Manufacturing Indianness

Nation-Branding and Postcolonial Identity

by Ishita Sinha Roy (Author)
©2019 Textbook X, 536 Pages


Manufacturing Indianness takes an interdisciplinary approach in deconstructing nation-branding exercises in neoliberal India, utilizing the fetish as a critical device to demonstrate how postcolonial nation-building can become colonizing. Using interviews with media-makers and nation-branding professionals, postcolonial theory, media and cultural studies, psychoanalytic theories, political economy approaches, affective theory, cultural geography, and branding and marketing perspectives, Manufacturing Indianness provides an insightful and academically sophisticated investigation into how the Indian state and its corporate partners have merged cultural/ethnic nationalism (Hindutva) with neoliberalism to form the ultimate fetish of Brand India.

Table Of Contents

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It has been a long journey in finishing this book. Along the way there have been many personal losses and challenges, and I will always remain indebted to the anonymous reviewers, editors, and the publishing team at Peter Lang for their unwavering support and confidence through it all. A special shout out to Meagan Simpson for her heartfelt support and confidence in this project.

My parents have been my inspiration, and I only wish my father had lived to see the finished book. My mother, despite her failing health, has been a reservoir of love and encouragement as only a mother can be. My brother, sister-in-law, and nieces have been my strength, and I consider myself fortunate to have such a great family. To my friends in India and in the States, thank you for your dark humor, endless rib-nudging, and for circling the wagon when needed.

Special thanks to Gauri Bhasin and Lakshmi Mahey-Laroia. Without you stepping in, I would never had access to the amazing people who agreed to be interviewed for this project. I remain humbled at the amount of time and energy you invested without a second thought. Falguni Desai and Aarti Dua have been my sisters-in-crime and I would be lost without them and their unflagging friendship.

My sincere gratitude to Simon Anholt, Harinder Baweja, Tanuja Chandra, Rensil D’Silva, Ravi Dubey, Gerson da Cunha, Anurag Kanoria, Ajay Khanna, Bharatbala Ganapathy, Pritish Nandy, Rajdeep Sardesai, V. Sunil, and Anupam Yog. Not everyone’s words made it to these pages, but your insights and provocative questions are reflected in the twists and turns of this project.

To the best academic mentors I have had the fortune to be shaped by—Ron Gottesman, Beth Shube, Marita Sturken, Douglas Thomas, Sarah Banet-Weiser, Robert Scheer, Patricia Riley, Thomas Hollihan, and Geoffrey Cowan—I can never repay the debts. Radha Hegde—you have been an incredible life coach and intellectual guide and I benefited from your professional steering especially during my tenure process. Thank you doesn’t begin to plumb the depths of my appreciation for all you have done. Richard Cook and Terry Lahti have always modeled ethical leadership and a genuine commitment to the people they work with, and I am proud to call them mentors as well. Christine Biship ← ix | x → Smith and Brooks Haynie—gone too soon but never forgotten. You taught me that there are amazing people who do walk the walk.

My heartfelt gratitude to the colleagues and staff members at Allegheny College who have become my friends and extended family over the years. From opening up your homes and hearts, to steering me towards the right resources, and catching me when I tripped up, each one of you has been a guardian angel. The questions my students pose keep me on my toes, and I am as grateful for the challenge as I am for the coffee and Jell-O you bring when our meetings stretch long beyond office hours. Thank you for being the best teachers I could ask for. My Meadville community friends—you have helped me make this town my home and I feel privileged to be your neighbor. Thank you.

My academic foundation is in large part thanks to incredible teachers back in India. The discipline and patience they instilled in each of their students, and the pride they taught us to have in our work, are deeply embedded in our professional DNA. My earliest teachers taught me that learning was a life-long pursuit and made me fall in love with the world of books. I am forever grateful.

And for the caretakers from my childhood, the extended family members who remained on the margins as cooks, maids, and chauffeurs, in a “servant economy”—Chondro, Jaya, Manni, and Mahesh—this is the book you always said I would write one day. This one is for you.

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Text and Context

Postcolonial Media Studies and the Fetishization of the Neoliberal Nation

Long before it adopted the garb of the modernist nation, “India” first appeared on the Western world map as the fabled space of imperial desire. Imperialism, after all, is the spatial ideology par excellence. Predicated on the ability to fuse abstract spaces and concrete places into a political agenda, it is born (in the words of Edward Said) “[a]t the moment when a coincidence occurs between real control and power, the idea of what a given place was (could be, might become), and an actual place”

—Satish Deshpande,1993, p. 781

Sometimes when a word is born, a world is born with it. And “post-truth” may be one such word, symbolising the birth of a politics that returns to the primitive, the primordial and the irrational.

—Shiv Visvanathan, 2016a2

For us, image of the nation is more important than the image of the Government.

—Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Independence Day speech, 2016.3

In his piece from The Telegraph (U.K.), former South Asia Editor Dean Nelson (2013)4 raised the issue of the debate over Britain’s “postcolonial guilt”:

The problem is that Britons and Indians see the “shared history” differently. To this country [the U.K.], India is the world’s largest democracy, which we left behind on Independence Day in 1947; because of our historic relationship, India shares with us an independent judiciary, a free press, the English language, and our love of cricket. There’s a legacy of colonial architecture and Merchant Ivory scenes of sahibs and memsahibs of the Raj clinking sundowners on their bungalow verandahs.

