Taking Charge of Perception

The Economic Times - 17 June 2002

Everyone I discussed this piece with was of the opinion that it was not the thing to write about. In addition to being politically incorrect, it was not really my business, and what good would it do to pontificate from an armchair? However fools rush in where angels fear to tread and I have taken courage from Arun Maira's earlier piece on this page, asking "is the business of business only business"? I would like to write to all of us in business and say, can we figure out what we can do, individually and collectively, to improve the way we communicate about our country to the outside world and take charge of the way events relating to us get positioned in the outside world? I don't think we deserve to be painted as the next Gaza strip, where no one in their right minds should want to locate a business; nor do I think we need to be painted as the land of the barbarians despite the horrific events in Gujarat.

Sure there are a lot of things wrong with us, but there are a lot of things right with us too - and maybe we need to have a concerted way of airing the good with the bad. Then there is the matter of internal communication. On previous occasions when we had war, there was a strong and concerted flow of internal communication from Government media keeping our morale up and exhorting us to rally together as a nation, united against the enemy. If, God forbid, the same situation arises, I fear that we may lose the battle in our minds, because it is not fashionable for private media to be nationalistic and build our collective confidence in a time of crisis. Extending this to a larger plane, as the Government speaks in many voices, and the media in many more, whose business is it to communicate internally, propogating ideas that build a shared vision and a shared national identity? A worried friend of mine asked "are you proposing the retrograde step of censorship?" No, I am not proposing censorship nor do I belong to the community that asks over cocktails "is democracy a luxury that a poor country can afford"? I am merely suggesting that India Inc. individually and collectively via its bodies like CII, ASSOCHAM, FICCI, Nasscom and the likes charts out an agenda for positioning India and events affecting India to the outside world; and that public service advertising geared towards nation building be on the agenda of the Advertising Agencies Association of India aided by public opinion surveys which help create better targeted communication.

I recently attended a meeting of organisations and individuals working in the development sector, and the work that many of them were doing was simply amazing. Extremely innovative use of infotech and communications technology to address problems of the rural poor and improve their quality of living - the kind of stuff that would make far more interesting and substantial reading in a Fortune magazine article on India than the one that recently appeared. Either it was an article which was written with negative selective perception or there were no positive messages given out about India by the many representatives of India Inc. that the magazine met.

On a trip to Shanghai, the entrance hall of the office of the Consul General of India for trade, was an unpleasant surprise. A picture of the Taj Mahal, a picture of colourfully dressed rural women (can't remember whether with ghungat or not), and some issues of the official magazine, one of which had a kathakali dancer on the cover, another had some Indian jewellery. The sum total of India communicated in these charming, anachronistic pictures. Did I protest to the powers that be? Yes, and got told off in no uncertain terms. But if many of the real heavy weights of India Inc who have doubtless been to this office or any of the big Indian companies with offices in China had offered to do up the interiors or at least concertedly voice their displeasure, maybe it would have worked.

Amartya Sen in his book economic development and social opportunity talks of "the importance of the lessons to be learnt by India from India, and this can be just as important as learning from achievements of other countries". We have achievements in many states which are not written about or talked about, which show what can and is being achieved in this country. Yet, there is very little of spreading the real good news around that is done. Whose business is it?

Right, so what can anyone do about all this? At the least, maybe each of us should make a special commitment to say that the next time we go abroad, or entertain foreign visitors in this country we attempt to shape opinion and perspectives via facts and persuasive logic on India. Assistance via a web site or a help desk set up and maintained by, say, the CII would be helpful. They already have a research cell. An official web site of India Inc. called "India in perspective" would be even better. Putting that as a link to all email going out to business associates from India would go one step further. Even better would be for each of the major industry associations to have a special project called "positioning India in the right perspective". I am sure many of these initiatives exist in some form or the other. However we need to have resonance and that will come if all the strings are tuned roughly the same way, even if they are all different strings. After the adverse travel advisories, if only any representative body of India Inc could have put out a well thought out plan of "what to say / show / tell business associates and press overseas to defuse this situation" for every firm to use... None of this needs Government cooperation.

And finally here's one more reason why all this makes sense to do. Business Leaders in India Inc are the age cohort of the first post independence generation, born mostly before 1960. If this generation of midnight's children does not lead by example, then the next generation will blame us for not easing their path.