What does India turning into an “attractive investment destination” have to do with democratic politics and the nation-state? This is the question Ravinder Kaur tackles in her most recent book, Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First-Century India. Sneha Annavarapu talked with her for Public Books about the role of media, markets, and muscular politics in the reshaping of 21st-century India.
Ravinder Kaur is an associate professor of modern South Asian studies at the University of Copenhagen. She works across the disciplines of history, anthropology, and international politics and is currently heading the Center for Global South Asian Studies. Her previous research focused on questions of memory and migration, caste/class differences, and refugee-resettlement policies in the making of modern citizenship after the 1947 partition. This work has been published as a monograph entitled Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi (2007).
Sneha Annavarapu (SA): Your book is an exploration of the attempted transformation of India into an attractive investment destination, into a branded enclosure for capitalism in the 21st century. You propose that investigating the making of this “brand-new nation” reveals how the logic of capitalism is the glue that’s holding the nation and the state together.
Could you tell us a little bit about how this gluing works? Why is branding such a key ingredient in this glue?
Ravinder Kaur (RK): This opens the primary question: What is the nation-state in the 21st century, and what kind of compact exists between the nation and the state?
I propose that the 21st-century nation and state are bound together within a fully unconcealed economic logic; the nation is seen as an income-generating asset, and the state is the authority which has the proprietary rights over that asset.
So this economic logic operates on the condition that the entire nation-state can be turned into an income-generating asset; that territory is the natural resource, and inhabitants are the human capital or the demographic dividend; and that identity is something which can be turned into a brand as well.
In the last three decades or so, many parts of the world have “opened up,” meaning that economic liberalization has made available more and more resource territories which can be capitalized across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
India is one of the key examples of this phenomenon, especially given the size and scale of India’s economy. And what I call “glue” is a compact, which manifests in three ways.
First of all, the compact is a question of visual sovereignty: who has authority to show and see what India is all about; what aspects can be revealed, what are forbidden, and what must be overlooked in order to shape the desirable image. The compact, then, presupposes the power to visualize and censor all that is deemed superfluous to the nation’s brand image.
Another manifestation is the totalizing vision of the nation as a single economic unit under the arch of a strong centralized state. This is exemplified in the idea of “one nation, one market,” which the Modi government has put forward. Of course, this “one market” is in addition to the previous notion of one language, one religion, one territory (Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan) constitutive of the Hindu nationhood.
And the third manifestation of this nation-state compact is the question of citizenship. What does it mean to be a citizen in this brand-new nation that I’m describing? Here, the ideal citizen is one who constantly spreads the good news, holds back criticism, and overall works to enhance the market worthiness: the market value of the nation in the global economy.
So these three phenomena are the ways in which the nation-state in the 21st century is being reshaped everywhere, but India is its most visible example.
SA: You contend that the makers of the brand-new nation appear to primarily inhabit the domain of “anti-politics,” embodied in professional experts who identify as apolitical and perceive politics to be dirty and corrupt. At the same time, you show how this phenomenon is not at odds with the existence of populist muscular strongmen like Narendra Modi. How does this coexistence work?
RK: The notion of anti-politics basically hints at a very popular sentiment that I encountered in the field. Designers and policy makers often said that they are above politics: “Politics does not interest us”; “What we are doing is a patriotic nationalist duty, we are not aligned to any political party.” And, moreover, these technocratic experts were now seen as more reliable and more valuable than politicians themselves.
I also witnessed a certain impatience within this group of nation branders. They really like things to be done now; they love people who get things done. And so, in this sense, they see strongman politics as something that can overcome the democratic slowness and messiness that are often associated with the postcolonial Indian state.
Consider this sentiment, which people often express in the policy world: If India is growing, it’s growing despite the government, not because of the government. The government is actually seen as a hindrance here. And, so, there is a constant idea that we need to push away politicians and bring the technocratic experts, people who are above politics, to the center stage. To shake the system up, so to speak; to get things done.
It is not a surprise, then, that this anti-political stance—which favors high economic growth and is wary of the slowness of the postcolonial state—should align itself with the idea of “strongman politics,” which Narendra Modi represents.
SA: You tell us the story of the “rediscovery of the nation.” It is the story of a nation that is attempting to overcome its failure as a debt-ridden postcolony with capitalistic economic reforms, but also attempting an image makeover as an attractive investment destination. In telling this story, you emphasize that—in the making of the nation into a commodity—a key mechanism is, actually, the production of hope.
Can you tell us a little bit about how economic reforms in India are also the moment of the renewal of the nation?
RK: Here we must go back to the question of capital and what it represents in this new iteration of economic reforms. Of course, capital is about wealth; but in this case capital is put to work in a very affective and very emotional way. It is seen as a fuel: the resource that can bring alive the nation.