[…] For many, the Anglo-Indian relationship is summed up in icons such as chicken tikka masala, now regarded by some as our national dish, a pint of Kingfisher, The Kumars at Number 42. And our diplomats take comfort in the fact that more than one million people in Britain are of Indian descent. (Nelson, 2013) ← 1 | 2 →

But, Nelson (2013) acknowledges that for Indians, this historical memory may be very different, recalled instead in terms of “humiliation: bloody massacres, mass arrests, the suppression of democratic political movements and the supplanting of its indigenous cultures to create a servile, anglicised elite.” Moreover, this dissonance in the remembering by the two nations often results in diplomatic tangles, as with the recent controversy over whether the United Kingdom should return the Kohinoor diamond to India. Historically, the British colonists acquired the diamond as part of an amendment to the Treaty of Lahore that Duleep Singh, the ten-year old heir to the Punjab throne, was made to sign in 1849, after the death of his father and the imprisonment of his mother. The young royal forfeited the diamond and his sovereignty under duress, and the Kohinoor literally became the jewel in the crown. Historian William Dalrymple presents the ethical problem at stake here: “If you ask anybody what should happen to Jewish art stolen by the Nazis, everyone would say of course they’ve got to be given back to their owners. And yet,” he puzzles, “we’ve come to not say the same thing about Indian loot taken hundreds of years earlier, also at the point of a gun. What is the moral distinction between stuff taken by force in colonial times?” (qtd. in Boissoneault, 2017, emphasis mine).5 Historian Anita Anand offers that even if the diamond isn’t returned, an ethical solution would be “for there to be a really clear sign by the [Tower of London] exhibit. People are taught this was a gift from India to Britain,” she explains, “I would like the correct history to be put by the diamond” (qtd. in Boissoneault, 2017). The matter is historically fraught though. In 2010, during a visit to the Indian state of Punjab, U.K.’s former Prime Minister David Cameron was asked by local journalists whether “Britain could begin to atone for its exploitation of India during the Raj” by returning the gem to India. Prompted probably by a consideration of other colonially acquired treasures (the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles, for instance), Cameron backed away from settling this historical score. “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty,” was his telling response (in Dalrymple & Anand, 2018, p. 277). While there are many British who feel that they shouldn’t be atoning for historical crimes from the past that happened before they were born, “[t]here are more than eight million people alive today who were at least 15 years old at the time of independence—and for many, the cruelties of the British Raj [British Indian Empire] are not ancient history but living memory” (Nelson, 2013).

Postcolonialism involves opening up history with this “living memory,” and confronting the past by bringing into the light what has been placed under erasure in celebratory accounts of Empire. Scottish historian William Dalrymple supports this idea that colonial atrocities under the British rule in India should be taught in English schools as much as Tudor history or the Jewish Holocaust. In his words, “Millions of people were killed, it [colonial rule] rested on a mountain of skulls, and people need to know that” (qtd. in Nelson, 2013).6 Raj chronicler Charles Allen espouses a different point of view, asking:

Why is the conquest of Mysore by the East India Company different from Haidar Ali’s conquest of Mysore, or the Marathas conquering the Rajput kingdoms, or the Sikhs conquering the Punjab from Afghan rule? It could be argued that in these cases the rule of Haidar Ali in Mysore, the Marathas in the former Rajput kingdoms and the Sikh rule in the Punjab was infinitely worse than the worst aspects of British rule in, say Robert Clive’s Bengal. So why is one imperialist bad and the other not? Historically, there is a great deal to be said for foreign intervention as opposed to internecine struggle, in that it invariably brings in new ideas, as for example the Roman invasion of Britain. (“The history of India,” 2013, emphasis mine)

Allen lists the alleged civilizing benefits of the British Empire that have “helped” former colonies—now postcolonial nations—and offers the example of contemporary India. “There’s the added irony that Macaulay’s contempt for Indian culture as expressed in his notorious ‘Minute on Education’, and his promotion of English as India’s common language has paid dividends in giving India a head start over China,” he pointedly states.7 ← 2 | 3 →

The trouble with this account, as Indian MP and well-known writer Shashi Tharoor (2017) refutes, quoting from the historical account of a Yorkshire-born American Unitarian minister, J. T. Sunderland (1929),8 is that when the East India Company entered India, “Nearly every kind of manufacture or product known to the civilized world—nearly every kind of creation of man’s brain and hand, existing anywhere, and prized either for its utility or beauty—had long been produced in India. India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or any other in Asia.” India’s architectural and engineering wonders were already well-known worldwide, and it was the best-known manufacturer of ships, with well-established trade routes that “extended to all known civilized countries” (Sunderland qtd. in Tharoor, 2017, p. 2).9 Tharoor details how the East India Company, once a trading front between Britain and the kingdoms of India, began to extend military services to warring kingdoms, gradually moving in and placing its officials in the Indian princely Courts, while conquering and taking over “independent or autonomous states.” Within a few decades of such intervention and expansion, the Company had “annexed a quarter of a million square miles of territory from Indian rulers” by the end of the eighteenth century. Until the infamous First War of Independence (also called the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857) that prompted the Crown to remove the East India Company from India, and directly administer British India,

[…] the East India Company presided over the destinies of more than 200 million people, determining their economic, social and political life, reshaping society and education, introducing railways and financing the inauguration of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. It was a startling and unrivalled example of what, in a alter era, Marxists in the 1970s grimly foretold for the world: rule of, by and for a multinational corporation. (Tharoor, 2017, p. 4, emphasis mine)

The civilizing mission that was used to justify British colonialism benefitted the colonizer and not the colonized. Tharoor lays out how India became Britain’s “cash cow,” with taxes flowing into the imperial treasury at the annual rate of £18,000,000 between 1765 and 1815 alone (2017, p. 5). By the close of the nineteenth century, India had become Britain’s largest wealth-generator—the jewel in the crown. The Raj (British-ruled India) was also forced to become the biggest importer of British goods, and “the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants and soldiers all at India’s own expense. Indians literally paid for their own oppression” (Tharoor, 2017, p. 20, emphasis mine). Just as telling is the unacknowledged tally of how many Indians died servicing British wars that were funded by Indian taxes, procured by driving the entire colony’s agricultural sector into penury. From multiple wars fought for the British cause overseas in China, Ethiopia, Malaya, Malta, Egypt, Sudan, Burma, East Africa, Somaliland, and Tibet, to World War II, the British had a “standing army” by the end of the nineteenth century, two-thirds of which was funded by Indian taxes. Every British soldier who arrived in India was “paid, equipped and fed and eventually pensioned by the Government of India, not of Britain” (Tharoor, 2017, p. 23, emphasis mine).

