May 16, 2001


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Rajeev Srinivasan

Contenders, yes; good marketers, no

Part I: The man who knew marketing

I used to wonder, and I do hope NASSCOM and Dewang's spirit will be sporting enough to forgive me for this, whether Dewang simply made up the NASSCOM numbers about the Indian IT industry's output! I am a little sceptical about industry aggregate sales figures. I used to deal with market researchers -- the industry pundit companies in the US -- who would call me up and ask me about the number of units of sales of the things I had responsibility for.

Since this was sensitive competitive information, I was not inclined to give them the true picture; doubtless my counterparts at other firms felt the same. Therefore the numbers they finally put down in their expensive reports were quite suspect -- although perhaps by the law of averages they were reasonably accurate.

In any case, we have become so accustomed to NASSCOM figures that they might as well be the gospel truth. And how Dewang helped sell those numbers! He was absolutely tireless. He seemed to have mastered the yogic art of being in several places at once: for you would have him selling Hyderabad as an IT destination, expanding on his vision of broadband video-based email that would be the 'killer application' for illiterate immigrants to the big cities to communicate with their wives, lobbying an industry CEO in the US, seemingly simultaneously. He was virtually ubiquitous.

There is another subtle factor in the background: for the first time that we can remember, Indians are being lauded as among the world's best in some area of endeavour. It is difficult to over-emphasize the impact this has had on the Indian psyche. Long accustomed to being also-rans, especially in sports, it has been exhilarating for Indians to see themselves as the best in one of the most advanced areas of human activity. This opens up immense possibilities. I am reminded of the famous Marlon Brando line in A Streetcar named Desire: "I could've been a contender." All of a sudden, Indians are contenders.

Perhaps coincidentally, the era of IT success has also seen Indian success in other areas such as English fiction, haute couture and beauty contests. Furthermore, Indians are now at the top in many MNCs: Indra Nooyi as CEO of Pepsi is only the latest in a long list of Indians running major firms. It is now widely accepted that the IISc, IIMs and IITs are among the world's top schools: an IIM Bangalore student recently received a pay packet of $225,000 from a US investment bank. And the five IITs taken together are arguably the single best university on the planet.

Yet we are ignorant of the power of marketing, and the value of branding. Where Indians have done this consciously, as in the superb marketing of Rajasthan and Kerala as tourist destinations, we have been able to create valuable brands. I happened to see, in a grocery store in India, beautifully (and expensively) packaged tea in lovely carved wooden containers, an offering from a company named Nathamulls. So we are beginning to understand the value of marketing.

But I am appalled to hear people talk casually of upgrading a whole lot of engineering colleges to the 'IIT' label -- a guaranteed way of destroying the value of the brand, part of its appeal being the scarcity of supply. Note how doctors in the US have maintained their brand and not coincidentally their earning capacity by restricting supply, while engineers have signally failed to do so.

I happened to hear Gurcharan Das, former CEO of Hindustan Lever and author of India Unbound, speak at a gathering in Santa Clara. I like this man: he believes this is India's century. He spoke about the second green revolution using hybrid seeds; also about how India has the lowest cost in the world in 13 agricultural commodities. He feels India will become a major power in agricultural and bio-related industries in the next few years.

Das also believes there are a million reformers in India (compare this to V S Naipaul's million mutinies), and that there is a can-do attitude in India, which will lead to 50 per cent of the people in the western half of the country becoming middle-class shortly. He is encouraged by the slowing of population growth and the increase in literacy rates as shown in the latest census. Such a refreshing change from the leftist Cassandras railing Canute-like against change!

Yes, we have to continue to market ourselves unremittingly and relentlessly. Years of marketing as a responsible nuclear and space power and a counterweight to the appalling Chinese are finally paying off in a tacit acceptance of India's primacy in the Indian Ocean region, especially as oil flows through the sea-lanes therein become critical choke-points for East Asia.

