Sunday, May 27, 2007

India's Edsel Mistake

Reading through Simon Robinson's 'India Without the Slogans' in TIME, I could sense a danger for India : Edsel.

Well, Edsel as in Ford Edsel, one of the most famous examples of over-hyping, effectively advertising a product and raising expectations before the actual product completely failed to match expectations.

There is lot of talk on India now. Incredible India! As Robinson mentions, this years World Economic Forum meeting was replete with 'India Everywhere' advertising. India is moving up the chain : it is no longer hyphenated with Pakistan, implying its self-destructing conflict, but with China, underscoring its emerging economic might. Indian businessmen are on a global buying spree, Indian companies are hugely successful in IT, real estate prices are going through the roof, salaries are rising, there is a clear optimism in the air.

But, for all this, one wonders whether India is selling ahead of itself. Robinson talks about the age-old Indian problems of infrastructure. Thriving democracy often throws up nasty parochialism. Corruption refuses to die. Communalism rears its head in most economically advanced states. For all the slickness in talk, there is the squalor of the slums. Modernisers grapple with vested interests. For each step forward, there are two leaps backward.

However, that by itself is not a problem. All countries go through this phase, the labour pain of development. China has gone through famine, poverty, self destruction, before unleashing its entrepreneurs on the world. Japan had its share of trouble. Dickens and Marx recorded industrial age Britain.

The problem are the slogans. Robinson says : it is better to be surprised than disappointed. He was in the wrong city - a smaller town in North-eastern India which the Indian marketers did not want the world to see. But, that indeed is India. Like Edsel's infamous front-grill. Or finless tail. You can't hide them for long.

As we compare and compete with China, we must not make the assumption we are on the same league yet. China had years of prepartion before bursting into the world scene. It had invested in infrastructure for years. It is much ahead in many economic indicators - including entrepreneurship. [As an Indian, reading James Kynge's China Shakes The World is a sobering experience] And, it does not feel the need to sell itself with slogans and packaging.

India may be making the Edsel mistake: its advertising may seem too clever, and its message, void of substance.

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