Review: Brand New Nation by Ravinder Kaur
Whether ends justify all means is a question which is relevant for both individuals and societies. This question is often posed as a counterfactual while discussing post-independence India’s development trajectory. Was non-alignment a worse choice compared to a pro-US tilt in terms of opening up economic opportunities? Is India less developed than China today because of having to accommodate myriad concerns in a democratic set-up? Is the current government laying the basis of long-term growth by undertaking hitherto impossible reforms?
Over time, mass opinion in India has shifted towards blaming what was left undone (due to weak leadership) for the country’s collective predicament. Data from the World Value Surveys show that support for rule by a strong leader increased from 45% to 56% between 2005-09 and 2010-14; the latter coinciding with the rise of Narendra Modi on the national political scene. It is this growing trust which political scientist Neelanjan Sircar has termed as Modi’s politics of vishwas (trust) in a recent paper.
While this bit is pretty persuasive, a more intriguing question is how did this preference for an authoritarian leader gain ground? The existing analyses are divided into hagiographical (Modi’s wide appeal) or conspiratorial (it is ultimately majority communalism behind the garb of development) accounts. Both these explanations do not offer much help in getting closer to the truth.
It is here that Ravinder Kaur’s book offers a new, enriching, and also, counter-intuitive perspective. Kaur has followed a unique and unexpected process and site for reaching her conclusions: India’s efforts at selling herself at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the annual jamboree of the high and mighty of global capitalism. Her reading of the state of play in politics and society is far more nuanced than the binaries referred to earlier. She argues that while Narendra Modi might have had the political genius of exploiting the growing consensus for the “re-branding” of India, the roots of this process were laid in the India Shining campaign under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. The last bit is ironical, as most commentators see the India Shining campaign as a liability for the BJP, which created a huge backlash ultimately leading to a shock defeat of the BJP in the 2004 elections.
“The spirit of India Shining, then, embodied a new subjectivity constitutive of the self-centered individuals who had seceded from the collective. This possibility appealed to the newly prosperous middle class and legitimized that appeal in the public discourse...What appeared to be a failure in the aftermath of the 2004 electoral defeat was, in fact, a decisive turn towards a broad consensus in favour of economic reforms”, Kaur writes.
Moreover, Kaur also argues that the growing legitimacy for an exclusivist Hindu image of a “New India” is in keeping with the brand building process rather than inimical to it, as is believed by many commentators. In a global marketplace (Davos) where each country is trying to out-compete the other to woo capital, it is precisely the mix of an ancient Hindu culture with the modern-day capitalist appeal that defines India. “The uncommon difference, the exclusive identity not shared with others is the prime ingredient on which a successful brand is built... This also means that in order to market the exclusive inner self, the brand needs to evict the other – the Muslims, the poor, the Dalits – from the image frame, to seek the uncommon in what had once been a common cultural existence”, the book says.
The book dwells on other interesting questions as well. Why has the right wing been more successful in harnessing popular anger than the left in the recent period? Has identity politics tilted the balance in favour of the right wing? Kaur’s own field experiences and insights are tested against theoretical debates started by the likes of Francis Fukuyama.
This important book is a must-read, especially for people outside Kaur’s discipline because it encourages the reader to appreciate the importance of political psychology in shaping social consciousness and therefore political outcomes. Not much popular work has been done in India on this count.
It also offers a different view into the ongoing debates on the future of secularism in India, where the secular elite has been blamed for giving a walkover to communalism in the subaltern discourse. Communalism’s ideological coup d’état, Kaur seems to argue, did not happen in the small towns of north India; it was achieved in the cosmopolitan surroundings of Davos and in the posh studios of brand managers eager to ‘serve their nation’. Those in the so-called vanguard of secularism are probably not even aware that this was where they lost the struggle.
To be sure, not everything in Kaur’s line of argument will be agreeable to someone who tracks political economy. She describes the 2014 verdict as the “return of the privileged”. With the Indian economy losing its growth momentum much before Covid-19 completely disrupted it, and with unprecedented uncertainty about the future, even the privileged are a worried lot today. The future is going to be both turbulent and exciting in India.