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Incredible India

Incredible India

India is on a high, and it’s not only the rupee that’s stronger, but the Indian spirit seems to be on an all time high as well. Even the nation’s sports teams are getting in on the action.

A television commercial sums up this mood dramatically. It goes something like this: A young man revs up his motorcycle, chest tight, head high and rides around what looks like a construction site. A voice-over of his thoughts says: “What does America have that India does not?” The voice again tells us what he’s thinking – “My plans will be of use here – will take India even further”. He then tears up what seems to be an appointment letter, while the voice-over adds: “Don’t want your job Mr. Richards.”

The tagline appears on the screen: “Those who will run the new India will ride the new Hero Honda motorcycle”. The end. And that’s not the only ad Honda’s run to try and capture the spirit of the “new” India. Here’s another that emphasizes the difference between old and new even more directly.

There’s a part of India identifies well with this mood. It’s the urban India of Western motor bikes and luxury goods. The national pride that’s a result of India’s coming into it’s own as a world power.

This immense optimism that’s been fuelled even further by some recent, joyous happenings in sports. Last month India won the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup (a new, shorter format of the game whose final match was held in South Africa which India aced). There was much rejoicing – fireworks lit up the skies, ice cream vendors did brisk business and children were allowed to stay up late to join in the celebrations. The nation, it seems, is on a roll, and this victory was yet another feather in its cap. It’s a very sweet feather indeed, since the win was made ever more satisfying by the fact that India defeated Pakistan, its arch-rival, in the final.

The week of the win, every magazine that you could get your hands on had celebratory headlines and seemed to scream just two words: “Young India”. The fact that the Cricketers were young, fearless and aggressive was something that seemed to have a larger significance for the country. It was seen as a victory of the youth in India, who, much like the cricket players, were bold and ready to take on any challenges in the new India.

It’s not a coincidence youth in India is being celebrated. Much of what’s going on in India today is the result of the nation’s post-partition baby boom. The bulk of the country’s population is young. And many of those young people have benefitted from gradually declining birth rates. While India’s rural areas still see large families, its middle class of former Army offices and other state employees – the parents of today’s youth – kept families small.

To build India’s image as a youthful and dynamic center of progress, the Indian government has been doing a fair amount of marketing abroad for what it’s calling “Brand India.”

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Confederation of Indian Industry recently organized a four-day long celebration in New York, called Incredible India@60. The aim? Get Americans get to see India not as a nation of the starving, the poor, the religiously whacky or the out-sourced job thief but to see the nation through cultural events that showcase its history and culture – not to mention its modernism.

The campaign was a huge success, and for that week India seemed to have taken New York by storm – life size billboards on buildings, buses and bus stands, hundred and fifty cabs, four panels at Times Square and a hundred and twenty panels at Grand Central; Indian culture and food festivals at Bryant Park and South Street Seaport; cultural events at the Lincoln Center; performances at Times Square; panel discussions held by Yale University featuring top Indian corporate leaders; and to top it all, the creation of the glorious Taj Mahal in sand by a renowned sand artist, and all this at a whopping cost of some ten million dollars.

For the man – the men – who ride motorcycles on the streets of India this New York event may not hold much significance. He may even see this bit of marketing as an unnecessary bit of extravagance. The Indian government looks at it differently. For the latter this is another international chapter for India, one that establishes the nation as equal to the U.S. and U.K., nations its population has long admired but not really been able to share the stage.