Wanted, A Symbol Of Modern India

Updated: Sep 30 2003, 05:30am hrs
A couple of months ago a producer from CNBC called me from Fort Lee, New Jersey, to ask if I could get him permission to film at the Taj Mahal. He was planning to come down sometime in October. I said Id try and told him to keep his fingers crossed and hope hed find the Taj and not a shopping mall when he got to Agra. He hadnt heard of Mayawati so he didnt get that one. It took a week but the Archaeological Survey of India did send us a form to fill. It had a column that said Purpose. So I called Fort Lee and asked Purpose.

Oh, we want to film our anchor against the Taj so people will know we are in India. They were planning a series on doing business in India. Fair enough, I thought, if I were doing a similar series on China I would also probably like to shoot my anchor lines before the Great Wall.

But wait a minute, thats not what most people think of when they think China and Business. Suzuki Motor Corporation for one does not. Their calender last year had pictures of Suzuki cars in countries across the world. I think April was India Month and they had a red Maruti 800 photographed against, well, the Taj Mahal. You turned couple of months and it was Chinas turn. The Suzuki there was parked on a spanking new 12 lane bridge.

Now dont get me wrong. I think the Taj Mahal is about the most beautiful building in the world. I go there with visitors to Delhi at least twice a year and I come back awed each time. It will forever symbolise India, but should it to the exclusion of everything else

Some issues back, Fortune carried a cover story on Asian entrepreneurs. They sent down a photographer to Bangalore to take pictures of Infosys Chairman Narayana Murthy and Managing Director Nandan Nilekani. Now Infosys has a campus that could be anywhere in the world and the company is proud of it. So the two asked to be photographed right there.

They didnt make it to the cover. If they had posed against the Taj they probably would have. Theirs is possibly the most inspiring story in that issue. But a line in the story gives you a clue as to why they probably didnt make it. The 52-acre compound is the kind of place one would expect to find in California or Washington. So, on the cover they would have looked like two successful Indians anywhere in the world, not the kind of cover that would sell if you were positioning it as one on successful Asian companies. Now, the people who made it to the cover werent posing against a national monument. But its just that the world thinks of more than just national monument when their countrys name is mentioned.

So if Messrs Narayana Murthy and Nilekani missed making it to the Fortune cover because they didnt fit in with the popular perception of India, I sympathise with our infotech sales forces as they search the globe for higher end infotech work.

People in the business say its been easy enough so far. But with software exports at about $10 billion and the industry hoping to push this past $30 billion, India will be seen as serious competition to the big boys and then every little bit of marketing will help. Sure the land of the Taj Mahal is a great line to sell India as a tourist destination. But a high tech destination needs a more modern symbol.

I was on a flight with NASSCOM chief Kiran Karnik last week and we racked our brains on what this symbol could be. The Infosys campus and the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge Centre are top of the line, but could be anywhere in the world. The Bhabha Atomic Centre impressive as it is looks like any other atomic reactor. How about the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata Modern and Distinctive. Could Kolkata bear to portray it as the symbol of the city rather than the Victoria Memorial, sometimes referred to as a British version of the Taj Mahal

(The author is executive editor of CNBC-TV18. These are his personal views)