Illusion of a makeover

Sudhirendar Sharma
That the populist image-building force has developed into an instrument of coercion isn’t the concern of the large majority.
Francis Fukuyama had professed that the post-war evolution of mankind will spur the ideological universalization of liberal democracy. In saying so, the author of The End of History and the Last Man had assumed that the world of globalization will subsume spiritual values and national identities. However, in her innovative analysis Ravinder Kaur, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, questions this assumption and argues instead that identity politics is being capitalized as a brand in recent times to gain greater economic value. India’s recent mega-publicity campaigns aimed at transforming the nation-state into an attractive investment destination has been one such utopian vision of a twenty-first century nation building. It is built on the optimistic illusion that ‘good times’ are just around the corner, strengthened by the attention-grabbing spectacles that keep its consumers constantly hooked.

Brand New Nation

Brand New Nation is a thoughtful enquiry into the capitalist project that has transformed the state into an authority that holds the power to brand, legislate and rearrange the nation as a market-ready investment enclosure. The populist nature of this new image building, driven by necessary infusion of global capital, has led to the fragmentation of a plural society into a polarized mass of individuals who are ready to compromise in the pursuit of self-interest. That the populist image-building force has developed into an instrument of coercion isn’t the concern of the large majority. These seeming contradictions have come to characterize the image makeover.
It is indeed a seductively repackaged idea of image building wherein ancient cultures and modern ambitions have been made to co-exist in a democratic set-up that has majoritarian autocracy at the top. Not many seem to be complaining though as capitalist growth and hyper-nationalism has created social enclosures that have come to characterize the brand new nation. In an engaging multi-layered narrative, Kaur unravels how seemingly contradictory positions cohere in rearranging the so-called liberal political order. Where else can one find identity economy and identity politics hold joint currency in creating a populist notion of good times that harbours seeds of sectarian violence triggered by an exclusionary economic growth agenda?
Much has been written in recent times on how India has expressed its ambitions of becoming a global power, however, the market logic of reconfiguring the nation-state as a cultural hub of profitable business enterprise of a specific kind provides fresh insights on the subject. Brand New Nation bridges the past and the present in proposing that the re-imagination of the country is rooted in its past, albeit packaged in a tech-friendly software utopia embraced by the younger generation. “Put simply, the Brand is manufactured and marketed on a well-calibrated play of attention and diversion, of secrecy and excessive publicity that creates its own truth and public secrets that people know not to know”. However, culturally troublesome fact in the new brand is the political push for the pre-Islamic imagery of the country – tactically evicting minorities and the others (the Muslims, the Dalits) from the image frame. It is here that the new image holds the potential to develop serious social fissures.
Can the country hold on to its new image beyond the current political dispensation that nurtures it? Can the brand new nation remain afloat in the permanent anticipation of good times? Can the state of optimism be sustained under falling economic growth? Unless we begin to make sense of the return of ethnonationalism with a majoritarian impulse, argues Kaur, understanding the limitations of branding the nation-state will remain incomprehensible. Outwardly attractive it may seem, but the unabashed illiberal majoritarian politics taking over the liberal democracy has yet to stand the test of time in addressing the pressing economic challenges.
Brand New Nation makes interesting and absorbing reading but leaves the reader to draw his/her inferences on the transition that the nation-state is passing through. While the imagery of a brand new nation offers an optimistic sales pitch, the consequences of the socio-political experimentation that conveniently categorizes those who doubt or raise troubling questions have yet to be fully assessed. Whether it strengthens the political leadership or will lead to its weakening will determine the endurance of the new image. All said, a history is in the making with the promise of a new tryst with destiny. Kaur deserves appreciation for taking the reader on a tour of the changing trajectory of re-building a nation-state.
Brand New Nation
by Ravinder Kaur
Stanford University Press, USA
Extent: 346, Price: Rs. 1,524.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)
First published in The Hindu, issue dated Jan 10, 2021.