the dynamism of the cultural transformations that neo-liberalism has sprung forth embodied by a generation that looks and acts less and less like its parents and more and more like its global peers. McDonalds, Disney, Nike, Mattel in collaboration with their Indian collaborators, the ad. agencies and the marketers, are all selling the idea that Indian children can now shed their histories as post-colonial subjects and become part of a “global generation.” It is important to remember, though, who gave us the term “global generation”: It is a marketing term that refers to a generation of young people who, although living in different parts of the world, know and consume the same international brands and media narratives. The key word here is “consume.” The promise is that Indian children are taking their place in the world as world class consumers, less than none.
Never mind the minor problem that the “image” that Brand India has to replace is that of famished children with swollen bellies and street children on drugs and wearing rags. Turning India into a brand makes the problem one of image, an image that can be readjusted with the proper marketing spin without having to take care of the substantive changes called for. For all the celebration of the dawning of the age of the Indian consumer, the typical Indian consumer is already consuming far less than their needs. Vandana Shiva points out that cereal consumption has declined by 12% in the rural areas, and India has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of child labor in the world, with 15 million working in conditions akin to slavery by a Human Rights Watch estimate, 1996. 
It is now becoming widely recognized that India over the last decade of the twentieth century has sharply polarized into “Two Indias” – the title of a recent write-up by Randeep Ramesh – one characterized by the First World lifestyles of the few who live in gated communities governed by their private schools, hospitals, roads, and police and the other a Third World India where the majority lives amidst, what P. Sainath has incisively described as, the “Indianization of income and globalization of prices.”  As Sainath explains, this reality is reflected in India’s fall from number 124 to 127 out of 159 nations in the United Nations Human Development Index. This means that India’s much-celebrated population is amongst the poorest in the world, coming just ahead of the poor in the occupied territories of Palestine and Botswana. It means that 74% of children between the ages of 6 and 35 months are anemic, 47% underweight, and 81% not immunized against Tuberculosis. These facts fly in the face of Thomas Friedman’s fantastic suggestion that India, in contrast to Latin America, has invested in its people – its only purpose is to corroborate the propaganda of the proponents of neo-liberalism who assert that it has brought prosperity to the people of India. 
While those who champion the reforms, such as Jagdish Bhagwati, claim that there has been a decline in the percentage of those living under the poverty line others, like Ronald Abraham and Mohan Guruswamy, have challenged the measures used to account for the poverty line itself.  The poverty line, adopted by the Planning Commission in 1957, they argue, is more appropriately a hunger line that put the minimum needs of a human being simply at calorie intake – at 2100 calories in urban areas and 2400 calories in rural areas, per day for an adult. Even if we accepted the incredible indignity and cruelty of keeping this very bare minimum as a measure for human life, 26% of Indians in India would still live below the poverty line; a miserly decline of 0.81% since 1973 while in the very same period the economy grew at 5%. 
Guruswamy and Abraham propose that we replace the calorie-intake measure with the more humane basic needs model advanced by Paul Streeton and adopted by the ILO in 1976. According to the basic needs model the poverty line would be fixed at the standard of living of the lower 40 % of the population with basic needs including not simply the numbers of calories consumed but also housing, health, education, and sanitation. Translated into the Indian context this would mean, Guruswamy and Abraham show, that a family of four would live in a house with two rooms of 10ft by 10 ft, with no electrical appliances other than a bulb and fan in each room, two taps—one in the kitchen and one in the bathroom, and education costs that would cover a public school education whose quality is at present abysmally low. If this standard, which all reasonable people would agree is the bare minimum for human dignity and survival, was to be adopted as the real measure government estimates of the poverty line would increase by almost four times. An astounding 90% of India’s population would currently be below the poverty line. 
Randhir Singh has made the bitter observation that while the policy of structural adjustment was launched with the claim that “the nation has been living beyond its means” a good majority were going to bed hungry with simply no means to “live beyond.”  The global standards of human dignity such as those proposed by an international organization like the ILO, which is by no means calling for a socialist redistribution of wealth, are unacceptable to a class which has Indian standards for its poor and global standards for itself. It expects the majority to simply uplift themselves into the global market, if not as consumers then at least as spectators who can, now and then, peck at the “foreign” objects now available for sale. At a panel discussion, I was challenged by a colleague on my assertion that globalization had increased income disparities by the following anecdote offered as evidence of the advances made by the poor. According to my colleague, he had found on his recent visit to India a rickshaw-puller eating pizza.