And—by the very logic of the brand-new nation we discussed earlier—the more investment that flows into the territory, the more it is seen as an affirmation of the nation’s worth, its place in the world. The whole logic of capital and renewal of the nation goes hand in hand.
An example of this phenomenon is Narendra Modi’s 2014 election campaign slogan acche din—“good times”—that promised to bring not just economic growth but also the restoration of Hindu cultural pride. Capital, in this logic, was held out as a curative force that would efface the shame of colonial subjugation simultaneously as it produced material prosperity.
The idea of “good times” suggests that we can prosper. But it also says that prosperity is no longer just about social development; rather, prosperity is also for developing economic muscles, which can be transformed into, basically, emphasizing or recovering your cultural essence as well.
The logic which continues to propel this is hope. Hope that finally economic reforms or the new liberal script will fulfill the dreams, which have been dreamed since the time of independence.
Now, here is a paradox. And the paradox is that, even though economic growth has been one of the key political promises the current regime made, actually, the Indian economy has been dwindling. So one might say, “How does this work, how does hope really work?” And the counterintuitive answer to this is a particular kind of hope, which also comes without a deadline. It promises good times, but offers no timetable as to when the promise will be realized.
So it is this optimism—the promise of good times, the production of hope—that is at work here. The more you optimistically publicize the nation’s ability to attract and generate more capital, the more the belief self-propagates; that is, it becomes the reason to continue producing hope, optimism, a permanent spectacle of good news. This, as you can imagine, has a direct link with how undemocratic [India is], how we suppress dissent as well. Anyone who comes in the way of the “good times” becomes a threat to capital, and to the nation-state itself. Hope, capital, and sovereignty are thus braided together.
SA: You offer an astute and refreshing analyses of the “Incredible India” campaign—which was launched in 2002 by the Ministry of Tourism as part of a global branding exercise to create a distinctive identity for the country. You argue that paying attention to the images and narrative frames of the campaign reveals the careful remixing of history and “Indian authenticity” in the service of global capital. I particularly enjoyed your observations around how the “ancient” and “exotic” India had to be carefully aligned with the “modern,” “confident,” and “investor-friendly” India.
How did the makers of the “Incredible India” campaign overcome the inherent tensions between the exotic in the ancient India and the techno-friendly in the modern India?
RK: I picked up the term “remixing history” from an exhibition that took place in Berlin in 2007. One of the prime exhibits was an auto rickshaw, which is a very common mode of transport in many parts of India, and it was decorated and turned into a luxury vehicle. And there was a placard in front which read simply, “Hop aboard for this ride of your life. India 2.0 is hurtling down the information superhighway, carrying its mind-boggling baggage of ever-accelerating GDP, extreme geography, kaleidoscopic culture, deep-rooted spirituality and photogenic chaos into a fascinating future. Watch history being remixed right in front of your eyes. Incredible! But true.”
Of the many interesting things happening in this little placard, the most interesting is the reimagination of India as “India 2.0.” The suffix “2.0” invokes techno-friendly language to suggest an “updating” of the nation in the aesthetics of the global; it’s a bit like new software versions that promise to improve, fix bugs, add new features, all without disturbing the original mainframe.
What we witness is how a particular notion of history-as-remix—that is cut, blended, erased, and rearranged—is put to work to create a commodity brand. This is what I’m trying to show—the seemingly tension-filled proposition—ancient and modern in this case—actually is being brought together though this techno-friendly remix, where India itself is perceived simultaneously as something which is pretty stable, unchanging, but which continues to be renewed and refreshed.
SA: I see.
RK: And if you look at some of the older discourses of India as a timeless, eternal being—that India absorbs the foreign but never changes; an ancient civilization and culture which continues to be renewed—in a very strange way, that very discourse is produced here, too. But this time it’s in the language of computer programming, a language familiar to young software engineers, coders in the Silicon Valley.
SA: Yes. And slowly, this now becomes the new face of India, ever since the software boom.
RK: Right. Yes.
SA: So, to contrast the “Incredible India” campaign, you walk us through the “India Shining” campaign, which is currently what you call a spectacular failure.
Could you tell us a little bit about what prompted the origin of this failed campaign? Why it failed, and what thinking about this spectacular failure tells us about the ways in which prosperity, progress, and citizenship are imagined in India?
RK: The “India Shining” campaign was launched in 2004 by the Ministry of Finance, at a time when the post-liberalization economy was picking up. The crucial bit is that the campaign was designed to infuse optimism in the nation; it was primarily aimed at the Indian citizens to tell them, “Look, you too should be proud of the country, it is doing so well, do relish this moment.”
The campaign was a great success at first and was therefore appropriated by the ruling party, BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], as its election slogan in early 2004. But, as is well-known, the BJP government lost the 2004 election. Many analysts, then, held the “India Shining” imagery as the reason for the ruling party’s electoral loss, and by extension interpreted the electoral loss as a rejection of the neoliberal growth model.
