Duke University Press
  • Thinking through Emerging Markets: Brand Logics and the Cultural Forms of Political Society in India

I think it is time we stopped shying away from words such as “sell.” We must realize there has been a major revolution in communication. If we maintain that a good ad campaign can’t sell a bad product, conversely people will never purchase a good product if they don’t know about it.

—Hindu Right leader Pramod Mahajan, quoted in the Times of India, 17 September 1993

I am tired of Ram—I want a new name.

—A fifteen-year-old schoolgirl in June 1994, on the Hindu Right’s Ram temple campaign

You cannot make a political soufflé rise twice from the same recipe.

—Hindu Right leader Jaswant Singh quoted in India Today, 30 November 1991

How can we characterize the cultural forms of politics and the political implications of market changes in the wake of what Partha Chatterjee has called the latest phase of the globalization of capital? 1 The question gains salience in the context of recent debates, with Arjun Appadurai arguing, for instance, that postnational forms of solidarities are emerging that reflect the more globalized character of society, and that have yet to transcend the limits on the imagination imposed by the territorial nation-state. We seek a more genuinely internationalist language that has yet to emerge, Appadurai writes, to articulate the political possibilities and aspirations now only implicit in our social practices. 2

Questioning this view, Chatterjee has suggested that in a country like India, the importance of negotiating national and subnational contradictions increases rather than diminishes with globalization. 3 He argues that these contradictions center around the resiliency of community as a locus of affiliation and action, as a means of resistance to the homogenizing impetus of capital, as a site of historic memory, and as a resource for alternative futures. 4 The kinds of political rights asserted here are distinct from the chiefly individual character of the rights sought and contested in Western society. Classical liberal theory is unable to recognize communities as political actors, however, rendering it incapable of coming to terms with the kinds of developments witnessed in the contemporary world. 5 [End Page 131] Numerous examples can be cited to highlight this lacuna: from electoral behavior, where voting tends to occur along community lines, to urban environments, where neighborhoods act as kin groups to practice mutual aid, to the well-known example of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, where communities serve as collateral for loans.

It is one thing to argue for the virtues of communities as political actors when they are marginal or minority communities, claiming a modicum of state protection as a compensation for the aberrations of colonial history in India (here the varieties of compensatory discrimination enacted in the realms of caste, religion, and gender can be noted). In the current political climate, however, the prevalence of Hindu nationalism, characterized by aggression and violence on the part of the majority community, has the potential to subvert the state’s neutral arbitration altogether. While drawing on a particularistic conception of community, the Hindu Right at the same time appeals to a majoritarian conception of politics. 6 Hindu nationalism is both the globalizing face of Indian politics and the bearer of a violent and brutal form of religious chauvinism within the confines of the nation-state. Without a more historical account of how political formations actually take shape, we face an impasse in thinking of communities as actors and in accounting for the repressive as well as enabling developments evidenced in a country like India.

The work of markets and media is crucial in understanding the specific forms in which community takes shape, since increasingly they represent the discursive contexts within which communities are formed and reproduced. Relying as it did on both commodity and information circuits to expand its support base, many of Hindu nationalism’s exhortations were in fact inaudible; understanding it in conventional political terms is therefore inadequate. 7 It is possible, instead, to point to the ways in which the cultural space of the commodity is itself being redefined, to accomodate changes in the political realm, and thus to uncover the logic of transvaluation at work. Examining how commodities circulate and compete in the expanded national market made possible by the rise of national television programming in 1982, and, more recently, by satellite television, can illuminate the relation between brand logic and politics. In this essay, therefore, I will consider how consumer allegiance is sought and contested, and how the provenance of a brand is established against attempts to undermine it, through markets and media.

Three discrete but related sets of events converged to constitute the present historical conjuncture. 8 First, there was the onset of market reforms in India beginning about 1985, indexed by the stimulus given to consumer markets and a more pro-market policy of economic development in general. Second, since the mid-1980s, political developments in India reshaped the cultural field, so that political language drew increasingly [End Page 132] on indigenous traditions, albeit adapted for public circulation. If the Hindu Right had begun to make claims for a kind of Hindu modernity, through media and markets, those institutions appeared to absorb and gradually diffuse this wisdom, albeit in somewhat diluted form. Third, related to these two events, the establishment and expansion of television in the 1980s and 1990s created an unprecedented set of connections across a society with deep, sedimented social divisions. The broadcast of commercially sponsored Hindu epics serialized on state-owned national television, to enormous popular audiences, signaled the possibility of a kind of mass participation that had never before been witnessed in postindependence times; the Hindu Right was the first to utilize this potential in any effective way. Commercial electronic media thus stand between the realms of politics and the economy, signaling and enabling the entry of the masses onto the stage of politics while seeking to appropriate or channel these popular energies in terms of the logic of marketing. Thus, if the media provide a kind of stage where the population could imagine and identify itself as a people united, the work of politics is to both enable this unification and at the same time control it, defining and delimiting particular electoral constituencies to better guard them from competing or potential political tendencies, and thereby acting as a force of disidentification at the same time. It is in this context that the importance of marketing can be understood.