Ferdinand Mount, a descendant of a well-known Company general, succinctly captured the essence of the project of the British Empire—“it was all the simple logic of capitalism,” he admitted:

“The British empire in India was the creation of merchants and it was still at heart a commercial enterprise, which had to operate at profit and respond to the ups and downs of the market. Behind the epaulettes and the jingle of harness, the levees and the balls at Government House, lay the hard calculus of the City of London.” (qtd. in Tharoor, 2017, p. 26)

And, while defenders of the British Empire like to claim that it was imperial rule that created India’s political cohesion out of the warring principalities and kingdoms in the subcontinent, Tharoor remonstrates that prior to the British, great Indian royal dynasties had expanded their kingdoms with the goal to unify the diverse people across the land. It is this vision that informed the great Hindu epics—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, “which reflect an “idea of India” that twentieth-century nationalists ← 3 | 4 → would have recognized. The epics,” Tharoor (2017) maintains, “have acted as strong, yet sophisticated, threads of Indian culture that have woven together tribes, languages, and peoples across the sub-continent, uniting them in their celebration of the same larger-than-life heroes and heroines, whose stories were told in dozens of translations and variations, but always in the same spirit and meaning” (pp. 37–8).

Pavan Varma, author of Being Indian: Inside the Real India (2005),10 concedes that the Raj is very much woven into the cultural fabric of contemporary India, so that one of the biggest tasks for postcolonial India is recovering its own indigenous heritage that was placed under erasure by the cultural colonization accompanying imperial rule. Accordingly, any project to build India’s cultural and national identity, as separate and distinct from its colonial inheritance, is a difficult one. As Varma observes, “[t]he Union flag comes down, the Tricolour [Indian flag] goes up but when a country rules for a hundred years so much of that past sails into the future” (qtd. in Nelson, 2013, parenthetical insertion mine).

Postcolonial scholar Partha Chatterjee (2010)11 reflects on how we Indians “are being told that it is a sign of our growing self-confidence as a nation that we can at last acknowledge, without shame or guilt, the good the British did for us.” But, as he sees it, this in itself is suspect, and the more that “popular democracy deepens in India, the more its elites yearn for a system in which enlightened gentlemen could decide, with paternal authority, what was good for the masses.” Not surprisingly, the thought of “an Oxford graduate of twenty-two going out to rule the destiny of a hundred thousand peasants in an Indian district can stir up many noble thoughts in middle-class Indian hearts today” (p. 163). In other words, imperial desires can crop up in the new form of neoliberal ambition.12

There has been this ongoing back-and-forth exchange in the news media on both sides of the pond—whether British colonialism was a brutal and exploitative system and should be apologized for, or whether its legacy should be acknowledged with gratitude by a former colony like India, that is now an emerging power “thanks” to the “gifts” of imperialism such as the English language, transportation and communication infrastructures, and a unified judicial and administrative system. Then there is another matter that deserves attention: if both the post-imperial British responses and the post-independence Indian responses reproduced here are examples of postcolonial articulations, can the entire world claim to be equally postcolonial, “without any historical reference to the asymmetries that govern the relationship between the worlds of the ex-colonizers and the ex-colonized?” If we take this route, we may end up overlooking the new geopolitical formations that are reproducing imperial relations in the global context (Radhakrishnan, 1993, p. 750).13 It is significant, postcolonial literary critic R. Radhakrishnan (1993) cautions, that in this phase of neoliberal capitalist expansion,

The entire world has been de-territorialized in anticipation of a democratic-capitalist takeover by the Free World. In short, the joyous counter-memory of the First World has succeeded in putting to rest the troubling and ongoing histories of Colonialism, Neo-Colonialism, and Imperialism. Within the indeterminate spatiality of the “post-,” the First World finds no problem or contradiction, experiences no sense of shame or guilt, while it insists on a dominant role for itself in projects of identity reconstruction the world over. Unwilling to accept a non-leader-like role, much less exclusion from Third World projects, the First World mandates a seamless methodological universalism to legitimate its centrality the world over. Clearly, this strategy is full of “betrayals within,” in particular, the duplicitous take on nationalism and a protectionist attitude to American and/or western identity. (Radhakrishnan, 1993, pp. 750–51)

Accordingly, if the “post” in “postcolonialism” entails, as postcolonial scholar Ella Shohat (1992) suggests, “both going beyond anti-colonial nationalist theory as well as a movement beyond a specific point in history, that of colonialism and Third World nationalist struggle,” (p. 101),14 then we must keep an eye on where we are headed. The new millennial postcolonialism in its neoliberal formulation, compels us as critics to attend to what literary critic Mary Louise Pratt (1992) has called contact zones, or “the social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination—like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths ← 4 | 5 → as they are lived out across the globe today” (p. 4).15 And, if indeed the old forms of colonialism have been replaced by what political philosophers Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri (2000) call “Empire”—a “space of imperial sovereignty,” that is “both everywhere and nowhere” (p. 190),16 then the “contact zones” in this phase of globalization are where heterogeneous peoples and cultures within the nation confront each other on ideological grounds centered on identity-politics, while in the broader context, nations battle for global ascendancy along economic and cultural lines.

