What does India mean to people here? Here, as in among people attending the week-long IncredibleIndia@60 events in New York.
To Richard Levin, economist and president of Yale University, it means opportunity. To the man on the street (in this case, Times Square and George who is visiting from Boston and who didn’t give a second name), it means IT and elephants. George and his girlfriend were more interested in getting their photographs taken with the cowboy in gleaming white underwear, boots, Stetson and guitar who is an urban legend in New York, than in looking at the billboards selling India.
Times Square is replete with India signage, including the occasional city-tour bus painted in IncredibleIndia colours driving through, but in this touristy heart of Manhattan, no one seems to be noticing. There are food, music, and dance shows at Bryant Park and South Street Seaport, but the crowd is dominated by Indians who live in the city. That’s true of the guest list at most receptions that are part of the current event.
Serious work is happening behind the scenes, such as the meetings of the US India CEO forum, but it is unlikely that American companies need convincing. CEO of Vodafone Group Plc. Arun Sarin said of the several CEOs from Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies he had met, that they all had a presence in India. Sarin has reason to be bullish. His company acquired a majority stake in Hutchison Essar Ltd (now Vodafone Essar Ltd), this year. In China, he said, his firm has a 3.5% stake in China Mobile, which has 350 million subscribers. In terms of beneficial interest (if there’s such a thing in terms of subscribers), this translates into 12.25 million. In India, the company has three times as many subscribers (Vodafone doesn’t control, directly or indirectly, just around 33% of the Indian firm). Firms that chose not to invest in India, Sarin said, would “stay away at their own peril”.
WPP’s CEO Martin Sorrell echoed the sentiment when he said: “India will be on the right side of history for the next 200 years.” Sorrell and Sarin were part of a panel that discussed, at the Harvard Club on Wednesday, what brand India meant and where it was headed. India meant youth and services to him, added Sorrell. And the “possibility of protectionism”, as the established world order could use protectionist policies to keep emerging India and China at bay.
The main organizers of IncredibleIndia@60, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), an industry lobby, and the ministry of tourism are clear on what India stands for: diversity, democracy, demography and development. They reason: Any country that has managed diversity as well as India, stayed a democracy, has more young people than old, and is growing fast should be a good place for businesses and people alike from all parts of the world.
The problem with such marketing, says Amitabh Kant, joint secretary of tourism and the man behind the long-standing IncredibleIndia tourism campaign (merged with CII’s India@60 idea to create the IncredibleIndia@60 event) is that it “puts a lot of pressure on infrastructure”. “At some point, perception has to match reality,” he added. It isn’t always possible while marketing a country, said Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Infosys Technologies Ltd and one of the people behind the event. “Reality is not in your control,” he added. Nilekani and Kant were also panellists at the Harvard Club discussion.
While campaigns such as IncredibleIndia@60 work well outside the country, they rarely strike a chord within. The previous NDA government suffered a shock defeat in the 2004 elections after its India Shining campaign boomeranged, said Vir Sanghvi, a journalist (and columnist for Mint’s Lounge magazine) who is setting up a network of television channels. “Greater India does not want to buy into brand India,” he added. And brands are rarely built through events such as this one in New York, said advertising and image management executive Suhel Seth, who was part of the audience at the panel discussion.
R. Sukumar is deputy managing editor, Mint. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org