But we continue to flounder in positioning. An example is the naivete shown by the government in the recommendation to include vedic astrology in university syllabi. Astrology, it could easily have been predicted (no pun intended), would be a lightning rod for the pent-up frustrations of the 'secular', 'progressive' idiots who see their sinecures under threat. How much simpler it would have been to include 'Ancient and Classical Indian Astronomy' in curricula!

The fact of the matter is that, unbeknownst to most people, Indians were the greatest astronomers of the ancient world. It appears that Indian astronomers actually observed a peculiar celestial event in 3102 BCE which marked the beginning of the Kali Yuga -- see my earlier column Millennium Fuss. Based on the precession of the earth's axis, we can calculate several other observational references in various texts to precise dates like 2950 BCE, 1660 BCE, 1300 BCE -- see Subhash Kak, The Astronomical Code of the RgVeda (Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers).

Thus it would have been a less contentious matter to introduce Indian astronomy into the curricula; if there were elements of astrology, then so be it -- for, after all, astronomy and astrology were not separate until recently. Indeed, Johannes Kepler, perhaps the father of European astronomy, cast an astrological chart for an Austrian nobleman in 1586: this is in archives of the University of California, Santa Cruz (see Hinduism Today, June 1999).

Instead, a poor marketing tactic has given left-wingers a chance to pontificate on the 'attack' on rationality in India. In response, the right question to ask the so-called scientists of India is: "Exactly what earth-shaking discovery or invention have you come up with in the last 50 years of Marxist-dominated 'rational' science?"

The answer, as we all know, is "absolutely nothing". The role of science in India is simple: rote following of what others have discovered. Any recent advances in Indian science, the work of C V Raman, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Srinivasa Ramanujan, et al, came during imperial times; none at all in the Nehruvian Stalinist era. I was amused to see a book mentioned in the Motilal Banarsidas catalogue: Astrology and the Hoax of Scientific Temper. Recent Indian science has been a complete fraud; why it is any better than astrology is beyond me.

In this context, Rajan P sent me an address at North Gujarat University, delivered by Makarand Paranjpe of the English department at JNU. Astonishingly, here is an actual real-life JNU person writing about the need for 'Decolonizing Indian Studies: Attaining Swaraj'. He mentions, approvingly, that Bhartrihari's Vakyapadiya, Panini's Asthadhyayi, and Bharata's Natyashastra have been introduced into the curriculum at JNU. Amazing that such a thing could ever happen at that last bastion of neo-imperialist Marxist obscurantism, that white elephant devoted to Fabian Socialist-Stalinist ideas that have been thrown in the trash everywhere else.

Says Paranjpe: "The point is that the day you begin to take your own tradition seriously, you begin to get a strength, a grounding, a sense of belonging, a purpose, and an identity... you experience liberation, decolonization... [And] if you are serious about critiquing Indian traditions you first have to read them, you first have to engage with them. This, a lot of us are unable or unwilling to do. We are used to condemnation and repudiation, often mouthing the very words of those who tried systematically to destroy this civilization." Amen to that.

Alas, my glee was short-lived. I also read an article by Bharat Gupt of Delhi University where he says JNU has decided to not open a School of Indology and Classical Studies, even though it teaches many European languages, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, and is about to start a Greek Studies centre and begin teaching Hebrew. How absurdly and appropriately Nehruvian -- study, and respect, everything except that which is Indic. And how utterly predictable.

Clearly, we have a long way to go before we become good marketers of our own strengths and capabilities. Dewang Mehta was one of the few who really understood this task of marketing India in the large sense. We shall miss him.

On a final note, reader Shiva pointed out the rather mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, and now Dewang Mehta. The most visible architects of, respectively, India's nuclear programme, space programme, and IT activities. Could it be that each was assassinated, as a deliberate attempt to hurt India's interests? Who knows? Or maybe it was karoshi, death from overwork.

Requiescat in pace, Dewang Mehta! You were a mensch.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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