Brand India in the time of G20

Shahid Tantray
Elections 2024
18 September, 2023

The G20 meet’s publicity drive had billboards across the country saturated with Modi’s image. A fourth of the nearly thousand ads on the route from the airport in the capital to the guests’ hotels, according to one estimate, had the prime minister on them. This kind of personalisation is not particularly new for Modi, having occurred even when his image had less to do with the event in question than the G20 meet did—COVID-19 vaccination certificates, for instance, had his photograph, as did advertising material for the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign, which spent 56 percent of its budget on marketing.

But other visuals and phrases also became associated with the summit in Delhithe lotus symbol, the G20 logo projected onto monuments, over six lakh potted plants, cut-outs of langurs to scare away real langurs, and green sheets hiding settlements and stalls the poor live and work in. There were more than two hundred events, and Rs 50.6 crore spent on ads for the G20 meet between December 2022 and April this year, hinting at the scale of the long-drawn branding exercise. Indian media claimed the country’s “soft power”—which it identified as its “civilisational heritage” and also its saris—were showcased, and if a hotel imported champagne for the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, a pashmina shawl was a parting souvenir for Brazilian president Lula da Silva’s wife. G20 poster-making competitions were even held at schools.

There were slogans on bus stops, petrol pumps and hoardings across the city about doing good by the environment—“Pro-Planet People for Pro-Planet Progress.” In the meantime, people made homeless, after their living places were bulldozed in March—according to activists and several residents a beautification drive for G20—were worst affected by the floods in July. Greenwashing, in which corporations project themselves as promoting products or practices beneficial to the environment, is a common enough public relations exercise. On World Environment Day this year, Vedanta, the mining conglomerate whose projects have faced immense opposition for climate-related hazards, (not least in Thoothukudi) pledged that it, together with the publisher Harper Collins, would launch a platform to plant ten thousand new saplings in schools. Greenwashing has become so regular a feature that international watchdogs have begun hauling up corporations for using vague phrases like “nature positive” or “environmentally friendly.”

What about when nations do it? The ways in which twenty-first-century nations present themselves like corporations is the focus of Ravinder Kaur’s 2020 book Brand New Nation. While at the World Economic Forum at Davos from 2012 onwards, Kaur noted how these sites function as the “front offices of ‘nation brands’: nations packaged and advertised as ‘attractive investment destinations’ in global markets.” Drawing on ads, billboards, murals, promotional videos, logos, coffee-table books and brochures, she argues that, particularly over the last two decades, there has been a shift in focus from nation-building to nation-branding, and a stronger link between publicity and hyper-nationalism.