Postcolonial historian Arif Dirlik (2002) rightly observes that “[t]he colonialism of the nation-state” has become more evident “as the formerly colonized have sought to establish the hegemony of the nation, and the national idea, over widely disparate populations.” While ethnic conflict is not a problem limited to non-European states, “it continues to assume a sharper expression there.” Furthermore, the “[n]ational colonization of local populations need not be restricted to those that can be classified as ‘ethnic,’” but extends to “the relationship between the national and the local, as is visible these days,” and is evident too “in the proliferating assertions of local cultures against national or global hegemony” (Dirlik, 2002, p. 442).17

Accompanying this is the fetishization of specific master-terms that were first associated with imperialism, such as “civilization,” “progress,” and “development,” and have re-emerged as a colonizing lexicon that is still used to reaffirm hegemonic Euroamerican norms as the global standard. Sociologist Martha E. Gimenez (2002)18 pointedly suggests, therefore, that:

“globalization” is simply the reified, fetishized way of talking about the effects of capitalist development without having to talk about capitalism itself and without having to acknowledge, therefore, the capitalist material basis of the phenomena lumped under the label. While trendy and ubiquitous, “globalization” is an inherently conservative way of thinking about current social processes. (pp. 85–86)

Gimenez advocates “recognizing that capitalism has always been a world historical phenomenon unfolding in the dialectical relations among nation-states whose particularity was from the very beginning an effect and a precondition of its universality” (p. 87, emphases mine). Situating the labor and practices of nation-building and nation-branding within the affective and political economy of neoliberalism, while investigating how these, in turn, have informed new forms of ethno-nationalisms, is useful in critically deconstructing the “profit-and market-oriented” production and distribution of culture (Durham & Kellner, 2006, p. xxvii).19 More importantly,

[…] “political economy” does not merely pertain solely to economics, but to the relations between the economic, political, technological, and cultural dimensions of social reality. The structure of political economy links culture to its political and economic context and opens up cultural studies to history and politics. It refers to a field of contestation and antagonism and not an inert structure […] (Durham & Kellner, 2006, p. xxvii)

Postcolonial historian Arif Dirlik (2002) attests to the fact that all along, within postcolonial studies, there have been “Third World voices dissatisfied with the containment of the colonial experience within the categories of capitalism, demanding a hearing for the psychological and cultural dimensions of colonialism to which racism was of fundamental significance” (p. 431). However, Dirlik also recognizes that:

Globalization returns us to a condition where once again it is capitalism, rather than colonialism, that appears as the major problem. The avoidance of this question is a serious problem of contemporary postcolonial criticism which, focused on past legacies, is largely oblivious to its own conditions of existence and its relationship to contemporary configurations of power. It also ignores the ways in which its interpretation of the past may serve to promote or, at the least, play into the hands of a globalized capitalism. (2002, p. 440)

Even as the ideology of nationalism emerged from the ashes of European colonialism, the idea of the postcolonial nation is associated with “a heightened sense of loss, however elusive may be the ‘self’ ← 5 | 6 → that has been lost, and of powerful imaginings: basing its claims on history.” This has driven “the search for an authentic identity, against the colonial legacy, that is autochthonous both in origin and the fulfillment of its historical destiny.” It is also the reason why “the search for national and ethnic identity against colonialism or memories of colonialism plays a powerful part in contemporary politics and culture” (Dirlik, 2002, p. 444). In keeping with some of the opening perspectives in this chapter, Dirlik maintains that colonialism, violent and unjust as it may have been, has “created cultural bonds between the colonizer and the colonized, which have shaped irrevocably the cultural identities of both and which survive decolonization” (2002, p. 445). In the contemporary landscape of international relations, however, these bonds have become pronouncedly antagonistic as former colonial powers face-off against ex-colonies in the battle for national ascendancy. There is thus, a need for “historicizing colonialism,” Dirlik urges, so we do not “erase the history of the present, and the part colonialism has played in shaping both its structures and its identities” (Dirlik, 2002, p. 440).

This book uses India, as a specific case, to critically investigate the deliberate and strategic manufacturing of a fetishized and commodified postcolonial national identity, though the practices of nation-branding, in order to “fix” the country’s cultural uniqueness, and establish its distinctiveness from, and rank among other nations. Defined for centuries by its former British rulers as a possession—the Jewel in the Crown—postcolonial India, having seen seventy plus years of independence, is more deliberately fashioning its own brand of Indianness as an economic and cultural asset that can accrue equity both internally and externally. As an emerging economy, India is poised to overtake China (Mourdoukoutas, 2018),20 but is confronted with internal divisiveness along the lines of religion, race/ethnicity, and caste. The rise of Hindu neo-nationalism (Hindutva) as the hegemonic force in shaping the idea of postcolonial India, alongside the economic liberalization of India since the late 1990s, has prompted Hindutva to align itself with the nation’s neoliberal goals, thus contributing to a flourishing political economy of market-driven fundamentalism—or what media studies scholar Arvind Rajagopal has termed “Retail Hindutva” (2001a, p. 66)21. Rajagopal explains how:

Apart from ideological indoctrination, Hindu identity began to be retailed, by means of discrete commodified images, such as stickers, buttons, and armbands, and the exhortation of discrete acts of support from token participation at rallies to kar seva.22 Increasingly, particular kinds of consumption were used to inculcate a different relationship between individuals and the polity, signaled by the introduction of nationwide television programming in the mid-1980s, and to define a new style of citizenship commensurate with this shift. (2001a, p. 61)

Rajagopal writes about how the immense popularity of Hindu epics, like Mahabharata and the Ramayana, broadcast as television serials, transformed what had been secular media entertainment into a quasi-religious past-time. By resurrecting Hindu mythology as the origin of a centuries-old, made-in-India cultural identity that affirmed the uniqueness and supremacy of Indian (read: Hindu) values and culture, the televised epics joined other “retail Hindu commodities” that “opened Hindu nationalism up to a wide audience.” In the process. “[a]s political propaganda mimicked the language of advertising, and the social landscape itself became a metaphor for the market, the categories of voter and consumer increasingly began to merge into each other” (Rajagopal, 2001a, pp. 67−68).