But what I’m showing is that the electoral loss was not a rejection of the capitalist dreamworlds. If anything, the “India Shining” controversy had brought vast publicity to the economic-liberalization program and turned it into a matter of common sense in the popular domain. Pay attention to the countercampaign of the Congress Party, which went on to win the elections, that was also framed in the economic logic presented in the “India Shining” campaign. The Congress campaign was called Aam Aadmi Ko Kya Mila? or, “What Did the Common Man Get Out of It?” The campaign was not challenging the premise of “India Shining” but instead pointing to the BJP’s failure to bring economic returns to the common man.
And this broad political consensus connects with what you mentioned about citizenship. Namely, that the very notion of citizenship or the compact between the nation-state and the citizen is shifting. The older way of thinking is about rights and duties, or love for the nation, which is about devotion and sacrifice.
But in this case of thinking about citizenship, it is the logic of investment or return on investment that is used. What the Congress Party’s campaign said was, “I’m putting something into the nation; what do I get out of it?” This is different; this is a transactional relationship being forged in this brand-new nation.
RK: So much of the imagery of “India Shining” features women. In a way, “India Shining” was also an attempt to create the imagery of a globalized Indian modernity. One of the most famous figures, of course, is the cricket mom—a figure similar to the American soccer mom. And there are many less publicized figures. For example, there’s an image of young women who are going to college and who are all studying science and technology. So there is an effort to somehow forge a new imagery of how a postliberalization Indian citizen ought to look like.
SA: Yes. And I was curious to know if you see some of this coming back in the more recent campaign, called Acche Din, or the “Good Times” campaign.
RK: Yes. This brings us back to “India Shining,” which was an electoral failure; but it was not the failure of the project of economic reforms. That’s why, 10 years later, Narendra Modi could bring alive the old project of “India Shining,” this time repackaged as “Good Times.” Once again, it promises progress, prosperity, development to the citizens, but with one difference: now, it is also aligned with a very visible Hindu-nationalist project.
The logic, which we began to see at the turn of the millennium, at that time presented as “India Shining,” 10 years later was reanimated once again. And this is because, basically, the new liberal economic reforms have never had a serious setback. And [this logic] continues to forge Indian politics even today.
SA: The book throws light on the historical continuities between publicity campaigns led by one prominent English newspaper in India, called Times of India. You show how the newspaper is part of the anti-vote campaign, the “Bleed/Lead India” campaign, the figure of the aam aadmi, the common man of the anti-corruption movement, and the popular idealization of Narendra Modi as a strong leader. How did these campaigns by Times of India sow the seeds for a liberal economy and an illiberal cultural politics? How do the seemingly oppositional strands of illiberalism and liberalism kind of come together and stay together?
RK: A very interesting moment in the history of economic liberalization occurs in 2006–7. This is around the time when India is celebrating its 60th-independence anniversary, and comparisons are being made between India and Pakistan, and India and China, at the same time. While Pakistan is being referred to in the world press as the frontline state in the war against terror, India is favorably being hitched together with China.
This feeds into the influential “Asian century” discourse of the economic rise of Asia: one where India is competing with China while de-hyphenating itself from Pakistan. This moment turns out to be a strange contradiction—India is doing economically pretty well. The GDP begins to rise. But at the same time there is also a certain impatience and anxiety and pessimism creeping in—for many, India was not growing at as fast a pace as China was.
These simultaneous [feelings of] hope and anxiety are best captured in an ad publicized by the Times Group called “Two Indias”—a poem performed by the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. This poem presented the picture of a nation being sabotaged from within: one India is ready to fly, but the other half is holding it back. It is not hard to guess who the internal saboteurs are thought to be in this elite, middle-class imaginary—from the undeserving poor who add to the nation’s heavy social baggage to the government bureaucracy and corrupt politicians who hinder the prospects of the meritorious.
So, there is anxiety culturally, economically, and geopolitically. Likewise, new state capital relations are being forged: capital is impatient, and it wants things to be done. Therefore, they begin to root for a strongman authoritarian, who can actually fast-forward this project of economic liberalization.
SA: Yes. I remember that I was in high school when this anthem came out. Our school principal was very taken by it, so we were all asked to cut out that front page of Times of India and paste it in our notebooks and look at it every day.
SA: In fact, the thrill of the “Lead India” campaign was such that my school—a school that comprised students from across the middle-class and elite spectrum—had some signed up for some student-led initiative with Times of India, and, so, we were all asked to go and tell our parents or the adults in our residential colonies to vote for a better India. I can’t remember what we did, but there was a lot of anxiety and optimism around wanting a better India. I now recall it being key to some sort of middle-class mobilization in the city, too. Lots of billboards, events, and just a lot of buzz.
