The 'New India' Brand and Its Contradictions

These days, India is in the world’s spotlight as never before. A Newsweek cover story on the New India (2007), and a spate of books, such as Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (2005) and Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India…

These days, India is in the world’s spotlight as never before. A Newsweek cover story on the New India (2007), and a spate of books, such as Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (2005) and Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (2007), have glamorized India as an emergent economic power. Recent bilateral trade and nuclear agreements between India and the United States also have directed the world’s attention to India. The media, most economists, and a majority of global politicians, citing India’s growth rate of about 8 percent and a burgeoning consumer economy (results of economic liberalization), have declared a new era: the era of the New India. This economic moment has become a brand that is being marketed with great enthusiasm both in India and abroad and is being supported by myriad advertising slogans.

However, by celebrating the New India brand, corporate and state interests also minimize the grim realities – especially the poverty and inequities – that confront the vast majority of India’s people. The Indian government is less inclined, for instance, to report that structural inequities at the national level are at critical levels: India is ranked 126th on the United Nations Human Development Index. Life expectancy at birth is a mere 65; rural poverty is over 30 percent; and female literacy is barely at 50 percent. Troubling are the various inequities based on caste, class and gender that remain embedded in the social system; a small minority continues to amass huge wealth; and a rising middle class is offered the seductive promise of consumer goods, even as its foothold on the class ladder becomes ever more treacherous as a result of increasing costs of food, housing and other essentials. Such contradictions of the New India seldom appear in the brand image.

I have been reflecting on and writing about the New India brand and its contradictions for some time, and I spent my last sabbatical (2006-07) writing and revising a bookmanuscript, Tracing the New Indian Subject: Reading Culture in a Neoliberal Age. A portion of my sabbatical also was spent in India, traveling to various cities, meeting academics and activists, and conducting research at libraries and public policy organizations. The India that I see and try to capture in this book is very different from the media’s somewhat onesided image of a new economic power.

My work focuses on particular aspects of this “new,” liberalized India: the ways in which citizenship and “the citizen” are formulated. The rituals and forms of citizenship, broadly defined, are sites where the texts of nation, diaspora, religion, capital and consumerism collide and coalesce. Such sites are critical to creating, negotiating and challenging ideas of the New India.

Since many of the contesting notions and rituals regarding citizenship are played out in the realm of public culture, I analyze an array of texts that constitute public culture in the New India (fiction, film, political advertisements, and so forth). In these texts, I examine four constructions of the new Indian citizen/subject.

The first one, constructed primarily by the corporate media and the political parties is the consumer subject. In this incarnation, the citizen is constructed both as an individual who has the choice to consume within the terms of the freemarket economy and as a national subject, heir to a glorious cultural tradition. This citizen is thus connected to the global economy, but also rooted in the idea of the national.

The second formation is the cosmopolitan subject, represented as a potentially liberatory figure who resists the designation of the subject-as-consumer by rooting his or her identity in a humanist tradition marked by collaboration, accommodation and convergence. This subject, in direct opposition to nativist calls by fundamentalists and nationalists, ideally transcends the narrow limitations of nation, religion and space and is captured most effectively in the work of one of India’s foremost writers, Amitav Ghosh.

A particularly contested terrain of struggle in the New India has been the designation of the so-called “new” Indian woman, who is represented as a confluence of many “virtues”: she is liberated, independent and tapped into the world of finance capital, but she is also able to preserve her idealized, feminine “Indian” self. My examination of this gendered subject, however, is not in the realm of this hegemonic construction; instead, I look at attempts by three feminist diasporic filmmakers to position a subject who, in their view, can forge a new gendered identity on her own terms.

Finally, any study of the New India has to take into account the multiple resistance movements that are emerging to fight for a democratic and egalitarian nation. These battles are being waged by ordinary farmers and workers who, on the margins of the “New India,” are attempting to define citizenship and subjectivity through direct political action. Prominent among these citizens are the many urban food vendors who are being forced out of their livelihoods by a combination of state and corporate pressures. I examine the contours of one such struggle in the city of Kolkata (formerly, Calcutta) and highlight both the struggles and the achievements of this resistant subject.

Throughout, I attempt to reveal the complexities of all four subject formations, highlighting the contradictory ways in which they function within these cultural narratives. My claims are that these narratives partially reflect postcolonial anxiety about the Indian state and the “new” Indian citizen, and that these texts often are caught up in positions that neither conform to, nor are completely resistant to, a defining model of the New India. Hopefully my work will diffuse some of the glare that distorts views of contemporary India, offering a more nuanced perspective on emerging subject positions.

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