The Political Fetish and Modi-fying India

FirstPost reporter Sandip Roy (2014)23 details how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the informal brand ambassador for Hindutva (Hindu-based cultural nationalism), has spurred the sale of all types of products bearing his name or likeness. From a NaMo (short for Narendra Modi) store in a high-end Ahmedabad mall that sells Modi-related fashionwear and other merchandise, to kurtas modeled after the Prime Minister’s own, to plush Modi Lion toys, this “cottage industry of memorabilia springing up around Modi, both in mithai [sweet] shops with Modi pedas [type of sweetmeat] and in ← 6 | 7 → upscale malls,” Roy (2014) observes, “is really a comment on the commodification of our politics where the man and his message can be merchandised. And the sales figures are regarded as a mark of his political salability” (parentheses and emphases mine).

Advertising guru Santosh Desai explains that the success of commodifying Brand India lies in the fact that “it allows for the translation of a large, abstract concept into an ownable and easy-to-consume confection.” If the old state-sponsored method of establishing a public presence for political figures meant “giant statues in public parks,” or “endless government schemes” and streets named after political “royalty” and their VIP friends, then Modi, according to Roy, has moved to a “more market-savvy, people-friendly” kind of branding. The commodification of Modi may have its lighter side, but there is also a “deadly” earnestness to it: “Brand Modi becomes an act of reflection with the multiplying effect of a hall of mirrors. As Modi stands at the rally, beaming, waving to the crowd, the jubilant crowd gazes back at him draped in NaMo paraphernalia—Modi masks, Modi t-shirts, Modi-kurtas” (Roy, 2014).24 With the neoliberal turn in politics, where image is everything, political brands are symbolically proliferated through commodity fetish-signs. They stand for very specific ideological values, so that in the case of Modi, citizens who self-fetishize by wearing or using NaMo paraphernalia, are showing their support for Hindutva, economic patriotism, and for the Prime Minister (PM), while also masking the “lack” of a coherent Indianness, apart from Modi-nomics translated as India Inc.

According to anthropologist William Pietz (1985),25 every fetish “is a singular articulated identification […] unifying events, places, things, and people, and then returning them to their separate spheres (temporal occurrence, terrestrial space, social being, and personal existence)” (p. 13). In other words, “the fetish […] acts as a material space gathering an otherwise unconnected multiplicity into the unity of its enduring singularity […]” (1985, p. 15). Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan (2017)26 comments on the “production and consumption of Mr. Modi in public life,” as a political fetish,27 adding that:

The analysis then focuses on image-building, on how Mr. Modi has become the collective Rorschach of an era. Brand Modi projected Mr. Modi as an act of conquest, an attempt by a rank outsider to conquer and domesticate Lutyens’ Delhi. The historical trope was clear. It was the second conquest of Delhi, an overthrow of the Congress as a Mughal regime, with Mr. Modi playing [the Hindu Rajput king] Rana Pratap. It was also in brand terms, an act of erasure. (Visvanathan, 2017, parentheses and emphasis mine)

Not only is Brand Modi the symbolic face of a new India, proving that old dynastic orders such as the Gandhi family and the Congress Party could be overthrown, but as a political fetish, he also represents the promise of a class reversal in neoliberal India, evidenced by the rags-to-riches story of his rise to fame from his humble beginnings as a tea-stall urchin. He reflects the “success” story of “Vibrant Gujarat,” and the promise of building India’s GDP through the “Make in India” initiative. He embodies a Hindutva-based neoliberal nationalism, visually reinforced by his Party’s official color, saffron, and the lotus insignia. Modi’s successful effort at globalizing Indian traditions by advocating an International Yoga Day that was unanimously backed by the United Nations General Assembly, also earned him credibility among his followers who see him as the best brand ambassador for the country. All of these associations with Modi as the political fetish are transferred, in turn, to the nation-brand of India Inc. As one fetish-sign (Modi) substitutes for another (the nation-brand), and the reifaction of national identity accompanies its rarefication.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek (1989)28 reminds us that the Lacanian notion of the “Real” is an “empty place” (p. 135), since the “Real” cannot be inscribed.29 What can be inscribed though, as Žižek points out, is the “impossibility itself, we can locate its place; a traumatic place which causes a series of failures” (Žižek, 1989, p. 172). This, I suggest, is the site of the fetish—a place where object identity is substituted in the place of a traumatic loss of subject identity. Following through with Lacan’s position, Žižek (1989) maintains that if the subject is an “answer of the Real,” the subject itself becomes a void, an emptiness, a refusal to be inscribed (p. 173). In the realm of the “symbolic” however, identity is ← 7 | 8 → possible because each element “takes the place of the lack in the other, embodies what is lacking in the other” (p. 172, emphasis mine). Identity thus becomes a positive affirmation of a negation or lack. This is the operation of the fetish in the discursive space of the postcolonial Indian imaginary. The political fetish of Modi, for example, is a substitute for a lack (authentic pre-colonial cultural identity) that, in turn, is also constituted by other signs (the Taj Mahal, yoga, Indian food, the subaltern, etc.) to cover that lack. Thus, the trauma of the absence of an original uncontaminated Indianness is covered over by constructing a presence out of absence. Each fetish sign belongs in a chain of substitutions where there is an equivalence of meaning established between these circulating fetish signs. In the process, we are left with the logic of what Žižek calls, the “negation of the negation” (emphasis mine). In his words,

Since the double-negation implies that the negation of the negation must incorporate the positive (erasing the positive, after all, creates the negative), Žižek formulates the potential for new possibilities in this double negation movement, “which opens the very place where every positive identity can be situated” (1989, p. 177). It is in the antagonism between how Indian identity has been pre-reconstituted (first by British colonizers, and now through dominant Euroamerican discursive formations), and how it is being re-constructed (in postcolonial narratives), that the “secret” of subject-ing through fetish-signs is thus contained.