The now notorious Ram temple campaign that brought the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, or BJP) into prominence was marked by a newly explicit logic of marketing, which propagated and rendered worthy of identification a set of names (e.g., Ram, a god of the Hindu pantheon, as well as the name Hindu itself). 9 The rewards of this kind of labor are worthwhile but short-lived because, apparently, these names have a limited life span and soon outlast their use. At which time an entire cycle of work must be restarted, as though political symbols had begun to take on the synthetic character of a brand, requiring the artificial life-support systems of propaganda and public relations in order to stay in circulation. That this is a recent development is suggested by Pramod Mahajan (see epigraph), who ties the importance of the approach to the “revolution” in communication, which instantly translates market trends into political forces, without the intervening mediation of either collective participation or critical examination. Mahajan points to a new conjuncture where these categories telescope into each other, and market logics could interbraid with those of politics; at the same time, his advocacy of it suggests the extent to which his own party gained by occupying the infra-political realm of consumption, that is, where these demands were beneath the gaze of politics proper and so were harder to contest. [End Page 133]

Mahajan’s equation signals the stitching together of different fields—culture, economy, and politics—and becomes possible in the conjuncture I am outlining. One way of understanding this is in terms of the institution of a visual regime right across social divides, due to the electronic media. Along with the expansion of markets, there is then a new level of connectivity, and a new social legibility as well. 10 This is not to say that politics, economy, and culture merge and flow into each other; rather, it is the blockages and constraints to a transparent movement between these spheres that highlight the particularity of the situation.

In the current context, the task of educating individuals into modern citizenship occurs at least as much through markets as it does through politics, as the normative power of politics is depleted by an ongoing crisis of legitimation. Meanwhile, as consumer goods markets expand into the rural hinterland, businesses struggle not only to establish brands against pseudo-branded and unbranded goods, but also to establish what a brand is, and what it will signify. Communities of consumption are in a nascent state of formation, across caste, language, and region, under shared national brands, some of them increasingly “Hinduized.” What kinds of political performatives might a logic of marketing make possible and also foreclose? The answers worked out to these questions here are provisional, but might help clarify some of the changes at work in an era of liberalization.

The Market’s Mode of Address

The barriers to the interaction of global, national, and local forces are lowest in consumer goods markets, and it is here that their mutual influence can be most clearly seen. After a lengthy period of protecting the domestic market, when indigenous businesses by and large contented themselves with servicing existing customers, the expansion of the market now attracts fierce competition between multinationals and national and regional businesses. This is especially the case with fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs), relatively inexpensive items where the efforts to entice consumers are most visible.

With the opening of the market, beginning in 1985 and progressing further after 1992, Indian businesses began to pay the price for having utilized the developmentalist growth phase to luxuriate as rentiers enjoying a license-permit raj rather than to cultivate their capacities as internationally competitive entrepreneurs. An enormous amount of effort came to be directed at gaining entry to this “emerging market” (the new umbrella term for the former Third World), with businesses seeking to establish themselves early when media costs were relatively low, and markets [End Page 134] relatively underdeveloped, so that strong loyalties could be built. 11

Advertisers had been addressing a market that represented the balance of political and cultural forces as it prevailed at the time. If they conceived the urban, upwardly mobile middle class, the most desirable segment of the market, to be “people like us” (or PLUS, in advertisers’ jargon), this reflected not only a given political equilibrium but an unspoken acceptance of this equilibrium. Consumption and citizenship were brought into a tacit relationship with each other, as the ability to undertake the former defined the scope and limits of the latter. With the expansion of the market, advertisers and marketers faced a difficult problem, namely, how to conceive of the new consumers, whom they had never addressed before and with whom they were culturally unfamiliar. It was one thing to perform market research studies and to construct profiles of their target consumers’ anxieties and aspirations. But what if consumers seemed refractory to the most skillful advertising rhetoric? Politically salient forms of appeal provided an attractive option, lending the access routes to a globalized economy an irreducibly culturally specific character. Furthermore, the particularistic forms of identity that electoral rhetoric utilized were seen to have a proven market value. The opening of the cultural-political field by the decline of a strong centrist state, and the advances made by new coalitions following this decline, made the use of culturally specific appeals of religion and caste effective.

Advertisers working in a protected domestic market had their job cut out for them; industry old-timers spoke of it as a gentleman’s club, with little pressure on them to compete. Copy was mostly written in English and translated, and appeals were frequently adapted from international campaigns and, for the most part, had little cultural specificity. The market they addressed can be divided, broadly, into two. For upmarket audiences, advertisers sought to aestheticize the appeal of goods, using a blend of borrowed and indigenous imagery. Campaigns with the Air India Maharaja figure, and cartoons in Indianized themes for the Amul company, a proud symbol of the national cooperative dairy industry, are some examples, both catering to well-to-do customers. For downmarket and rural customers, appealing to the goods’ utility was believed to be sufficient or, at any rate, a sign of what marketers were willing to spend on this segment. The preliberalization era of Nehruvianism was, then, marked by the absence of a popular aesthetic in advertising for the working and the rural classes. 12 The power of the Hindu Right’s appeal was in many ways, I suggest, a symptom of this absence.

