Home / Opinion / Columns /  Did Namaste Trump optics help Modi or Brand India?

When Air Force One touched down at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport on 24 February, President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, the president’s daughter and her husband alighted the aircraft to music beats and a pageant of dancers.

India’s traditional dances were not only on display at the airport but also all along the 22-km stretch between the airport and the newly-built Motera cricket stadium where the Namaste Trump event was organized. Many of those watching the telecast of the show on television cringed at the poorly organized cultural showcasing of India. The dancers looked gawky and uncoordinated.

En route to the jam-packed stadium, the American guests could not have missed Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s giant cut-outs and billboards. Back at the stadium, the milling crowds were entertained by Gujarati songs, Bollywood music, and sundry dance performances. The display lacked class, at least as seen on the TV screen.

However, apparently, both colour and spectacle were part of the diplomacy. Trump loves crowds and Modi, who had promised him a grand reception, kept his word. Monday’s Ahmedabad event was all about optics and showmanship. The pageantry continued at the Agra airport. Clearly, the cultural jamboree was aimed at making an impact.

However, the show didn’t impress all. Brand consultant Harish Bijoor said as we live in a world that depends heavily on visual images, if you show a tacky image, the read-out will be equally tacky. “I think that is where we have faulted on this very big India image-making opportunity presented by Trump’s India visit. This was an opportunity to show the world, the US, and indeed ourselves who and what we are really today and not what Trump and Melania wanted to see. That big nuance has been missed," he said.

The images shown to the guests were images fit for brand “India Tourism" and not for Brand India, Bijoor said. While “Incredible India" is associated with tourism, Brand India should be “credible India." “Hopefully, we are a nation heading towards a $5 trillion economy. We need to start showcasing that. We need to start showcasing credible India from now on. We need to present ourselves as a modern alternative for everything from technology, science, health to inclusiveness," Bijoor said.

However, Sanjay Sarma, founder of branding and communications advisory SSARMA Consults, did not find Namaste Trump event wanting in terms of impact on Brand India. It was a show of scale, strength, and spectacle, manufactured to make the American jaws drop. Much like the Indian dance group V Unbeatable winning America’s Got Talent last fortnight, the Namaste Trump event was Modi’s performance aimed at winning the US President and the world media, he said. “What seemed like an audacious display of theatrics and histrionics, was actually a strong message for the world. That India-US relations would be a partnership of equals and not subservience. That’s a big win for Brand India," he said.

Campaign style events such as Namaste Trump aren’t commonplace for visiting dignitaries. “When a solemn diplomatic affair turns out to be a public spectacle of bromance between two world leaders, it naturally attracts a lot of global media attention. This event turned out to be good for everyone. President Trump’s speech was lauded, Prime Minister Modi made a strong impression, and a lot of India’s inherent strengths were spoken about, such as people power, digital and tech advancements, science and space programmes. Public approval ratings do matter and from that perspective this seems to have made a big all round impression," he said. What does Brand India stand for today? The 2020 definition of Brand India lacks a unified narrative. It means different things to different people. “For some it has its roots in nationalism, while others find meaning in its diversity. Some see it as progressive, others find it regressive. Some see it as a vibrant democracy, while others say it is fast hurtling towards being a fascist state. Views are sharply polarized. We as a nation need to come back to some kind of a middle ground. I think it is time to revisit a nation building brand campaign, sans religion and politics," he said.

Three years ago Sarma had spoken about how Brand Modi was making a conscious effort to align with Brand India in a positive sense. Are they still synonymous? “Not in a way that I would like them to be," he said. “Things have headed south since."

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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