The careful construction of the political fetish has a price tag, though. The Modi government had spent an enormous sum of nearly INR 3,755 crore [approx. USD 545 million] on its publicity efforts in just three and half years, as of October 2017, according to a statement from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in response to a “Right to Information” (RTI) petition filed by social activist Ramveer Tanwar. The figure covers only television, Internet and other electronic media ads and does not reflect expenditures on outdoor and print advertisements. A previous RTI revealed that the Modi administration had spent nearly INR 8.5 crore [approx.1.2 million USD] crore on newspaper advertisements for the Prime Minister’s monthly radio address “Mann Ki Baat,” as of July 2015 (IANS, 2017).30 Thus, even as Brand Modi seems to be a “labor of love”—for Hindutva and India Inc.—and a “singular articulated identification […] unifying events, places, things, and people” (Pietz, 1985, p. 15), what the fetishistic surface of the brand (produced by ads, slogans, social media posts/apps, propaganda, and Modi-gear) deflects citizens’ gaze away from is the amount of money that has been invested in creating the Modi brand. Instead, it focuses attention on how much money the brand makes for individual entrepreneurs and the nation, because of the “Modi touch.”

Bipin Chauhan tailors Modi’s attire and is well-known for fashioning Modi’s trademark kurtas and jackets. Chauhan’s twenty two Jade Blue stores have a dedicated section labeled “Modi kurtas and jackets” and the items are flying off the shelves. “NaMo” by Katha is another brand that only sells Modi jackets through its retail fronts (Roy, 2017).31 In both cases, the profitable sale of fashion items associated with the celebrity that Modi embodies, showcases how promoting the NaMo brand can be lucrative for everyone, by association. Similarly, Hriday Deka, owner of Deka Sweets in the state of Assam, was euphoric that he got the PM’s advice on how to market his sweetmeats, when the latter reached out to him, via video conference, to see how “the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, launched in 2015 to benefit small-scale traders, has helped the beneficiaries across the country.” In the young man’s own words: ← 8 | 9 →

In the lead-up to the 2019 elections, the official NaMo app, it is planned, will allow the Prime Minister to connect directly with each of the twenty-two crore beneficiaries of the various government schemes. He has already started interacting with farmers, self-help groups, housewives, who were the beneficiaries of a cooking gas scheme, and with the residents of recently-electrified villages. “PM Modi wants to send across a very clear message. These are the forgotten men and women of India. He is trying to communicate with each of them,” said an official source (“PM Narendra Modi plans,” 2018, July 24).33 The impression that such connectivity can bring the “magical” touch of vikas (progress) via NaMo as the political fetish into the lives of ordinary citizens, and even subalterns, reinforces the publicized myth that Modi’s success will rub off on the citizens he interacts with.

Just before voters went to the polls in 2014, an opposition leader put down Modi declaring that, “Someone rising from a tea shop can never have a national perspective.” It prompted a group of BJP supporters to design and print T-shirts supporting Modi’s candidacy, as part of what they termed a “Modi-fying India” campaign. While the front of the T-shirts showed an image of Modi, with the words, “I support Narendra Modi for PM,” the back of the T-shirts carried the image of a steaming cup of tea, and a challenge in Hindi: “Ek chaiwala PM kyu nahi ban sakta? Jisne Gujarat badla hain who Hindustan kyu nahi badal sakta? Modi mera PM” (Why can’t a tea vendor become the PM? Why can’t the man who has transformed the state of Gujarat also transform Hindustan? Modi is my PM). The campaigners planned to distribute about ten lakh T-shirts to tea vendors across the country. They also urged other BJP supporters to print and distribute the T-shirts in various parts of the country.

Since the safety of women has been a highly politicized issue following the global media coverage of the Nirbhaya rape case (see Ch. 2 and 6 for details), the same group of Modi supporters also promised the release of a low-cost pepper spray for women. The ad announced that “Namo Power” self-defense pepper spray was coming soon. It showed a photograph of Modi, arm raised, in campaign pose. The ad copy encouraged women to protect themselves from “attackers, rapists, kidnappers” by using the spray, and carried the following quote from Modi: “If women feel unsafe, we shouldn’t call ourselves MARD [men]” (Bhattacharya, 2013, capitals in the original).34 The machismo inherent in Modi’s grandiose public statements is also an indicator of the hardline masculinist stance that he and his Party have advocated as a corrective to enhance India’s global position and make it an emerging power to contend with. In the run-up to the 2014 election, Modi got into a heated exchange with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav while defending his ability to expand the economic success he had achieved as its Chief Minister in the state of Gujarat, to transforming the nation as a whole. Modi retaliated with: “Netaji [this leader] has said that Modi does not have what it takes to make another Gujarat out of UP [Uttar Pradesh]. Do you know what making another Gujarat requires? […] It requires a chappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest)” (emphasis and square parentheses mine). Yet, two years later, when he was being measured for his formal convocation robes for a university function, it turned out the PM’s chest only measured fifty inches (Jain, 2016).35 Shiv Visvanathan explains how postcolonial India was easily seduced by such shows of masculine bravado—having suffered “the angst of third-worldness and secondariness,” it “suddenly felt a muscular confidence about itself.” Modi catered to the deep-seated desires of a middle-class that longed to be respected as global Indians—able to become NRIs if they wished, and see India occupy a seat in the Security Council and earn its rightful place in the nuclear club. Mr. Modi created what Visvanathan describes as “a foreign policy for internal consumption which was different from a foreign policy for external consumption.” The homespun version of this “was a no-nonsense theory of Pakistan, no tolerance idea of Nepal, a muscular sense of Indian cavorting with the ← 9 | 10 → biggest and best. It was a view of power for those who lived through stereotypes about it.” Secondary to this vision was the more grounded idea of India as a site for “experiments in governance and a place for investment.” Modi’s immense popularity across socio-economic classes was because he “projected a new role for India in history, and Indians loved it” (Visvanathan, 2017).

