India’s global brand has long relied on its secular democratic credentials: as the “world’s largest democracy”. These political values have not only shaped the internal political order of the postcolonial nation, but also accrued strategic and economic value when post-1990s India “opened up” its markets to global investors. In the highly competitive world of emerging markets, India’s democracy served as more than a lofty ideal cherished by misty-eyed idealists. It offered a strategic advantage as India projected itself as a democratic alternative to an authoritarian China.
But here’s the paradox: under Narendra Modi, the very democratic advantage that shaped Brand India’s image in the world is being steadily hollowed-out at home. The rise of hyper-nationalist Hindutva politics is framed precisely within this contradiction: it cashes on India’s democratic credentials to gain external recognition even as it weakens those institutions and values within. Yet this barefaced opportunism is duly noticed, and increasingly reflected in how Modi’s India is described as an “illiberal democracy” in the world. In short, India’s democratic advantage is fast corroding just when it might need it the most – in the post-pandemic world where geopolitical alliances are being forged along the fault lines of liberalism/illiberalism.
Democracy, our calling card
Recall that India’s democratic advantage is what gained it an edge over China in the ‘Asian century’ rivalry the past decades. When India entered the highly competitive arena of emerging markets on the back of the 1990s economic reforms, it could position itself as a large profitable market like China albeit with a crucial difference: its liberal, moral-political Constitution. If Mao defined a rising China, the ‘India Story’ had Gandhi as its global mascot: a valuable moral currency of ‘soft power’ in the postcolonial world. This is what earned India the bragging rights, the claim to be the “world’s fastest growing, free-market democracy” year after year at Davos under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
Yet India’s democracy, its calling card in the world, is hollowing-out in plain sight. Consider the unabashed implementation of the hardline Hindutva agenda in Modi’s second term – from the revocation of the special status of Kashmir in August 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that excluded Muslims to the foundation of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
What characterises this moment of majoritarian muscle flexing is the heavy-handed suppression of democratic dissent (the crux of democracy) especially in university spaces, or how the act of protest itself has been criminalised by the State. This downward descent is reflected in India’s lowered global ranking on the 2019 Democracy Index. Classified as a “flawed democracy,” it slipped a further ten places due to “erosion of civil liberties” in the country.
Corroding ‘Brand India’
India’s turn to “illiberal democracy” has laid bare the ruptures inside Prime Minister Modi’s majoritarian politics. The very lifeblood of his political constituency is the activation of a muscular Hindu identity, an identity shaped in stark opposition to Nehruvian India in more ways than one. Forged as a battle against “pseudo-secularism”, “dynastic rule” or corruption, it seeks to dismantle the institutional framework that strived to create a secular, democratic nation. The point is not that Nehruvian India was devoid of flaws, but that it aspired to shape an inclusive nation that could home a multitude of differences.
In contrast, in Modi’s India, the space for containing differences has been constantly shrinking. This shift was best captured earlier this month on Gandhi’s birth anniversary on 2 October. While the Indian State was officially celebrating Gandhi, the loyal foot soldiers of Hindutva were celebrating Gandhi’s assassin with a hashtag #Godse_Zindabad on social media. Gandhi was exhibited in the world while his assassin was celebrated at home.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the realm of politics itself is imagined in unforgiving, oppositional terms of Hindus vs non-Hindus, Indic vs non-Indic, or nationalists vs anti-nationals. What emerges is an India that celebrates its muscular “action-oriented” political leaders who, in turn, continue to feed the majoritarian impulse. Put simply, the landscape of politics in Modi’s India is being constantly rearranged as a majoritarian Hindu homeland in all but name. This internal reconfiguration of India is at odds with its external projection as the torchbearer of liberal democracy.
The Covid twist
In the time of the coronavirus pandemic, the paradox has become even more jarring. Consider the irony that the cloak of democracy is what has opened possibilities for Brand India: to capitalise its democratic credentials to draw global capital – manufacturing and infrastructure investments – away from China. The past few months have seen a rise in anti-China sentiments as the country became associated with the deadly virus across the globe. For many emerging markets, this has opened an opportunity to divert capital flows to their own territories.
The pandemic has also become the pivot upon which the strategic alliance of democracies called the ‘Quad’ — comprising India, the US, Japan, and Australia — has taken shape to counter China’s influence. In this still-evolving geopolitical context, the invocation of “democracy” has almost become shorthand for nations or alliances that do not share political values with China.
Thus, in a strange twist, what has earned India a greater role in the post-pandemic world is the semblance of its old Nehruvian self, one that Modi’s India is bitterly opposed to.
For those who measure the worth of a brand purely in economic terms, the brand does its work as long as investments keep pouring in. Yet, this transactional view barely captures the logic of the brand – what truly brings the brand alive is the desire for affection and devotion, the emotional investment of its consumers beyond the realm of economy.
This logic is what shapes the life of Brand India – it is animated not just by the lure of capital investments but also the desire to be loved by its global consumers. It is this love, the longing for recognition that will afflict even if capital continues to court India’s illiberal democracy.
Ravinder Kaur is the author of “Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First-Century India” (Stanford University Press, 2020). Views are personal.