Following the opening up of the visual field by the Hindu Right, and with the increase in economic competition, this split structure of the consumer market has begun to change, with culturally specific appeals being formulated for the lower segment of the market as well. Broadly, two [End Page 135] styles of culturally particular appeals are emerging in recent advertising for nationally promoted goods, although there is variation within each of them. 13 The first style is characterized by abstracted and self-conscious uses of indigenous culture, wherein the meanings of the practices and themes used become a fetishized referent whose particular meanings are extraneous to the ad’s narrative. Here there is an aestheticized consumption of a repertoire of things marked as “culture,” unconnected to daily life; this is therefore a high cultural appropriation of indigenous symbols. In the second category, the use of indigenous symbolism is invoked as part of a more situated cultural language. At the same time, there are ever more hybrid formulations, with the intermixing of English and/or Hindi with a regional language, for instance, speaking to and evoking an increasingly screen-literate and culturally self-conscious audience. 14

This still corresponds only to a relatively tiny section of the market, occupied by national brands. With a medium like television, however, a virtual marketplace is established that transcends any given market segment, generating some level of brand awareness across an entire population. For each national brand that attains any significant market share, there invariably arises a host of regional imitators, often changing from one district to the next, offering consumers versions of the good in question with varying degrees of success. These “pseudo-brands” are like a penumbra around the brand, indicating the existence of consumers who have either failed to identify the brand correctly, a common phenomenon in emerging markets, or else, despite being brand-literate, have chosen the imitation for its more affordable value. In addition, there are goods that are only weakly branded, possessing a name, but with no value added to it in terms of publicity and brand personality. Against both of these stands the infinitely larger world of unbranded goods, composed not only of bulk commodities but also of finished goods that are too modest to merit their anointment with a brand, existing in the itinerant, often fugitive world of traveling markets and street-corner sales: of textiles and ready-made clothes, aluminumware, plasticware, glassware, jewelry, and so on. These phenomena are signs of the never finished work of branding. In the marketplace, the real advertisers and the free riders, the branded and the counterfeit or pseudo-branded goods fight it out, alongside unbranded commodities, like so many parallel universes struggling to establish their hegemony, each of them placing a different value on consumption practices, real and metaphorical. Expanding markets then refers first and foremost to this struggle to extend the provenance of the brand over the arena of consumption, persuading consumers of the significance of consuming branded goods, where brands are sought to be defined in very specific ways. Against the exhortation to a generic consumer on the part of those [End Page 136] selling commodities, we can observe the need to develop more particularistic modes of address, the better to secure the addressees’ attention, and the attempt to gradually extend these particularistic modes of address across the market as a whole.

Hindu Fetishes in an Expanding Consumer Market: Lessons from Laundering

What is the significance of the shift toward branding? First and foremost, it is a means of “adding value” to the product, perhaps in terms of quality, packaging, and “customer satisfaction,” but above all in terms of price. It is also a particular way of recoding the relationship between person and thing, between a thing’s utility and its aesthetic properties, between the individual appreciation of the qualities of day-to-day objects and the public significance of this recognition. The expansion of markets proceeds through a rhetoric of personal self-definition and improvement, and of thereby granting social membership, imputing that entry and acceptance are open to all. In fact, the sphere of consumption is an infinitely graded hierarchical realm, so that a given repertoire of consumption practices permits one form of inequality, coded in locally recognizable ways, to be traded for another, more nationally or globally legible form. It should be noted that while the translation of regional practices to a more public arena permits new modes of identity formation, the extensive internal differentiation in any individual repertoire renders consumption patterns uncertain as a durable basis for collective action. Any forms of rhetoric used in consumer appeals will need constant retooling, therefore, to address this uncertainty and to thwart an ever-present competition. 15

The fabric wash market, site of some of the most intense market competition, illuminates the ways in which multinational, regional, and local companies can battle each other, and it highlights the often unpredictable consequences that may result as these players use new technologies and sometimes unfamiliar languages to gain consumer loyalty. 16 For instance, the spread of audiovisual media, literacy, and increased publicity about cleanliness and personal care have transformed the soaps and synthetic detergents market in India into a battlefield for multinationals and domestic players. 17 Despite the relatively low per capita consumption in India of soap and detergent, the aggregate market is growing only at the rate of population growth, and market share is achieved mainly at the expense of the competition. The choice in laundry soaps and detergents tends to be one that consumers identify with closely, and so is relatively hard to dislodge; consumers typically maintain that the product they happen to use is [End Page 137] the best, no matter which one it is. Thus the comparative benefits of different laundry wash products are intangible. 18 The phenomenon of branding can thus be seen more clearly here as a battle over modes of signifying consumption.

Market development in fabric wash has involved the attempt to convert users of edible oil-based laundry soaps, who have historically comprised the largest part of the market, to users of (phosphate-based) synthetic detergents. The laundry soaps segment has been reserved for the small-scale, or “unorganized,” sector, which turns out about 90 percent of the production, while the medium- and large-scale, or organized, sector, which cannot operate without a license, produces the remainder. 19 The small-scale sector gains the benefit of more lenient industrial laws and bank financing, as well as market restrictions that prevent larger companies from eliminating them through direct competition. What the organized sector seeks to do instead is to convert laundry soap users to users of detergent powders and bars, presenting the latter as superior products that any enlightened consumer would use. Over time, laundry soaps have reduced from occupying over 90 percent of the market to holding barely one-third of it, growing at a rate much smaller than that of the detergents market, with most of the growth in laundry wash going to detergents. 20