In terms of communication strategy in creating Brand India through Brand Modi, Visvanathan surmises that “Brand Modi needed gossip, needed folklore, stories to spread,” all of which make him “a larger than life character in oral and digital life.” By his skillful rhetorical skills and adeptness in using social media, he has created “a semiotic self” which can “simultaneously evoke tradition and digital modernity, without creating any sense of contradiction. […].” His appeal lies in the fact that he “enacts this performance in every speech by creating a prime ministership made-easy, giving everyone a sense of the accessibility of power, both through body signals and language. […]” (Visvanathan, 2017).

Arguably, the political fetish of Modi is therefore a space of double-negation since it depends on the commodified political signs that cater to the consumer-citizens’ desires rather than on real governance. It also signals another space of lack which is that of “authentic” Indianness. If postcolonial Indians look to Modi to grasp a sense of who they are, and Modi reflects back what they would like to see, then the nation-brand (Modi/India) establishes the primacy of image politics, so that:

Amanda Hess (2018),36 writing for The New York Times, regards branding as “a process of humanization.” She is, of course, talking about putting a human face on impersonal corporations or commodities, or transforming ideas into slogans that seem to address us individually—Nike’s “Just Do It,” is an example. But once we personify institutions or commodities and give them a “soul” through branding, Hess fears that “our focus shifts away from things like labor practices and supply chains and onto issues of narrative and identity.” The idea of implanting a “soul” into something as abstract and impersonal as neoliberal “development” is explored as well by political scientist Nitasha Kaul (2017),37 who analyzes Modi’s coining of the word “Rurban,” formed by combining Rural and Urban, for his “Rurban Mission” in Dongargad, Chattisgarh. Lauding a 104-year-old village woman from the area who had sold her goats to construct a toilet in her home, Modi hailed her as a “symbol of new development.” This model of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) development, Kaul expands, attempts to “combine the soul of the village with the facilities of the city” (p. 538). In Modi’s words, “Aaatma hogi gaon ki, aur suvidha hogi shahar” (qtd. in Kaul, 2017, p. 538). Translated this means that the “soul” or spirit of such development will reside in the village, but the efficiency or benefits it brings will raise the village lifestyle to that of the city.

The branding of the nation, state apparatuses, public leaders, and other aspects of political life, also distracts consumer-citizens from attending to the exploitative and colonizing aspects of corporatized nationalism, by turning their attention to a variation of what communications scholar Brooke Erin Duffy (2015) has termed “aspirational labor.”38 In discussing gendered work in the digital culture industries, Duffy writes that,

Aspirational labourers pursue creative activities that hold the promise of social and economic capital; yet the reward system for these aspirants is highly uneven. Indeed, while a select few may realize their professional goals—namely to get paid doing what they love—this labour ideology obscures problematic constructions of gender and intersectionalities with class. (Duffy, 2015, p. 443, emphases in original) ← 10 | 11 →

Reworking Duffy’s formulation within the Indian neoliberal political context, I propose that the work of branding oneself as a Hindutva ideologue, or a Modi supporter, is a particular kind of “aspirational labor” performed in the name of love for one’s country, culture, and religion, where these three ideological formations have been conflated within neo-nationalism. And, while consumer-citizens are not always economically compensated for the work of supporting the branded nation and its signs, they all stand to benefit from the social and patriotic capital of being hailed as “true” Indians—a move that blocks any critique of the exclusions resulting from this narrow definition of national identity, since any challenge to equating Hindutva with Indianness is automatically labeled as unpatriotic. As Kaul (2017) elucidates, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gained its power by making Hindutva the core premise in defining national identity, and using this to pit the contesting ideas of “Bharat” versus “India” against each other:

The Hindutva version of India is “Bharat” (literally, the Hindi word for India), which stands not just for a country that is India, but also connotes an idyll of pure Hindutva morality where there is no Westernization or its associated ills. For instance, the RSS39 chief Mohan Bhagwat has said “Rapes do not happen in Bharat, they happen in India” (NDTV 2013). At various times, Bharat is rural India, historically pure India, or an imaginary version of India that Hindus (and Indians, who are in this view, Hindus above all their other identities) must work to create. However, with the neoliberal nationalist discourse, this bifurcation has also come to signify the idea of a richer metropolitan urban India versus the poorer rural India. And there are debates that refer to this latter way of connoting urban rich/rural poor divide, but this imaginary of nation is generally used so as to include the moral dimension and degree of Westernization/indigenous purity. The meanings shift in relation to the framing, as columnist Pattanaik (2013) writes (Mid-Day, 29 December 2013): “And so, depending on the context, India becomes liberal to feudal homophobic patriarchal Bharat, or India becomes Western stooges to traditional, rooted and grounded Bharat. Depending on the context, government policies seem to favour either India or Bharat. Depending on the context, India has to learn from Bharat or Bharat has to learn from India.” (Kaul, 2017, p. 540, emphases mine)

In the end, both “Bharat” and “India”, Kaul reminds us, “are constructed for particular political purposes” (2017, p. 540).40 What Manufacturing Indianness therefore examines is how the building blocks of this new corporatized and branded Indianness facilitate a reworking of history and cultural memory, both of which have tremendous implications in a post-fact era.41 Delivering the 2018 Jehangir Nicholson Memorial Lecture in Mumbai, India, political historian Sunil Khilnani addressed “the danger of mythologising facts, which prevents people from debating about them.” According to Khilnani, “History has only been glorified. It is not appreciated when it is ‘complicated’ by asking questions. If you can de-mythologise, you can re-humanise” (qtd. in Deodhar, 2018). To learn who we are, he suggests, requires the type of critical inquiry that can challenge “widely held beliefs.”