RK: There was also the consolidation of the middle class around this time, actually.
SA: Yes, yes.
RK: And it was a particular kind of middle class. On the one hand, they retreated into their gated colonies. And on the other, they were extremely impatient with the political project. And so, some of these anti-democratic feelings become manifest around this time as well.
SA: What I really enjoyed about the book is the visual archive that it draws on: publicity images from several campaigns in the past few decades. What was really provocative was how you analyzed images that are often dismissed as propaganda. And they together become what you call an abandoned archive.
How did you come across these images? What dilemmas did you have while thinking through them?
RK: First of all, these images are what came to me, because these are publicity images. You don’t reach out for them; they find you somehow, because they want your attention.
All these campaigns that we’re discussing, they began around 2001 and onward. And what you could see is the emergence of a new image-world, the kind which did not resemble the postcolonial Indian imagery that we were used to.
What becomes apparent is an attempt to create a smart image of the nation. “Smart” is not my term; it was used quite frequently by the designers of many of these publicity campaigns. It was used to suggest an India that looks good but is also witty and confident. This vast image material has not been taken very seriously in current scholarship, because it was seen as propaganda material, something issued by the government of India, and therefore predictable in many ways.
But I have picked up this abandoned archive precisely because it is here that we begin to see how the affective or emotional case for economic liberalization was made by the state to its citizens—by conjuring the blueprints of the capitalist dreamworlds in this publicity blitz.
When we think about economic liberalization, we usually think in terms of the great transformation. Or the structural adjustments, deregulation. But what I’m showing is that the great transformation cannot work without what I call “the great spectacle,” to make an affective case for the public as well.
This bit is critical because liberal reforms were introduced in the 1990s, amidst significant reluctance. It wasn’t until a decade or so later that the logic of the reforms became a matter of common sense. This shift—where capital comes to take center stage in how our social-political landscape is reshaped—cannot be understood without understanding how this imagery of good life, of prosperity, of exciting futures is held out to the citizens.
This image-world brought alive in the publicity campaigns is basically a blueprint. It is the drawing board of the future, where you can actually see an India that shines and imagine yourself within it: that you too could look like prosperous citizens who have businesses, who have homes, who have jobs, you can take loans, you can carve your new identities as citizens of a global nation.
Of course, these images also produce a visual surface of the nation, where the state lays out the contours of how the ideal nation and its citizens should look like. And so, equally instructive is not just what appears on the visual surface but also what is left out of it. So for instance, you do not see many religious-minority figures or any trace of poverty or the caste inequalities. So it’s a very clean, uncluttered scenario; as one of the designers once remarked, “The India that we are showing here is the same old India—all we have done is to have scrubbed it, remove the dust.” This photoshopping of India creates an exclusionary enclave and normalizes who belongs and who doesn’t within the image-frame of the nation.
SA: Your book comes at a time when dissent or even disagreement is being met with heavy-handed state repression. The term anti-national in a sense just reinforces your point in the book: that the muting of ones who express doubts or ask troubling questions is linked to the populist politics that shape the brand-new nation—the promise of good news, the constant production of hope and optimism, and a permanent state of anticipation. So those who are casting a shadow on these desires of global recognition are thus anti-national.
How do you think about resistance or pushback, in the making of this brand-new nation?
RK: It is through the brand that some of these conflicts that we are witnessing are taking place. The logic of the brand is that good citizens are those who continue to enhance the value of the nation brand. And that would usually mean that you speak in positive terms of the nation. That you do not speak of what is called the “negative”—the less flattering aspects, criticism of policies, expression of dissatisfaction; it is by constantly remaining optimistic and producing good news that you enhance the value of the nation.
RK: Now if this is the logic, then it is inherently at odds with democratic politics itself. Because democracy is nothing without dissent. And to dissent also means to wander off in spaces which are not precisely picture-perfect. You are going to look at difficult or the so-called sensitive matters of the nation.
It is not like political conflicts were not happening before, in [the] 1970s, 1980s; this usually occurred when the government would push back against dissent, and they would say, “You are working against the unity of the nation, the integrity of the nation.” But now when something troublesome happens, then usually the remark is, “It is going to harm the image of the nation in the world.” So it’s not like anything different is happening. It used to happen before, also.
But what is different is how the nationalist logic in the brand-new nation is constructed. To express dissent, criticize, or protest now is to corrode the economic value of the nation brand; it is to undermine economic optimism, the “buzz” around a nation, deemed necessary to draw capital. Thus, it is hardly a coincidence, the clampdown on various freedoms; the effort to shut down critical voices is unfolding simultaneously with the acceleration in the pace to open more and more sectors of the Indian economy to the free-market model.