There is a pyramid of offerings in the organized sector of the laundry market, consisting of premium nonsoap detergent (NSD) bars, mid-priced NSDs, low-priced NSDs, and laundry soaps. Laundry soaps tend to be dominated by regional brands that have anything but a well-developed profile of their target consumers; the biggest brands, including Doctor soap in the north, BB soap in Mumbai, and Urvashi in Tamil Nadu, are unknown elsewhere. The premium products are understood to offer more evolved emotional benefits and reflect a more developed psychographic portrait of their market. Following the pattern established in the West, women are targeted as the chief decision makers for domestic consumer goods. 21 Brand managers present themselves as segmenting the market between women consumers who are mere homemakers and those who go beyond just taking care of their family. Women who buy premium detergents are thought to be more evolved than those buying low-priced NSDs, for instance, and consumers in the unorganized laundry soap market are understood to be much more traditional, and hence less evolved, with their world being confined to husbands and families. “The more you move consumers up the triangle,” one brand manager concluded, “the more you get value for your business. The idea is not volumes but value.” 22 He was referring to Abraham Maslow’s model of human motivation, which presumes a hierarchy of needs; those at the bottom chiefly meet their subsistence needs, in this understanding, whereas those at the top realize their inner potential. 23 This is mapped [End Page 138] onto the pyramid of consumer demographics, with consumers able and willing to spend more money understood to be the most highly realized. This is a self-fulfilling scheme as far as marketers are concerned: low-income consumers are believed to be less evolved, and premium brand consumers more so. The challenge before businesses is of course to make manifest the advantages of such evolution to low-income consumers. Some of the most intimate aspects of the rhetoric of modernization are crafted in such encounters.

Interestingly, the first notable sign of brand wars, in the wake of the establishment of national television and consequent attempts to expand the consumer market in the early 1980s, came not from a national or multinational company but from a small-scale entrepreneur in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Karsanbhai Patel, and the low-cost detergent empire he created. Hindustan Lever Ltd., a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, has dominated the detergent market for many years. Until the early 1980s, detergents were believed to have only a premium market, and Lever held the leading brand, Surf, priced considerably higher than other brands. Patel essentially demonstrated that the limits of the domestic market were not simply resource-based but were a result of the limits of marketers’ imagination. With his product Nirma, he challenged the identification of detergents with relatively affluent consumers by opening up a market previously not believed to exist. The product contained strong cleaning ingredients and was priced at almost the level of laundry soaps. 24 By perceiving the new possibilities of low-cost outreach to consumers, maintaining low overheads, and ensuring adequate distribution with high wholesaler and retailer margins, Nirma captured significant market share from Surf and expanded the reach of detergents enormously. But its brand appeal itself rested on little more than a catchy jingle, and, unlike its competition, offered no psychological value. What was bewildering to large companies like Lever was that despite the crudity of his methods, Patel was able to repeat his success in one product category after another, first in detergent powders, stealing substantial volumes from Surf, and then in the detergent bars category, from Lever’s Rin. Thereafter, Nirma proceeded to threaten Lever as well in premium toilet soaps (e.g., Lux) and popular bathing soaps (e.g., Lifebuoy), all with one brand name, Nirma, and relatively minimal advertising outlay. Lever’s executives spoke of this with all the horror of watching an enemy inexorably advance to the heart of their fortress, in this case, the company’s core brands, unaffected by all their counterattacks. Like politics, this too was war by other means.

At work here was a different philosophy of market expansion. Nirma, Ltd. followed a different method of building brand loyalty and expanding its consumer base, with respect to multinationals. It allowed a product to [End Page 139] circulate in the hinterland markets for a period of two or more years and to build its base; it observed consumer responses to it; and it incorporated this information in the decision whether to finally promote it or not. Generous margins for wholesalers and retailers ensured that the company would not suffer for lack of a field force such as that employed by the large companies. Multinationals, for their part, perform market trials over a short period of time, usually followed by a major publicity blitz. They attempt to jump-start a strong consumer demand, coercing distributors and retailers to content themselves with the small margins allowed by the company. Their large overheads, and their need to satisfy investors and achieve steady, high margins makes “impossible” a more bottom-up approach such as that demonstrated by Nirma. 25 If value is created in the conduct of economic exchange, the above example confirms, as Arjun Appadurai has argued, that the link between exchange and value is itself of a political character, and can be produced through any of a range of institutional arrangements. 26

After ignoring Nirma for some years, Lever eventually adopted a three-pronged strategy in its battle to erode its market share. It developed an ad campaign for Surf with a “value for money” story, arguing that consumers should pay more because it cleaned better; it used an established laundry soap brand name in its portfolio, Sunlight, to market a detergent powder; and finally, it implemented what was called Operation S.T.I.N.G., Strategy to Inhibit Nirma’s Growth, aimed as well at future low-cost competition. The last of these strategies was the development of a separate low-cost operation under the rubric of Stepan Chemicals Ltd., a small company taken over by Lever, to avoid its typically huge overheads.

Wheel detergent powder began to be marketed in intensive campaigns, but with limited results. Because new users of detergents were assumed to require education, the advertising campaigns designed for Wheel adopted a pedagogical approach, with a salesman advising a housewife on the product’s merits. After indifferent results with the ad, the campaign became more experimental, using a melodramatic, Hindi film style, and drawing more heavily on market research. The narratives became richer, more full of incident and involving deeper family dynamics, thus more assured of engaging with viewers. Corresponding to the relative novelty of the product, a deeper insertion into the social structure was required to weave it in with existing family relationships. The burden of responsibility fell on the woman: her failure to whiten her man’s clothes was endangering his chances of success, and thus their survival. Based on focus group discussions, the number of lemons shown was increased, so that scores of lemons fell like rain into the detergent. 27 Meanwhile, the wheel in the graphic became a more fast-spinning three-dimensional device. Both of these were exterior to the apparent plot of the ad, functioning [End Page 140] as religious fetishes that signified purity and strength respectively. 28 Their use said much about Lever’s perception of this market segment, as being responsive to quasi-subliminal religious imagery, and about Lever’s own eagerness to win consumers. For the company, the use of such symbolism clarified the otherwise opaque intentions of new consumers. But it did so by relegating consumer motives to the mystery bin of superstition, and it thus reproduced the company’s own uncertainty in addressing this market. Through a combination of strategies, the sales of Wheel finally began to rise sufficiently to challenge Nirma’s growth, but Lever’s executives asserted the importance of lemons and wheels in this process. 29

What the foregoing suggests is the uncertain battle between competing strategies of extending markets, based on aestheticizing consumption as opposed to price and utility. Large companies try to shift the ground of competition, to a level where their weapons will favor their victory. However, this dependence on the mechanisms of publicity and brand imagery renders businesses vulnerable to competition offering more functional appeals to consumers.