Discussing the contradictions within Indian historical narratives, he cites the example of Emperor Ashoka who is often hailed as an exemplar of non-violence, but who, it should not be forgotten, also had a deeply violent past, waging wars and ruthlessly slaughtering millions, before he turned to Buddhism. Similarly, in addressing how Indian history is fond of transforming strong and capable female rulers/warriors into goddesses, Khilnani observes about Rani Padmini, whose story inspired Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s controversial film Padmaavat (2017), that:

“People are fearful when figures such as her are portrayed as human beings with emotions. Vasundhara Raje said that ‘Her myth is our self-esteem’, which seems to suggest that myth is the only way we know ourselves to be worthwhile. […] We need to move away from such essentialism and romanticisation” […]. (Qtd. in Deodhar, 2018, emphasis mine)

The challenge in constructing a postcolonial idea of India, therefore, lies in being critically on guard and refraining from a self-Orientalization whereby history is mythologized by turning historical facts into ideological fetishes. In fetishizing specific historical events and personalities, but discouraging ← 11 | 12 → different perspectives about the same historical evidence, we allow the political manipulation of facts and move into the domain of a post-history, or a history that is based upon post-facts. There are three reasons for this, Khilnani posits. The first is economic, since following liberalization, “there was an urge to dispose off [sic] history, which was considered baggage or bunk. It was not seen as having economic value.” The second factor concerns “the substitution of memory for fact, whereby people give up on history.” The final issue is “weaponisation, visible in instances […] where historical events [form] the basis to make present demands,” according to Khilnani (in Deodhar, 2018, parentheses mine). Examining such cultural motivations and transformations through a postcolonial psychoanalytic lens is helpful because it prompts, as Lacanian postcolonial critic Derek Hook (2008) argues, a

Getting at the root of “the contents and dynamics of unconscious desire” in nationalist agendas is critical for this project, especially considering the recent political flare-ups over territorial issues involving India and its close neighbors Pakistan and China, and incidents of externally sponsored terrorism that have caused the sub-continent to become more vigilant about tightening its borders, even though free market trade demands the exact opposite.43 In turn, the following chapters examine how Indianness as a culturally, economically, and politically invested fetish-sign is being used variously—as an instrument of soft power, a weapon of exclusion and terror, and a symbolic asset within the intertwined discourses of nation-building and nation-branding, to shape the increasingly colonizing imaginings of a Hindutva-based neo-nationalism.

The Fetish as a Critical Device

David Bennett (2005)44 refers to how Freud identified the crowning achievement of psychoanalytic research as being “his discovery of the ‘economic’ model of the mind, which explained the psyche as an ‘economy’ of libidinal energy that could be pleasurably ‘spent’ or discharged in sexual activity, productively invested in work, or unproductively dammed up in the unconscious by neurosis.” In both The Interpretation of Dreams and his case history of “Dora,” Bennett informs us, “Freud had developed an elaborate monetary analogy for psychical processes, explaining repressed sexual desire as a form of unused ‘capital’, or sleeping asset, which requires an ‘entrepreneur’ to invest it profitably […].” Freud’s clinical and theoretical writings are filled with “monetary metaphors and concepts, including descriptions of psychoanalysis itself as, variously, a form of gold mining, alchemy, burglary, or safe-picking,” all derived from “a long tradition of pseudo-scientific medical writing,” from the 18th century, in which sexual energy and sexual fluids were described as “a form of liquid currency that could be prudently saved or pleasurably spent, productively channeled into business enterprise or recklessly squandered in erotic activity” (Bennett, p. 6). Ernest Dichter (1907–91), regarded as the “father of motivational research,” tapped into this Freudian wealth by making libidinal associations between commodity fetishes such as soap, and the consumer’s relationship with them.45 Psychoanalysis therefore, understands the political economy of desire that underlies the affective economy of exercises such as nation-branding, where the fetish signs of national identity are the cultural and emotional currency as well as debt of the neoliberal nation.

The etymological origins of the term “fetish,” refer back to several fragmented meanings. The Latin root facticius refers to “made by art,” and the Portuguese word feitço means “artificial, or skillfully contrived.” The notion of the sign taking the place of substance is also reflected in words from the other ← 12 | 13 → Romance languages derived from the same Latin root. In Spanish, afeitar means “to make up, adorn, embellish,” and the French feint implies what is “feigned, simulated.”46 All the roots of “fetish” thus imply a presencing through subterfuge; a deferral of what is absent through the process of endless substitution, and the creation of a hyper-reality that conceals the anxiety of a missing origin.


X, 536
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 536 pp.

Biographical notes

Ishita Sinha Roy (Author)

Ishita Sinha Roy is Associate Professor in Media Studies at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. Her research interests cover postcolonial media studies, cultural studies, branding and marketing, digital media and storytelling, and new media technologies. Currently she is working on her next project on the colonization of bodies and doll culture.


Title: Manufacturing Indianness
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548 pages