India As A Power Brand

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Nov 20 2003, 05:30am hrs
Perhaps the surest sign that the Indian economy is doing well comes from the themes of business conferences, the season for which is now underway. For the last two years, and while the economy was sluggish and the external environment unstable, most events revolved around either the goal of national development or around gearing up for survival. But now, with over 7 per cent GDP growth on the horizon and a BSE index breaching the 5000 mark, our confidence knows no bounds.

The latest manifestation of this was the recent Ad-Asia summit which discussed whether India could be positioned in future as a global power brand. Based on media reports, there appeared to be great optimism all around and a pronounced vein of mutual self-congratulation among the usual suspects Infosys, TCS, ITC, Ranbaxy, Reliance and TELCO. These companies are indeed successful in the domestic market, and some even poised to become global operators in individual sectors of operations. But does that make India a chic tag How does the world see us

Transparency International ranks us worse than both China and Russia. Over 90 per cent of all stories about India on Yahoo in the past year have revolved around religious tension, corruption, political unrest or social instability. In a media study conducted across Europe by a German university in 1999, Indias image revolved around superstition, oppression, poverty and casteism. And in a social survey done in America in 2000, as many as 54 per cent of decision-makers in the United States had a negative opinion of India whereas about 70 per cent talked positively about China.

These are just some of the pointers; there are many others, not to speak of plentiful anecdotal evidence on travels abroad. It may be harsh for the new-and-on-the-move India to swallow, but except for IT, India has built few positive country-of-origin associations. In fact, while we thump our backs, others roll their eyes. Some years ago, an African business delegation to India bitterly complained at a CII-organised function about Indian exporters. Indian tea producers have lost huge orders in the past few years in Libya, Tunisia and Russia due to substandard quality. And even Iraq, in the days when it was strangled by Western sanctions and needed to urgently source food for its people, returned our wheat due to rodent infestation.

Perhaps these surveys and facts are dated or unrepresentative, but the harsh reality is that the country label is far from being a strong brand. For all the attention in recent times on the Indian middle class or the Indian Diaspora, old impressions persist and are often reinforced with the news. Bollywood may be hip in certain quarters abroad, but it is largely a source of bemused interest and museum exotica, not admiration. And lest we forget, India is a very poor country with problems of huge magnitude. Not just poverty and inequity, but a serious fiscal problem, subsidy problem and quality-of-growth problem.

On the other hand, India does have many things going for it. It has a very youthful demography, with more than 80 per cent of the population below 45 years, and the domestic market, however you define it, will only get richer and bigger as long as there are no shocks. If handled properly, the rural economy can provide a huge boost to industry, especially in energy, healthcare, housing and inland waterways. Privatisation is still an early work-in-progress but it is unstoppable, whatever the leftists may say or do. And the country holds a vast array of knowledge-based skills, institutions and legacies, much more than China or other competing nations.

During Ad-Asia, one lament made by a leading Indian industrialist was that there is a general tendency to focus on the negatives and ignore our success. He may be right. It is sometimes necessary to dream, but also to then wake up and smell the coffee. It is going to take at least two decades of concerted and strong moves to better the situation in India in aggregate terms. Selling the Made In India idea may be seductive at a time when so many economic indicators are pointing north, but it is far better to have modest expectations and plod laboriously rather than indulge in fanciful wishes or contortions.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors