Peoplewatcher: The Battering “Brand India” is Taking Right Now

2020 was a year of global solidarity thanks to Corona. We were bonded in isolation, pain and confusion.

2021 has been a story of recovery. That would be in most countries except India.

Within India, there are two major story arcs that color the imagination. One is of utter horror and disappointment in the government in general, Modi in particular, and the other is a series of rebuttals against anything that might dent the great leader’s righteous armor.

There are other stories of denial and idiocy that are quintessentially Indian like — Villagers jump into river in UP’s Barabanki to escape Covid vaccination but these are just sub-flavors of the dysfunctionality that is India’s current reality. Maskless covidiocy and crowding are the norm even now.

While other countries seem to be moving forward, India is still deeply wedged in Covid’s stranglehold

All the World’s a Stage and India is a Bottom Feeder

What we have seen and experienced and therefore believe, are our own stories to hold.

Significant damage has been done to how the world now sees India and it’s hard to walk this back. While the US has demonstrated how radically a Covid-ravaged nation can be turned around in just 100 days by dedicated, competent leadership — India is unlikely to see a similar 180° flip in the short term.

Early 2020 saw horrific predictions of how bad Indian infection and death stats would be and there was public fear and government action then. But a series of unfortunate events, unforgivable decisions and utter lack of planning have made 2021 India the poster child of human-horror porn.

The Indian Passport and persona didn’t travel well at any time in history.

It ranks 85th on the passport index and there are a measly 58 countries you can enter without a visa. That’s less than a third of the countries on the planet. Most functional countries invariably look at Indians as an “immigration risk.” People fleeing to be anything, anywhere out of their home. Not Syria or Rohingya-Myanmar bad maybe, but bad.

While the cliched associations about India used to be snake charmers and fakirs, we’d crawled our way up the perceptual ladder by also being known as customer service reps with questionable accents, diligent coders and the rare, raging success story of CEOs or actors of repute.

What April-May 2021 have successfully done is pull India way down the social perception ladder of how the world sees the nation — regardless of whose fault it is that bodies are rotting in the Ganga.

Getting the Job Done vs. Impression Management

Ideally, it’s critical to get the job done — but optics matter too. How India is perceived will affect exports and earning sectors like tourism. The stock markets might be rallying for the rich but the masses are suffering. Lockdowns cause a stifled economy, loss of daily wages and being driven further into debt to barely survive for millions of Indians. Lifting lockdowns results in greater loss of life giving us few viable options other than to vaccinate 1.3 billion people. Twice.

Since we haven’t had bankable data on infections, deaths, tests or economic suffering of citizens, it’s unlikely we will ever have quantitative data on perceptions of India among international audiences (2021.) The social and economic impact of such perceptions will be significant and impact India for years before inching back to muted, conditional respect for select people and scenarios. Irreparable perceptual damage has been done in addition to the real carnage we’ve seen and experienced.

What Cisco Teaches us About the Power of Perception

Back in 2008 we studied why Enterprise customers worshipped Cisco. This isn’t a target that’s typically effusive about brands but they’d go into raptures about Cisco the way Apple loyalists gush about their treasures.

Cisco, in the Enterprise view, could do no wrong and it was in their minds what Dhoni as Thalai is to CSK fans. Even if there was a problem in a product or service provided by Cisco, they were more inclined to blame external factors or be incredibly forgiving of Cisco.

What gives an entity that kind of power boils down to four factors — Reliability, Innovation, Expertise and Customer Service. Not just “managing” but delivering on the four, which Cisco did. The converse of this theory is that when you don’t deliver on these four factors or are perceived poorly on these fronts, your whole image suffers and you’re seen as an object deserving of condescending sympathy, hate or ridicule.

While New Zealand may be the sole country with Cisco-like sheen in the Covid context, India will stand out as a deeply shamed and scarred victim. (Many Indians don’t see this as so.) The idea here is to not disrespect the seriousness of Covid or the human tragedies associated with it by comparing it to a brand.

Countries do have a brand archetype and aura around them. There is a way in which they are perceived. A crisis of this magnitude or the presence of a leader like Trump alters our perceptions of a nation (negatively.)

1. Reliability: That you can be relied upon to do what you’re expected to do…

The internationally broadcast images of mass cremations, bodies in the open, people gasping for oxygen will all be markers of a staggering lack of Reliability in the system and those in charge.

Despite government efforts to control the surge in the first wave through lockdown and relief efforts, any success then will be seen as a fluke now. What’s happening now will be seen as more in line with what’s expected for a country way too populated and far too poor for its own good with a corrupt, inept, self-serving power at the helm. Again, these are perceptions (how the world sees India) and regardless of what the truth might be about say — cigarettes, God or anything else, what matters is what people believe.

When the PM declared in Jan 2021 that “India’s success will help the world,” the idea was that our own had already taken care of and we were moving on with life. Helping others, even. That would have been fantastic and lent some credibility to the idea of Atmanirbhar Bharat or self-reliant India. That ship sailed into an ocean of statements that don’t age well.

When some people complained on social media about the lack of availability of oxygen and were subject to government harassment, the Supreme Court (SC) had to intervene and explain to the government like a parent would to an errant child that punishing those in need wasn’t kosher.

Right now we also have the dubious distinction of festering an epidemic within a pandemic with multi-colored fungi that have added to the lethality of Covid. That it’s triggered by a lack of hygiene and is spread primarily by tainted oxygen cylinders that what’s supposed to be life-saving is life-taking also add to the idea of a languishing brand.

If India were a Japanese car brand, it will absolutely not get respectable scores for Reliability or Self-reliance. For context, while rating a Toyota car, a 4 on 5 is a failure. Then again, they’re Japanese.

2. Innovation: The ability to think ahead, use technology to conquer the future…

In Jan 2021, 92 countries had approached India to place vaccine orders. Just three months later, India needed help from the world.

As the “vaccine factory of the world” India was seen more as a drone factory rather than a pioneer in pharmaceutical prowess. Even before the destructive plunge-force of Apr-May 2021, there have always been doubts about technology, products or services (even people) exported from India. This despite the reality that export quality rules ensure that what’s shipped out is far better than what Indians in India consume. DQR (Durability, Quality, Reliability) which are considered basic attributes to do business, aren’t naturally associated with stuff that comes out of India.

The initial diplomacy of shipping vaccines through Vaccine Maitri while well-intended, now just looks like India didn’t have her act together. There was a sudden reneging on commitments while finding we were woefully short of vaccines, an embarrassing surge on our hands and no credible plan to get the 1.3 billion vaccinated.

Covishield/Astrazeneca which could have helped India’s “Innovation” creds has the dubious distinction of being associated with “blood clots,” “countries that bought it opting not to use it,” and a “czar who escaped to England.” Covaxin still does not have WHO clearance for travel. Both vaccines don’t have the faith inside or outside the nation that Pfizer, Moderna or J&J have . There are however faithful Indian patriots who would prefer to remain unvaccinated than let foreign help aid them.

We also still have no quick plan of getting children vaccinated. It’s widely believed that when the third wave comes, it will come for kids. When kids aren’t vaccinated, they are likely to lose another year of school/college. A broad consensus was that this was a year lost where most kids learned nothing and parents just lost money. The poorest among them opted not to enroll them for online school because 20–40k during these times was simply not affordable. While the rest of the world is throwing off their masks and eating in restaurants, India will likely see a repeat of 2020 in social fear, debilitating uncertainty and economic chains.

3. Expert: To be a thought and action leader…

The oxygen and vaccine saga take India down several notches on this front. The Farmer protests, Kumbh Mela and election rallies during a pandemic do nothing to generate a sense of expertise or control. International coverage about Covid invariably veers off to these past stories to establish that the government was never interested in serving the people. That it pandered to political expediency over taking the tough calls to safeguard health. One such story showed a parallel between India’s inability to improve air quality (which has also been successfully killing Indians prematurely) to the inept handling of the Covid crisis.

If all of these stories, the pictures of dead bodies and videos of gasping, wailing Indians didn’t do enough damage, there is also the delightful saga of Central Vista. The project is controversial but the PM seems to have made an Unbreakable Vow to himself to see it through. That crores will be spent on a vanity project while the nation self-destructs is how it will be seen regardless of how disconnected any of it might be. Optics always matter. Way more so in politics. The archetype associated with a leader who doesn’t change course when his team is hurting and presses on with his own plans — is the dictator archetype.

IPL (Indian Premier League) is another significant body blow to India’s international image even if this is only known to cricketing nations. Had the country been able to pull it off, there may have been some credit for achieving safe passage even while the outsides were burning. While it would still have been seen as a thoughtless indulgence — it wouldn’t be incontrovertible evidence of systemic failure that it is now. Starting the IPL and possibly abandoning it midway is just another “promise to give vaccine and take it back” type reneging that establishes a lack of control and expertise.

Statements by various ministers in power and more recently Baba Ramdev do nothing to disprove the idea that India is steeped in anti-science and cow-dung speckled superstition. Not precisely the definition or characterization of experts in the context of a health crisis.

While there may be a rare voice of gaunt, professorial reason in a Shailaja Teacher from Kerala, that’s not the broader Indian pitch. We don’t have a Dr.Fauci who spoke loud, consistent and clear — even while fighting the pall of Trumpian ineptitude.

There is an urgent, global call to prioritize medical science and lives over politics to deal with this multi-faceted, gnarly crisis and we don’t have a single trustworthy medical voice. Just a gazillion Whatsapp forwards of questionable intent and faux-science. That’s in addition to extreme politicization and petty bickering from most of our leaders. The citizens follow suit.

4. Customer Service: To be there when things go wrong and help resolve problems in a satisfactory manner…

The premature declaration of victory and lack of preparation for a second surge experts said would come — make this seem like an avoidable tragedy to many inside the nation. For those abroad — the scary surge, the shallow graves in the Ganges, the Reuters and Getty images of mass cremation sites and stories of iron melting in crematoriums reinforce their worst fears about India as a festering sewer of disease, poverty and rape.

