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T Thomas: Re-branding India

T Thomas  |  New Delhi 

India should join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to change the perception that it is a poor country.
In several of the major economies of the world there is an almost simultaneous change in political leadership. Tony Blair has announced his retirement after almost a decade of premiership. Jacques Chirac has just gone, and Vladimir Putin too has announced his intention to step down. George Bush will be gone in a year and a half. Even in Japan and Germany, there was a change of guard not long ago. In all the leading economies of the world, therefore, we have""or will soon have""a new set of leaders.
These new leaders confront economies that face major challenges""including that of an ageing population and the related question of immigration policy. Demographically, all of Europe and Japan will have an increasing proportion of their population who are past today's retirement age. They have to be supported by a diminishing proportion of the population that is in the working age group. The US has just agreed on major changes in its immigration policy; others will have to do likewise, even if they do not like it. Therefore, some fundamental transitions are under way.
In this scenario, India is in a fortunate position. Its economy is growing rapidly, it has a large, educated workforce whose skills can be used globally, it has strong institutions that function better than in most developing countries, and it has an enlightened political leadership at the national level that is able to grasp what is needed for the country to progress further. Indeed, recent political trends can be seen as encouraging developments that point to the emergence of a reasonably stable two-alliance system that is converging towards centrist positions, even as the system gains greater legitimacy as the voiceless gain voice.
For these and other reasons, it is more than likely that, barring some worldwide catastrophe, the Indian economy will continue to grow at over 7 per cent per annum. That will mean a doubling of GNP in 8-9 years, i.e. by 2016. With the falling rate of growth of the population, per capita incomes too will rise faster than before. India has already graduated out of the low-income category of countries, and moved into the category defined as "lower middle income", having just become a trillion-dollar economy. This seminal change will have many implications for policy-makers.
First, India's sphere of interest and influence will widen and go well beyond South Asia""and it is only to be expected that the Indian Prime Minister will confer with the leaders of the G-8 when they meet in Berlin in a fortnight's time. Secondly, Pakistan will become less of a distraction because the disparity in economic power (which ultimately determines the outcome of any conflict) is growing. Admittedly, low-level conflict and internal disturbances can be sources of instability in the region, but India is better equipped to cope with these now than before.
In this context, a confident India can play a much wider role than it has chosen to in the past. The first issue here is to address perceptions. The world already recognises that India is a powerhouse in services, but there are broader changes taking place as well, and not just in manufacturing. That is why the overall image of the country has to be changed. Some of the specific steps that could be taken to raise consciousness levels about these changes are as follows:
(i) India should cease to think of itself in terms of its age-old poverty, even though the problem is still with us. It is more important to talk of the changes taking place and the opportunities for growth and the creation of wealth through investment. The poor will always be with us, as indeed they are even in much wealthier countries in the west. One way of bringing about this change of perception in a dramatic fashion is to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This is seen as a rich countries' club, but it has recently extended an invitation to India to become a member. Becoming a part of the OECD will certainly change international perceptions about the country, but the government seems hesitant to take the plunge because it might mean de-emphasising earlier groupings like the non-aligned movement. This is where a change of mindset and of self-perception is required.
(ii) Play a much more active role in regional groupings like Saarc and Asean. In the latter, particularly, India's improved economic performance and growing trade and investment links with South-East Asia should make India a more desirable partner for the countries of the region. China may not be happy with this, but the smaller countries of the region (like Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore) will be.
(iii) India must scale up sharply its small external aid programme, especially to countries in the region like Nepal and Bhutan and to other neighbours like Afghanistan and Myanmar. Indeed, India should be looking much further afield as well""as China has done by offering $20 billion as aid to the African countries. India cannot and need not spend on that scale, but it should be seeking to expand its spheres of influence by reaching out to more countries and peoples.
(iv) The "Incredible India" campaign has worked well as a tourist effort, but we need a broader re-branding exercise for the country. Businessmen and the chambers of commerce got together with an "India Everywhere" campaign in Davos last year, but what the country needs is a more concerted and ambitious campaign of the kind that Britain carried out a couple of decades ago, to position itself as "Cool Britannia". India has the necessary marketing and public relations skills to be able to do this, and international consultants can be roped in as necessary.
We are fortunate in our national leadership. What it has not done, though, is to work out systematically how the new India that has emerged can best be projected on the international stage, and how this needs to be a national effort that goes beyond the activities and abilities of just the government. The crux of the matter is that our political leadership has to convince itself that India needs re-branding as a country. For, there is no other way to communicate to the world and its new leaders the energy levels and potential of our people.

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First Published: Fri, May 25 2007. 00:00 IST