OVER THE LAST few months, the excitement of India turning 75 has been both stimulating and, at times, excruciating. As always, it was left to the government to do things and they didn’t let us down by messing it up brilliantly. The government needs to understand the difference between event management and brand-building and, sadly, while the mandarins in the corridors of power understand political branding and, of course, personal branding, well, they continue to have no clue about nation branding.
If you saw the film that has been produced on the 75th anniversary, you will agree with me that it has been a monumental disaster: the kind one can’t even begin to imagine. The film is a terrible imitation of the legendary film that was created by Suresh Mullick: Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. In this film, everything is forced down your throat. Some eminently forgettable celebrities have replaced cultural and linguistic diversity. In fact, what the prime minister did with the democratisation of the Padma awards should have been done in this film. Celebrating the unknowns who made India special in these 75 years would have also stoked both interest and memorability. But sadly, what we’ve been given instead is a miserable medley with an even worse melody.
Now let’s come to India’s intrinsic soft power: more is achieved by conversations, even though laced with dissent or a contrarian view. We must stop being squeamish and intolerant of thoughts or words that may not find ‘official’ approval. Nations are built on the back of diversity, which includes a diversity of opinion. This is what we should be celebrating to tell the world of our multi-splendoured legacy, which goes beyond the 75 years of us being free as it were. This, too, has been ignored. The people who made modern India have also been neglected, except for those with a political background. So, celebrate Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose as you must, but also celebrate the thoughts and contributions of Rabindranath Tagore or, for that matter, CV Raman. It’s not as if India or the idea of India did NOT exist before 1947: many thoughts and deeds brought India to the table of freedom and that is what must ALSO be celebrated and that, too, across the world.
Nations are built on the back of diversity, which includes a diversity of opinion. This is what we should be celebrating to tell the world of our multi-splendoured legacy, which goes beyond the 75 years of us being free
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In the whole planning process of India@75, many organisations have done tremendous work when it comes to capturing the past and collating the dreams that Indians have for when they turn 100. The Confederation of Indian Industry as also some of our trade missions have done a strategic job when it comes to amplification, but again the breadth of what could have been achieved by someone intelligent in government has been ignored.
For decades now, Bollywood and some modern interpretations of Indian classical music have been the birthmarks of our soft power: this, too, needs to change. We have moved away from the celebration of letters and music to that of some uninspiring films and/or even unpalatable food festivals. This government’s allergy to papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, not to mention The Economist, has not helped. We need to engage with those who we believe are against us. Having formidable enemies in the media is not the solution. And we have been woefully inadequate in this area.
Many years ago, when the government set up Nehru Centres, they were meant to amplify soft power and ensure a connection with local citizens of the countries they were in. Today, these very centres are nothing but glorified banquet venues where they serve soggy samosas with pathetic wine. Even a talented writer like Amish Tripathi, who now heads the Nehru Centre in London, can’t do very much thanks to the stranglehold of some babus in the Ministry of External Affairs.
All this needs to change quickly. Not in this 75th year alone because that may not be possible, but certainly as we march to our 100th.
Imagination needs to replace governmental lethargy and tunnel vision. The mind truly needs to be unfettered from political sucking up or, for that matter, political patronage. And the celebration has to be universal, and not just on Kartavya Path. Because a nation’s branding requires more than name changes and laser shows. It needs its DNA to be amplified. The sooner, the better.