With a host of new products coming in, customers may turn to the retailer for advice on what to use, on the presumption that he receives feedback from a variety of shoppers. Businesses compete with each other to exploit this trust and create “top of the mind” awareness, essentially bribing retailers with various forms of “trade loads,” or schemes to ensure that retailers have an interest in pushing their products. Kya scheme hai? is the question retailers ask of every salesperson who visits them—that is, what is the promotional scheme that would persuade me to favor your goods over someone else’s? Eight rupees for every liter of coconut oil, they might be told, or 5 percent on every case of bathing soap. In the most unpretentious and ramshackle stores, every inch of display space may be calibrated and bargained for. Salesmen boast of their ability to persuade storekeepers to arrange their goods in the most favorable ways, at the expense of the competition, and the persuasion can extend well beyond words. “When we fight, we fight to kill. I’ve done it,” one distributor said, clenching his fist. 30 At the same time, businesses with sufficient resources seek to generate demand through advertising, and once demand has been created, a brand is difficult to dislodge, retailers agree. By creating a massive and unswerving demand, a company gains enormous power over the rest of the production chain: they can hold up payments to suppliers of raw materials and receive goods on credit, and they can reduce others’ margins to negligible proportions. There is nothing liberal about market competition for the contestants; every company worth its name aspires to monopoly power.

With the opening up of a protected domestic market, not only large [End Page 141] firms attempt to extend their hold over the growing consumer base. Small firms and entrepreneurs seek to cater to low-income segments of the market ignored or found unprofitable by large companies. This creates a problem of discipline for large companies, which need to ensure that forms of appeal are not institutionalized that threaten or undermine their own long-term interests. In this sense, the change in market conditions accompanying the shift from Nehruvian developmentalism to the era of liberalization has created for business not merely a marketing problem, but a political problem as well. The relation of different market segments one to the other, and the condition of the market as a whole, reflects a given balance of political forces. The unsettling of this balance creates a problem of knowledge that cannot be solved with reference to the market itself, since it is from the political field that marketers have hitherto drawn their cues, for example, about how to respond to affiliations across caste and class segments. The shift to using religious and fetishistic imagery in response to competition is significant in this regard, especially on the part of an astute market leader; Hindustan Lever tends to set the example for a considerable section of Indian business. 31

If previously marketers could work with relatively fixed, homogeneous conceptions of a middle-class market by targeting premium-price segments, consumer behavior now prohibits such complacency for a variety of reasons. Low-income segments are exposed to a range of new appeals, not only for generic products such as Nirma but also for products traditionally advertised for higher-income groups. Now, consumers may cut across price barriers in the purchase of products, making consumer segmentation no longer as useful a way of understanding the market as it used to be. That is, with the expansion of the market and of communications, the market is more difficult to map. Accommodations may be made to the smaller purchasing power of lower-class urban markets and of rural markets by playing “the volume game,” offering a range of product sizes “without cheapening the communications strategy.” 32 This is a new phenomenon, one that expands the middle class aspirationally while not challenging its income stratification. The obverse of inflating the aspirations of consumers, however, is that their behavior becomes less predictable, and harder to control. Commenting on a demographic aspect of this problem—that 70 percent of the Indian population is under thirty-five years of age—one vice president of marketing expressed his apprehension about a consumer base that lacked the historical knowledge that would ensure brand loyalty. 33 This is truly a regime in transition, and the fear and uncertainty about managing the masses is nothing other than a political crisis, even if only dimly apprehended.

Cultivating brand value is a way large companies can reduce if not bypass the power that the trade can exert downstream from the brand [End Page 142] manufacturer, helping to cut through the clutter of a messy retail environment and an inefficient sales personnel. This helps to gain “top of the mind” share in the market, and, in the words of the Lever executive, to use it to increase “value, not volumes”; that is, to increase the percentage in profits rather than merely serve larger groups of people. With new communications extending beyond the physical limits of any given marketplace, however, this logic is always liable to subversion, as new volumes are found by competitors, diminishing what can be accumulated from the old sources of value. In a similar fashion, if Hindutva appears as a possible solution to the crisis of political authority, and religious symbols and fetishes are seen to extend the market’s grasp over a population only partially literate in the logic of branding, these means of aggregation are themselves open to challenge.

The Political Economy of Hindu Nationalism

In the Indian context, as the precise form of nationhood has become contentious with the growth in politicization, markets have come to hold the promise of solving questions of politics, since in their ideal form they exemplify consensual exchange. They can thus come to be seen, in this context, as a means of breaking out of a political deadlock, or of arriving at a more adequate consensus. But to understand the market in this way is to disavow the political character of the regime of value it institutes, one that can only win its place in a constant struggle against competing regimes of value.