Indians in India and abroad are aware of the degree to which people had to fend for themselves. The Bangalore Apartments’ Federation (BAF) literally issued guidelines for apartments to set up their own Covid Care facilities. These are private entities. The idea was to not rely on the government or the system regardless of what happened.

Doctors and hospitals have long been telling relatives of patients to procure oxygen (BYOO), Remdesivir and other drugs. Whatsapp groups and social media enclaves of citizens in India and abroad have been mass coordinating efforts to get beds, ventilators, oxygen, concentrators and other essentials to people who need it. Often losing people in the process because ordinary citizens were NEVER engineered to be frontline medical experts who could save lives.

Indian doctors and hospitals have been recommending and peddling Plasma therapy and Remdesivir long after they were declared ineffective based on clinical trials. It’s only recently that ICMR removed these two from the treatment protocol (though belief in them is still strong among people.) Most of India has operated like latchkey kids without parental oversight, trying to figure how not to die and it’s unclear where the service aspect of the elected government truly is. The PM Cares Fund has a few 1000 whopping crores to its name and no transparency by design — which also doesn’t make for fantastic service or trust associations.

Vaccination, pegged as the one Sanjeevani to save the nation, seemed to start well before it crashed and burned. The Cowin platform was a demonstrable embarrassment that made rudimentary systems from the 90s look good. From doling it out free in the initial days to now pricing it at roughly Rs.1400 a jab (when internationally it’s largely free and the cost to government doesn’t exceed Rs.210) is an act of price-gouging that’s similar to what ambulance drivers, oxygen cylinder traders and drug blackmarketeers have been doing. A government that had its customer service game in play would have ensured it never devolved to this degree of chaos, thievery and mortality.

Overreach and abuse by cops during a lockdown has been another pan-Indian story. It seems to span the spectrum from mild “beating of motorists” to forcing a youth to drink urine to another being beaten to death. There are rampant stories of delivery service men being harassed and their bikes being impounded. This despite delivery being classified as “essential services” which are exempt from the lockdown. This problem has existed since March 2020.

The granularity with which the international world will study and care about these aspects is negligible. That’s the thing with perceptions, they have near zero burden to be fair or based on factual research. They’re based on feelings and where most of the world will net out, won’t be in India’s favor. They won’t care what all happened and why. What they will largely see is a system that failed its people. And a people that are hard to reign in, in a crisis. That’s not untrue.

Not surprising yes, but it’s cynical to have not hoped for better.

When I planned to return to India after a decade plus stint in the US, a German colleague messaged me and said, “Seriously? Back to that shit swamp?! You mean voluntarily?”

It wasn’t just rose-tinted, Swades glasses that made me return. I knew what I was trading off for what and I have no regrets. I even appreciated his German honesty. But right now, to watch other countries move forward while it’s clear that India going to be stuck in a 2020 Covid trishanku for the long haul, it does hurt. For many of us, we simply cannot get back to our lives for a while longer and even when we do, there’s no guarantee there won’t be another variant (that the authorities will tell you should absolutely NOT be called the Indian variant) that will find a new demographic to decimate.

The second surge may recede by end July according to math models — but without vaccinating most of the population, sending kids back to school, getting small businesses and services back on their feet — the country is going to drag its war-embittered body, in full public view, while other countries and economies seem to bounce back to business as usual. Like Israel and Palestine.

We can argue about “what the truth is” — that matters little to how the world will perceive India

None of what’s said above is a defense or attack of India’s leaders or systems. It’s unfair to compare some of the states to others and that’s not the intent. There is also a Centre-State tussle that contributed to the breakdown that killed 3 lakh Indians and counting.

There are those who believe that Modi should never be voted into power and those who believe there is no option but him. The point here isn’t to establish which group has the answer. It’s likely they both don’t.

This is a qualitative audit of how Brand India has been critically wounded at a time when the establishment was promoting itself as an emerging, future-ready, self-reliant leader of the region.

All the aura around Digital India, Make in India and Atmanirbhar India were always suspect given the masses who remained untouched by any semblance of progress or dignity. But as we remain an outcast nation today facing travel bans and such — the reality is that we have become the benchmark for where not to be in a Covid or crisis context.

In addition to there being no “all hands on deck” Covid strategy that works for the country, the Centre is currently pressuring all major social media companies to help them silence and stalk citizens, assuming they survive Covid.

Even with all that’s transpired in the past two months, with no concrete plan to deal with a potential third wave or the impossible task of vaccinating an ocean of misinformed people — some still hold out hope that the establishment (or God) will do right by the people.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” ~ Oscar Wilde

::Nima:: is the founder of Berylitics — a culture, consumer, brand insights boutique. She studies people, countries and brands and understands how perceptions work. She’s aware countries are not corporations. If you have a policy argument with what’s written above, you’re probably looking for Centre for Policy Research. She has been interviewing people across India and abroad about their Covid experiences since March 2020.

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