DAN Interviews

Chaos, capital, connectedness: the India story at 70

15 Aug 2017

On the occasion of India’s 70th Independence Day, Narayan Devanathan is BrandWagon’s cover story writer as he provides a handy guide to brand marketers on how to tap the unique phenomenon that is the Indian consumer. Read on for some inimitably ‘desi’ insights.

At any intersection in practically any city in urban India, you are guaranteed a sensory overload — the likes of which you are unlikely to see in any other country. Extraordinary hand-eye-foot coordination combines with a penchant for confidently ignoring blind spots and turning a deaf ear to practiced tongues lashing out cusses questioning your ancestry. Hand-drawn carts and rickshaws temporarily become two-dimensional and squeeze through impossible gaps. Bikers and auto-rickshaws expand in size in their drivers’ minds and straddle two or three lanes, stationed perpendicular to the flow of traffic to hurtle into the most opportune lane of the road.

The cars mimic their drivers’ notion of public-private space when not in their vehicles, leaving a gargantuan millimetre or two between each other. And yet, the traffic keeps moving. In this unyielding, unrelenting desire to surge forward, progress is attained. Everybody does move ahead, albeit at different paces, to differing distances. This perhaps is the most telling metaphor for modern-day India. What drives this? What keeps the wheels
moving? Here are a few possibilities to explain the fuel and the lubricant to India’s forward movement:

1. Opportunity as capital
There is a not-so-unique but highly Indian trait that has been in vogue since independence: the ability of most Indians to not follow rules and break queues. In the early post-independence decades, a sense of potential deprivation was behind this. In a state-controlled environment where everything was doled out a governmental window (literally and figuratively), if you couldn’t somehow make your way to the head of the queue, you would most likely be left empty-handed. And so you jumped the queue, whether you were a regular person or a VIP.

In the last couple of decades, since liberalisation, the single most common thread of commentary about India has been the explosion of opportunity here. The mobile phone, sometimes more than one in the hands of practically every Indian, is a symbol of the availability of this opportunity to everybody. In its 2017 avatar, the smartphone has become the symbol of entitlement of that opportunity, with the likes of Vivo, Oppo and the rest of the Chinese brigade reinforcing the idea. And so we jump the queue because we feel we are entitled to get to and grab the opportunity as much as the next person, whether we are regular people or VIPs.

I see this not so much as the democratisation of opportunity as the idea of opportunity as capital having becoming firmly entrenched in the Indian mindset: “Mauka mera haq hai aur main apne haq ko chheen ke loonga doosre se pehle.” (Opportunity is my right and I will snatch my right before another gets to it.) And it leads to the next clue in at least describing, if not explaining, India today.

2. Choice as an expectation
Today, small town India shops in a big way for international fashion brands online as much as metro India, if not more. Not having the choice of brick-and-mortar stores and malls in their vicinity, youth in towns and villages are helping the e-tailing market in India, especially for gadgets and fashion portals. One brand that recognised this early on and symbolises this brilliantly is Brylcreem, a brand of hair gel currently owned by Unilever. The idea of choice in styling your hair was democratised first by Brylcreem in India, showing off the progressively stylish side to people across rural and urban geographies. Today, choice as an expectation has spawned real hope for football, hockey, tennis, and even a home-grown sport such as kabaddi, where cricket once ruled (and still does to a large extent) a unipolar world of sports.

3. Doing your own thing versus seeking security
There’s a bubble in India right now. But considering the makers of bubble wrap decided to do away with bubbles in the wrap sometimes back, someone’s got to create bubbles. The thing though is, nobody looks like they are about to pop this bubble. I’m talking about the decidedly bubbly atmosphere around entrepreneurship in practically every sphere of life. India’s leading financial newspapers have a dedicated page daily to cover the start- up economy.

And not so long ago, the number one trait driving India was safety. We didn’t know what tomorrow would bring or not, so we saved. We saved ourselves from risk, we saved our money for a rainy day, and we stashed away any aspirations to deviate from the straight and narrow. Security — a sometimes elusive goal, was what we sought as individuals and as a society. Why, one of India’s largest employers —  and also the place that a part of most Indians’ stashed-away money went to — was the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC)
of India.
Today, we can’t seem to pooh-pooh that goal any more vociferously. Young and old alike are abandoning security for starting up something on their own. Social entrepreneurship — a capitalistic approach to socialism, if you will — is seen as the best way to implement the adage of ‘doing well by doing good’. The ‘Go West, Young Man’ adage of the late 20th century brain drain years has been replaced by a giddy, venture capital-funded, quasi-jingoistic Make in India clarion call. Seasoned industry veterans are trying their hands at new things. India is seeing life beyond cricket, Bollywood is seeing life beyond masala. Every category, it seems, is ripe for disruption. These are momentous times.

4. Not merely connected, never alone
These are momentous times but not isolated times. Smart device manufacturers apart, the Internet of Things (IoT) phenomenon is currently more of hope than reality in India. But it’s still a very realistic hope and not a delusion because India has always been an Internet of People (IoP), if you will, pre-dating the internet itself. Only the expression has evolved with the times.

“Enjoying my solitude,” is a likely post you will come across on one of the social networks from an archetypal member of India’s celebrated Temple of Youth while on vacation alone in a remote part of the Himalayas. The irony is delicious on many levels. But as I like to paraphrase David Ogilvy, the consumer in India is not a moron. She’s an oxymoron, and completely comfortably so. It’s the reason Facebook, Twitter and Google & are all betting on finding their next 100 million in India. And soon.

The takeaway is this: we are pretty good at connecting the dots and connecting with each other even amidst all the apparent chaos. Because chaos is not separate from India. Even opportunity thrives only amidst the chaos.

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