If the arena of electoral campaigning had long been characterized by the mobilization of caste and kin networks, and appeals to symbols that were not without religious significance, such as the Congress Party’s own erstwhile logo of a cow and calf, this existed at a remove from the realm of elite political discourse, which retained its profession of adherence to secular and universalist ideals. Without question, the opening up of the market has helped to attack this and other cordons sanitaires inhabiting the realm of politics, even while preserving the sanctity of the market and of private property itself. It was in this context that the promotion of Hindu symbols gained a seemingly inexorable force, as a popular expression that the force of the market and of the media rendered into an incontestable collective sentiment. Particularistic cultural emblems and themes become stepping stones in an uncertain trajectory of political change, belying the cultural transformations they are used to bridge. Community becomes a theme mediating social change, even as literal definitions of the (in this case, Hindu) community are sought to be imposed by violence.

An earlier ideology of modernization involved an explicit imitation of [End Page 143] brahminical rituals, lifestyles, and mores, or Sanskritization, as it has been called. The commodification of ritual objects and practices furthered this process, while at the same time upper-caste retention of the means of cultural production led to new inscriptions of erstwhile hierarchies. With the growth of a consumer culture, businesses catered to classes whose fault lines intersected with rather than mimicked caste cleavages, so that implicitly transcaste identities arose. We may say that Hinduized public imagery offers underdetermined identities, resituating prevailing ritual objects and practices for consumption through appropriate campaigns. The signs of existing caste hierarchies can thereby be idealized, so that inequality is seen merely as difference. Here the market seems to follow the Hindu Right in creating a new mode of participation, where access does not necessarily depend on caste status, inclusion occurring within a stratified, if more fluid, order. This, I suggest, is the cultural facade of Hindu society attempting to “liberalize” without directly confronting the necessary prior steps of sociocultural reform, chiefly, the illiberal ordering of caste.

Liberalization positioned itself as a conversation about the economy, qua economy, whereas in fact it sought at the same time to address the failures of politics and to bypass its impediments. Arguments advancing liberalization appealed to criteria of productivity and market success as a way of compensating for the deterioration of political legitimacy and the waning of prevailing Nehruvian understandings of the collective good. The progression of Hindu nationalism itself illustrated this, swelling as popular responses to particular campaigns grew, and retreating when the feedback was more ambivalent. 34 As voters became detached from traditional loyalties and new voters flooded into the electoral arena with a lowering of the voting age (from twenty-one to eighteen, in 1989), political campaigns became increasingly deliberate in their targeting of what Hindu Right leader L. K. Advani called “the non-committed vote.” 35 It was in this context that cultural identity became salient and began to be explicitly incorporated in the appeals that political parties made to the electorate.

Now, the change in the political environment from a welfare state to a neoliberal market regime was accompanied by a change in the marketing environment, from a manufacturer’s market in the post-World War II era to a more consumer-driven market since the 1980s. Whereas worldwide this shift was accompanied by stagnation in the growth of markets, in the Indian situation there was considerable market growth during the same period. Thus in fact domestic businesses fared well, lacking the level of competition their foreign counterparts faced abroad. It was in the wake of the optimism generated by this period of growth that an alternative to the waning Congress Party came to be seen as possible, and that the BJP, perceiving this opportunity, refashioned itself as a possible successor to [End Page 144] the ruling party. 36 In this process, not only politics but businesses too sought more individualized modes of address, shifting from the generic notion of the mass consumer to a more disaggregated view of the individual consumer.

The expansion of communications and the spread of consumer goods markets into sub-metro and rural regions brought the Indian hinterland into new orbits of authority and imagination. As the metropolitan economy moved into the interior, the circulation of goods was accompanied by the varieties of promotional campaigns current in the larger cities. At the same time, the small-town vendors and consumers themselves infused more indigenous, vernacular idioms and preferences into the circuits of the national economy. The Hindu Right itself owed its strength to its having perceived and harnessed these new currents, just as it was later split apart by their further development. Eventually, the very forces that helped promote Hindutva at first led subsequently to its dilution. We may recall that, in fact, no sooner did Hindutva go public than it happened that its bluff was called, with the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1989 to award reservations in government jobs and college admissions to Backward Classes. 37 The consequent political split in the caste coalition that composed its ranks dissolved any dreams of sole dominance the BJP may have had; thereafter, only coalitional rule would be possible, at least in the foreseeable future. The ideology and the appeal of Hindutva’s rhetoric have outlasted this moment, however, as a reminder that politics is something more than the sum of its parts. This excess, over and beyond the aggregation of interests, is precisely the political, that is, that collective vision or narrative whose refashioning and contestation constitutes the arena of politics. Similarly, the excess of meaning, beyond the stated copy of any given advertisement and beyond any use a product has for its buyer, contains the distinctness of a given brand, or what is crucial in retaining consumer loyalty, in delivering the value that businesses seek and ensuring that their goods retain the capacity to make a profit. In an era of a “revolution” in communication, the interaction between these spheres is more intimate than before. There is an irreducible difference between these spheres, however; there are political issues proper that cannot be displaced onto markets, but require addressing in themselves. At the same time, the means of answering these questions become more contested and subject to challenge, as political decisions require working through a process of consensus formation rendered more complex and precarious by the new means of communication.

Arvind Rajagopal

Arvind Rajagopal is an associate professor of media studies at New York University and member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (1998–99). He is the author of Politics after Television: Religious Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Hindu Public (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).


