Arvind Singhal: Brand `India`

The recent rebuff from Orient-Express Hotels to the Tata-controlled Indian Hotels has expectedly attracted a wide range of reactions from diverse quarters. While there may be sound logic behind Orient-Express’s decision to spurn this overture, the content and the tone of the purported letter from their CEO are certainly offensive and not businesslike, on the face of it. Having said this, it is important for us in India to objectively assess what brand “India” stands for at present and what it will take to make it more universally appealing, admired, and aspired for.
 
Till about 20 years ago, India — as seen from the eyes of those outside the country — probably stood for an ancient civilisation that had seen better eras but had missed out all the opportunities that came its way in the 20th century especially post its independence. India, thus, was merely a land of hundreds of millions of inhabitants living in varied conditions but the nation itself was not really one that inspired dreams or admiration. A lot has changed since then. IT gave Brand India the much- craved-for patina of intellectual prowess. Dr Manmohan Singh and Mr Chidambaram (among others) provided the much-needed political/economic optimism not only to the Indians but also in important international capitals and financial centres like Washington and New York, London and others. Sustained economic reforms, despite ideological hiccups now and then, provided India strong and steady economic growth and with that, the attention of investors from all over the world. Business leaders like Mr L N Mittal, Mr Ratan Tata, Mr Aditya Birla, and Mr Mukesh Ambani — among others — made India an important discussion topic in major international board-rooms, and the stupendous financial success of some typical and some atypical entrepreneurs in diverse fields such as wind energy, automobiles, retail, real estate, banking and financial services etc. earned brand India another facet — a country that nurtures entrepreneurs and rewards enterprise. Finally, Brand India got another boost through the rather incredulous success of the “Incredible India” and “God’s Own Country” campaigns, bringing in an unprecedented (by our past track record) number of excited international visitors.
 
However, like the real-world product and service brands and brand icons, the brand “India” has to be continuously buffed. The downside of being the centre of attraction of the rest of the world is that everything about India comes under constant scrutiny. India’s success in the last 16-17 years justifiably raises expectations not for hundreds of millions of Indians but also the world outside. At the same time, if we have started believing that we are on the way to becoming a major economy comparable with the top 8-10 economies of the world, we must also be prepared to be evaluated and compared on every performance parameter rather than merely on the number of billionaires on the Forbes list of the super rich, the rise of the Sensex vis-à-vis the Dow Jones, the strength of the rupee versus other currencies and the tantalising size of the Indian market in the years to come vis-à-vis the relative stagnation of growth elsewhere.
 
To be admired and aspired for in the years to come, we need world-class infrastructure immediately. It is just not enough to wishfully think of turning Mumbai into a Shanghai or Delhi into a London, or that the creation of a few SEZs will alleviate the chaos almost all of urban India has slid into in the last 20 years. We need to urgently work upon getting social infrastructure like education, potable water, and healthcare come up to scale and quality on a war footing so that India is not seen merely as the largest supplier of higher education students to the US or among the cheapest destinations for a hip replacement or a cardiac bypass. We need to be seen as a nation of innovators rather than one that is just using the size of its population to deliver mere labour cost arbitrage, be it in the clothing sector or in information technology and BPO. With over 300 million continuing to live below the poverty line, gloating over too much on the wealthiest 100 or 1,000 looks too incongruous. Rampant and shameless price gouging by Indian hoteliers across all major business or tourism destinations gives another twist to the “Incredible India” campaign.
 
As 2007 comes to an end, it is indeed appropriate to rejoice at how much gloss brand India has regained in the last 15 years or so, especially in the context of the massive erosion it had suffered in the last three or four centuries. However, by virtue of it being at the doorstep of a very different peer group (from the league of less developed countries to the stronger of emerging market ones and poised to be one of the highly developed nations by the time we celebrate the centenary of our independence in 2047), newer and stronger brand attributes have to be developed. Else we should be prepared to suffer more Paul Whites of the Orient-Express’s!
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