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How to sell India to the US

Last updated on: May 4, 2013 08:15 IST

How to sell India to the US

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Jamal Mecklai


The government needs to create more effective programmes to show that life in modern India is not that different from life anywhere else.

Last Saturday afternoon, I was in my car on Peddar Road and, looking across, I saw a modern-looking woman driving a modern, mid-sized car, swishing her hair listening to music.

A bit further on, another modern-looking woman in jeans and a sweatshirt was crossing just before the flyover, weaving through the stopped traffic.

Later that night, at a roof-top bar in a five-star hotel, the bartender made me a Manhattan with a Mumbai splash which was tastier, if a tad less sophisticated, than one I had had a week earlier in Harry's Bar in New York.

In fact, returning to Mumbai from a visit to New York seemed completely seamless, except, of course, for the temperature.

But then, this is hardly a surprise - that Mumbai is (in parts) a slick, if terribly managed, global city is well known.

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Image: Monsoon clouds loom over Mumbai's skyline.
Photographs: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

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Other Indian cities - Bangalore, Hyderabad and even Delhi (though its malformed North Indian understanding of masculinity does disqualify it to some extent) - and, indeed, smaller towns also provide something of a global ambience, admittedly, with a twist and, again, to a very narrow, privileged class.

This reality of modern India is, however, about as far from mainstream American thinking as it could be. I recognised this when - in rural Panama, of all places (but that's another story) - I met a remarkable and entertaining American who I can only describe as a real estate artist.

Smart by the seat of his pants, Denny has made a lot of money in a range of varied investments and is constantly - or, more correctly, CONSTANTLY - sniffing around with his ears and eyes wide open, looking to learn about the world (so, of course, he can make some money).

Despite his sophistication and continuous search for new horizons, however, his understanding of India was so thin and tourist brochure-driven that he - at least till now - wouldn't dream of investing here.

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Image: Malini Agarwal (L), blogger-in-chief of missmalini.com. Agarwal, 35, exemplifies what aspirational India is all about - she's bubbly, energetic, and describes herself as
Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

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How to sell India to the US

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For most Americans, who are much less adventurous than Denny, India's image is even more third-hand.

This narrow picture is all the more surprising given that there are so many Indians in the US and so many who have lived and worked there before returning home.

Perhaps, it's because most US-based NRIs don't really know the India of today - many cling to traditions that have long been dropped in much of modern India, and some rue their inability to return to the booming (relatively speaking) economy.

On the other side, most US-returned Indians seem to have forgotten (if they ever really knew) what American culture is about - attending any of the various Indo-US events in Mumbai certainly makes this shockingly clear. They are hardly effective ambassadors for modern India.

Equally remarkably, there are a few - I know of one - US companies that have invested here that remain nervous about the unfamiliarity of India.

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Image: Clouds cover lower Manhattan and the site of the former World Trade Center in New York.
Photographs: Ray Stubblebine/Reuters
Tags: US , India , Denny , Mumbai , American

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How to sell India to the US

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A couple of months ago, I was invited by one of the big four consulting firms to speak to the chairman of a company based in the American Midwest that saw an opportunity to substantially increase its already significant investment in India.

Despite being on the ground for several years, the recent terrible press was making the board nervous, and the chairman was coming down to India to see the reality of the situation.

I was a bit surprised when I was called to "sell" India to him, but, as the consultant explained, they needed someone with an American history (and, perhaps, style) to truly convince the chairman that India was not going to implode and die.

Clearly, contemporary India needs some serious rebranding if it is to sustainably attract US attention, whether economically or politically.

The government, with all its high-budget "India the Wonderful, India the Magnificent" extravaganzas, is only focused on selling our extraordinary history and culture - good for tourism, no doubt, but inadequate for the larger picture.

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Image: The government has effectively managed to sell history and culture of the country.
Photographs: Courtesy, Ministry of Tourism, India

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Global banks are solely focused on selling investment opportunities. Nobody is selling modern India (thinly outlined above), which, being intimately meshed with tradition, provides a unique - if messy and difficult - life experience that just ain't available anywhere, certainly not in America.

The finance and commerce ministries need to understand this and create more effective programmes to show American companies (and the American public) that life in modern India, particularly if you are privileged, is not that different from life anywhere else - you can even watch the NBA live if you're willing to get up at 6.30 in the morning.

They could buttonhole well-positioned agents to promote these programmes - State Bank of India, for instance, which is doing quite well, thank you, supporting Indian companies doing business in the US, would be ideally suited as one such.

And if the external affairs ministry is listening, I can make myself available as Ambassador-at-Large as well.


Image: Ishita Matharu, 23, works for a multinational company, drives her car on her way to attending a Krav Maga class, an Israeli self defence technique.
Photographs: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

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