* I would like to thank Gyan Prakash for his comments on this essay. The research for this essay was assisted by a fellowship for Research and Writing on Peace and International Security from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and by a grant from the American Institute for Indian Studies.

1. Partha Chatterjee, “Beyond the Nation? Or Within?” Social Text, no. 56 (fall 1998): 57–69.

2. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 158–77.

3. Chatterjee, “Beyond the Nation?”

4. During the period of colonial rule, nationalist politics defined a cultural preserve that would be exempt from the disciplinary practices of the colonial state, in order to preserve the potential for anticolonial mobilization. This realm of politics entails forms of mobilization often inconsistent with the principles of association in civil society. The cultural models conceived for this realm, to mediate between the population and the nation-state of the future, remain consequential for postcolonial politics. See Partha Chatterjee, “A Response to Taylor’s ‘Modes of Civil Society,’” Public Culture 3 (fall 1990): 119–32, rpt. in Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), chap. 11.

5. See for instance, John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); and Michael Sandel, ed., Liberalism and Its Critics (New York: New York University Press, 1984).

6. Following convention, I use the term Hindu Right to refer to the complex of Hindu nationalist organizations usually called the sangh parivar (roughly translated as organizational family). The term is a little misleading, however, since it presumes a political terrain divided between left, right, and center in the same way that these positions obtain in the West. But in the West, the Left arose outside and opposed to the absolutist state, whereas in a country like India, the Left was largely co-opted by the developmentalist state. It is the Right that has usurped to itself the role of challenging the state, in the process conflating antimodern and antistate politics both. This renders the Hindu Right potentially quite different from, say, the Christian Right in the West.

7. See Basu Tapan et al., Khaki Shorts, Saffron Flags: A Critique of the Hindu Right (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1994); and my Politics after Television: Religious Nationalism and the Making of a “Hindu” Public (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

8. In this essay I seek to develop an argument first formulated in my “Thinking about the New Indian Middle Class: Gender, Advertising, and Politics in an Age of Globalization,” in Signposts: Gender Issues in Post-independence India, ed. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (New Delhi: Kali for Women Press, 1999).

9. The Ram temple campaign was led by the Hindu Right to restore a legendary and possibly mythical temple built in 1528 on the birthplace of Ram, at the site of a mosque, Babri masjid, in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. After a hectic nationwide mobilization that terrorized minorities and left thousands dead, the mosque was demolished in 1992, amid gruesome riots. For an event-history of the Ram temple campaign, see, for example, S. Gopal, ed., Anatomy of a Confrontation: The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhumi Issue (New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 1991); and Asghar Ali Engineer, ed., The Babri Masjid Ramjanmabhumi Controversy (New Delhi: Ajanta, 1991).

My use of the term Hindu Right refers here mainly but not exclusively to the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, or BJP) and its affiliates. Sections of other parties, notably the Congress, were also complicit in latent or patent forms of support for the cause of moving away from the earlier secular compromise and in promoting the cause of the Ram temple campaign.

10. In Politics after Television, I have argued that while for broadcasters media messages are commodities, for audiences they are better understood on the model of the gift. Pointing to the gift phase of communication allows us to complicate arguments about communication that lead to conclusions of cultural homogenization and political domination that are based on perceptions of the commodity character of communication and the extension of an institutional set of controls. It permits us to substantiate arguments, for example by Appadurai in his Modernity at Large, of the unprecedented provenance of the imagination in contemporary society, while demarcating its institutional limits in the space of privacy permitted to audiences by the commodity character of media messages. It illuminates the proliferation of new forms of association, and reminds us of the necessarily local and contextual ways in which these are conceived and mobilized.

11. Thus in the United States for instance, brands like Kellogg’s, Pepsi, and Marlboro still gain from high advertising dollars spent during the 1950s and 1960s. Brands enable manufacturers to communicate directly with consumers regardless of the actions of the middleman. For some useful business literature on brands see, for example, Paul Stobart, ed., Brand Power (New York: New York University Press, 1994).

12. This paralleled a strategy of development that gave priority to economic issues and understood cultural issues to be secondary or epiphenomenal, in what at the time was an entirely reasonable categorization of tasks before the government. What this signaled, however, was the absence of a cultural policy, and the reliance of a mostly English-language trained technocracy to bypass cultural particularisms in their task of national development. The assumption that culture was simply residual was obviously a deeply problematic one, however, and has returned to roost.

13. Unlike most goods promoted nationally, goods with a strictly regional market may have their advertising copy composed in the regional language, and thus are open to more particularist forms of appeal. I am only considering goods with a national market here.

14. For more discussion see my “Thinking about the New Indian Middle Class.”

15. I do not have the space here to address the issue of modes of signifying cleanliness per se, and the significant cultural shifts occurring in the process. See, in this connection, Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996), and Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York: Routledge, 1995).

16. This discussion is based on interviews with executives at market research organizations, conducted in Mumbai between January and March of 1997. The names of the executives have been withheld at their request.

17. The annual per capita consumption of bathing soap in India is 0.3 kg (1990 figures), while for other less developed countries (LDCs) it is 1 kg. For washing soap the corresponding figures are 1.6 kg and 4.5 kg. See I. Satya Sundaram, “Bright Future for Soaps and Detergents,” Facts for You (New Delhi), March 1990, 39–41.