This MBA-ization of nationalism is the response of a bourgeoisie that has seceded from the nation, for whom the nation is a commodity to be packaged and sold, and they its brokers and not citizens. It has sounded the death rattle of the rhetoric of a socialist economy upon which the Indian nation-state was founded, after a long and bitter struggle against the British Empire. It is the new face of the collaborators of imperialism, which started to reinvent itself after World War II changing from direct colonial occupation to exercising economic control on behalf of multinational corporations via international financial institutions, such as the IMF and WTO and collaborating national governments. This did not spell the end of nation-states, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, have asserted.  The multinationals are sustained by the military and economic power of the imperialist nations, with the U.S. emerging as the super-power. The U.S. government, backed by the most powerful military in the world, intercedes on behalf of capital to maneuver trade agreements and treaties, such as, GATT and NAFTA, in favor of the multinationals. Its mirror image is Third World governments, like the Indian one, that pave the way for global capital by eroding tariffs and trade barriers, labor laws, and public ownership.
In order to sell India, its leaders have to do what all marketers have to, i.e., simplify the commodity, make it user-friendly, and package it as easily consumable. The particular problem that a nation poses for the marketer is that it has to be emptied of its people and their troublesome historical memories. The problem is a critique such as Randhir Singh’s who speaks for a generation that had fought for India’s freedom from the British Empire, holding that independence necessary to a socialist future. He recounts: 
Before 1947, we were part of a global system, well-integrated into a world market economy. We were globalized, so to speak, but we did not like it. Our globalization, then also had a name, imperialism, and we struggled against it, precisely because its structural logic meant the accumulation of wealth in England and poverty in India. Like other Third World countries, we wanted to get out of this globalization to be able to opt for an independent, self-reliant development in the interests of our common people.
…Now India is being globalized again this time through a largely voluntary submission of India’s rulers who are opting out to be junior partners to the global capitalist system. The national project finally and definitively collapsed in 1991.
Sometimes, the subjects and their memory of a previous empire confront the new empire on the streets. In this picture, taken by CNN in neighboring Pakistan, police stand guard against potential attacks on McDonald’s at the start of the war against Iraq (March 20th 2003). McDonald’s was identified as symbolic of the U.S. led imperialist project and therefore, a potential target of the widespread protests against the war.
Sometimes this history returns in poetry that is still remembered, recited, and echoes with our times. In his, subh-e-azadi, The Dawn of Freedom, written in August 1947 to mark the end of the British Empire, the well-loved Indo-Pakistani Faiz Ahmed Faiz had reminded his comrades: 
Abhi garani e shab me kami nahi ai
Nijat e dida o dil ki ghari nahi ai
Chale chalo ke wo manzil abhi nahi ai
The darkness of the night has not yet waned
The moment of freedom that our eyes and hearts longed for is not yet here
Keep walking, we have yet to reach the destination that we had all set out for.
2. Jairam Ramesh, ‘Defining Brand India’ speech.
3. Saritha Rai, ‘Indian Venture Reincarnates Spider-Man’, International Herald Tribune, Monday November 22, 2004.
4. Rai, ‘Indian Venture Reincarnates’.
5. Jayashree Bajoria, ‘Disney Launches India TV Channels’, BBC News.
6. Vandana Shiva, ‘The Poor Can Buy Barbie Dolls’, Diverse Women for Diversity, April 2, 2001.
Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project, ‘The Small Hands of Slavery: Bonded Child Labor in India’.
7. Randeep Ramesh, ‘A Tale of Two Indias’, The Guardian, April 5, 2006.
P. Sainath, ‘Manufactured Reality’, People’s Democracy Vol. 10, No. 5, January 2006.
8. Thomas Friedman, ‘Latin America’s Choice’, New York Times, Op-ed., June 21, 2006.
9. Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
10. Mohan Guruswamy and Ronald Joseph Abraham, ‘Myth of the Poverty Line’, in Redefining Poverty: A New Poverty Line for a New India, Center for Policy Alternatives, April 1, 2006.
11. Ronald Abraham, ‘Tipping over the Poverty Line’, Hard News, October 2005.
12. Randhir Singh, ‘Talking of a Few Forgotten or Forbidden Things’, Mainstream, March 15, 2003, 24.
13. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); also see Jyotsna Kapur, ‘Book Review of Empire’, The Democratic Communique, Vol. 18, Summer 2002, 115-123.
14. Randhir Singh, ‘Of Nationalism in India: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’, Mainstream, August 14th, 1999, 32-33.
15. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 100 Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, trans. Sarvat Rahman (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 2002), 44.
Jyotsna Kapur teaches in the department of Cinema and Photography, Southern Illinois University. She is the author of Coining for Capital: Movies, Marketing and the Transformation of Childhood (Rutgers University Press, 2005).