A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words. It’s just as possible, as political scientist Ravinder Kaur puts it. Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Conceptions in 21st Century India demonstrates this, for a game of advertising images that should trigger a superb book that lists the rebirth of a resolutely capitalist, increasingly nativist and populist post-colonial India.
The book focuses our look at the Indian state and how it has attempted to create a ‘brand’ or image of India that can be used to generate investment in the country. Kaur’s beautiful and innovative interpretation allows us to understand how India became capitalist through various reforms but also, crucially, advocacy campaigns and initiatives with concise tags like “Rising India”, “Shining India ” and “Incredible India” and even that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ache Din’. The Kaur visual archive builds on the powers of the book’s analytical core, allowing us to grasp how the “public” argument for liberalization has been presented by the state to reassure citizens about the changing times. and quell potential resistance. Capital needs a flexible policy that can fuel its growth.
These seemingly innocuous images and slogans have been deployed to serve the Indian state’s quest for capital in a world where countries compete for investment. In the book, Kaur covers each of these campaigns through different chapters, dissecting their effectiveness in a world where states are increasingly becoming vessels for global capital through their marks as emerging or rising powers.
Interestingly, Kaur questions the failure of the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ campaign, saying instead that it sowed the seeds for the Indian state to embrace capital and then a departure after decades of policies that strangled the capital. Indeed, as Kaur argues, it is difficult to cover and explain Modi’s political rise without the BJP surrendering to a narrative that fetishizes India’s identity and culture to generate capital for the development.
Another key contribution of the book is its focus on the state and its role in a globalized world. Kaur shows the futility of arguments that emphasize the diminishing or withering of the state given the ostensibly inexorable market forces that are. The state matters more than ever and can reinvent and recondition itself to confront, collect and control capital flows. The territory of the State and the markers or cultural aspects linked to the nation are part of a “closed arena of production and exchange” to draw external resources.
Both the nation and the state are engaged in this process of capital accumulation guided by seemingly clear logics. This process amounts to what Kaur astutely identifies as “remixing history” where ancient cultures and modern ambitions are fused to produce a brand appealing enough to drive investment. This remix also points to a nation that is ripe for reimagining and whose problems can be targeted and solved by technocratic solutions under an edifice albeit traditional.
India, in other words, needs a renewal or a restart, not a restructuring. However, this process is by no means unique or limited to India. Since the 1990s, developing countries in South Asia and other regions that previously remained somewhat closed have faced similar pressures to “open up”. India is a critical case, but one whose importance is marked by the size, scale and potentials of the Indian economy.
India’s example of national branding is seen in different ways, now being seen across South Asia as countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan come under similar pressure to liberalize through technocratic politics. Kaur’s focus and approach allows us to analyze and understand these ongoing economic transformations in South Asia in a new light.
Who does this “branding” or packaging? Kaur argues that this task falls to a wide range of individuals or professionals, particularly from the private sector and civil society, including experts, advertising professionals, lobbyists and social media influencers who can view skillfully India, its past and its potential as a nation-state poised to make an economic leap forward after decades of sluggish growth. The creators of this new “brand” inhabit a space of anti-politics insofar as they largely view their efforts as apolitical, technocratic and patriotic. Dissent should be reserved and avoided given its ostensible damage to the “brand”. Yet, as Kaur shows, their contributions are immensely political, extolling and advancing narratives that are exclusive, nativist, supportive of authoritarian instincts (or strongman politics) and steeped in religiosity, all of which go to the against India’s deeply diverse mosaic.
Undoubtedly, these efforts propelled the Indian brand, especially around the rise of Modi, but how did they interact and collide with other political factors like irresponsible opposition, weak political parties and the proliferation technologies that facilitate the creation, promotion and maintenance of brands. . Kaur also fails to disclose how competing national security narratives such as “India as the dominant power” or “Indo-Pacific power” also contribute to causes that bolster India’s economic clout, as a weak and economically inert India could undermine regional and global security projects under US hegemony, including its competition with China. Kaur acknowledges these issues but does not delve deeply into them, but future scholars have much to tap here to understand India’s “rise” since Modi’s arrival in 2014. Like any good book, A whole new nation leaves us with questions that need answers.
A whole new nation is a tour de force which sheds light on how post-colonial India has changed and is changing rapidly. Kaur’s book opens our eyes to these changes.
Karthik Nachiappan is a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore with a cross-appointment to the South Asian Studies Program at NUS.