18. In fact, due to the unusually high particulate content of Indian dirt, three to four times higher than elsewhere, dirt cannot be dislodged from clothes beyond a point, and after twenty washes or so, the “loss of reflectance” in clothes, a measure used to indicate their cleanliness, is unchanged no matter what soap or detergent is used. Interview, market research consultant (name withheld), Mumbai, 14 February 1997.

19. On the dangers to consumers arising from the liberties taken with industry standards by the organized sector see N. G. Wagle, “Consumer Rights and Responsibilities,” Soaps, Detergents, and Toiletries Review Annual and Handbook ‘94, 195. Also see “No Toilet Soap Measures Up To Lowest BIS [Bureau of Indian Standards] Quality Levels,” Press Trust of India dispatch, Business and Political Observer, 3 April 1993; and Indrani Bagchi, “Rs 6 Soaps Cleanse Just as Well as Rs 30 Ones: CERC [Consumer Education and Research Centre, Ahmedabad],” Economic Times, 22 February 1996.

20. The Indian soap and detergent industry’s estimated annual turnover is about 100 billion rupees. This figure is an estimate combining organized and unorganized sector production. See Samata Dhawade and Kishor Kadam, “Untapped Vast Rural Market (sic)-Soap and Detergent Industry Sitting on a Gold Mine,” Business Standard, 20 September 1996.

21. See my “Thinking about the New Indian Middle Class.”

22. Interview with marketing executive (name withheld), January 1997.

23. See Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York and Evanston, Ill.: Harper and Row [1954] 1970), 35–46.

24. A high percentage of soda ash helped to make Nirma a strong washing powder, at the cost, however, of inducing a burning sensation in the hands of those doing the washing. This became a major theme of Lever’s ad campaigns, presenting its own products as gentle to the hands.

25. Personal interview (name withheld), January 1997. In an industry where Hindustan Lever is the leader (around 70 percent share in volume), the upward march of Nirma’s share is striking. Nirma’s share in the 0.5 million tonne low-cost detergents market has, however, recently reduced to around 38 percent in 1996 from over 44 percent in 1994, per independent estimates. The loss in share for Nirma is not HLL’s gain, however. The slight decline in Nirma’s share appears to be mainly on account of mushrooming regional brands like Hippolin, JVG, Shuddh, and so on in the low-cost detergents market. Toilet soap volumes of Nirma, however, have increased to 63,000 tonnes in 1996–97 from 53,000 tonnes a year back. On the back of this, the company has almost doubled its market share in the popular soaps segment from 7 percent last year. The domestic toilet soaps industry, according to the Indian Soap and Toiletries Makers’ Association, has been growing at 5 percent over the last few years, with the product penetration saturating at 95 percent. Namrata Singh, “Nirma Picks Up 14 Percent Share in Toilet Soaps Market,” Financial Express (Mumbai), 31 July 1997; Vinod Mathew, “Nirma Turnover Up 85%,” Business Line (Chennai), 11 June 1997, 1.

26. Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appdurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 3.

27. In fact, limes rather than lemons are used; in Hindi, the word neembu is used for both fruits.

28. The addition of the lemon is at a “claim level,” and the product does not actually contain any lemon ingredients, although the addition of perfume helps to conceal this fact. This was confirmed recently in the press. India Journal (Los Angeles), 1 January 1999, B4. I thank Karen Leonard for the reference.

29. I am summarizing a complex battle that began in the mid-1980s and is still continuing, although Lever appears confident that it is now able to address the challenge, and that new growth in the detergents market will accrue to itself rather than to Nirma. In addition to the strategies mentioned, both companies tinkered with the formulation of their products while fighting price wars, increasing the amount of inert filler and reducing the active ingredients in the detergent. Nirma for its part also played the Hindu card, and in a more overt fashion, hiring the actress Deepika Chikhlia to act as herself in one ad campaign, ordering Nirma from a storekeeper, to his visible surprise. Chikhlia played the goddess Sita in the popular tele-epic, The Ramayan, and went on to become a Member of Parliament for the BJP.

30. Personal interview, January 7, 1997 (name and place withheld).

31. Already a blue-chip stock, Hindustan Lever attained the highest market capitalization of all firms traded in Indian stock markets after the recent phase of liberalization in 1992.

32. Navin Chopra, RK Swamy Advertising Co., New Delhi. Personal interview, 21 April 1994.

33. Harish Manwani, divisional vice president, marketing, Hindustan Lever Ltd., cited in Marion Arathoon, “When Heritage Is Not Enough,” Brand Equity, Economic Times, 5–11 April 1995, 1. The age profile of the Indian population is clearly not new. What Manwani leaves unspoken is that this threat is a recent one.

34. The organizational force of the grassroots cadre of the Hindu cadre was of course crucial in giving shape to the Hindu Right campaign, it should be noted. See Rajagopal, Politics after Television.

35. Interview with L. K. Advani, Economic Times, 8 August 1994. There were about forty million new voters between the age of eighteen and twenty-one who were eligible to vote in the November 1989 general elections, for instance. See Richard Sisson, “India in 1989: A Year of Elections in a Culture of Change,” Asian Survey 30 (January 1990): 120.

36. For an argument that examines the historically limited character of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, subsequently the Bharatiya Janata Party, see Bruce Graham, Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics: The Origins and Development of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

37. The Mandal Commission report, which recommended reservations for Backward Classes, was proposed to be implemented by the V. P. Singh government in order, among other things, to split the Hindutva vote; indeed, it made public the repressed secret of Hindutva, that its members were not equal, and that until recently the majority had not even been considered Hindus.