City City Bang Bang, Columns

F1:In the name of brand India


Is there too much negativity around the coming of Formula 1 racing to India? Is progress a zero sum game, where the new and shiny is always beholden to the old and grim? Must we frame all good news through the bad and berate advancement by reminding ourselves of all that has not been achieved? There are many Indias and surely the success of one need not always come at the cost of another. Formula 1 is an expensive sport, no doubt, but it does place India among a select group of countries that have the capability and the affluence to pull an event of this kind.

These are some of the arguments that have been made in support of this move and there is much that is true about them. India has clearly moved on the days when the need to be reminded about the poor became a form of mental prison from which there was little possibility of escape. And certainly, if an event like Formula 1 comes to India, and is supported by the private sector, then by itself, it should be welcomed. The questions reside not so much in the staging of the event, but in what surrounds it. The demand put forward by some that the sport should be granted tax exemption because of the high costs and the consequent lack of viability of the investment needs closer inspection. As does the notion that events like these are critical for boosting the image of Brand India.

The fact that anyone can demand tax exemption for an event like this, borders on the bizarre. Here we have a sport very few Indians understand or follow, one which a handful of people can even dream of actually playing, and one which requires an enormous amount of infrastructure- all for two days in the year. The tickets are extremely expensive, and the sport receives strong commercial support from brands eager to link themselves with the glamour and prestige associated with the event. Barring a few that follow Formula 1 as a sport, and there are admittedly those that are diehard fans, for the others, Formula 1 is a new date on the social calendar, a place where one can dress and kiss the air around the fragrant cheeks of fellow schmoozers. If this sport cannot sustain itself given the prices it charges, then it does not deserve to be here. The demand for subsidising the indulgence of the rich in the name of Brand India is an absurdly insensitive one and tells us more about ourselves than we should care to know.

By locating such premier events in the idea of Brand India, we are in effect arguing that the best advertisements for the country are its rich and glamorous and they need to be subsidised for their labour. This is an interesting reversal of traditional idea of taxation where the affluent share their good fortune with others and acknowledge that they receive a disproportionate share of the state’s largesse. By a series of incremental steps of logic, we equate the India with its branded version, airbrush away all that is negative about the country, concentrate our energies on projecting the desirable face of India, and then ask for a price for doing so. Using this logic, any luxury brand that comes to India should receive state subsidy, for it allegedly boosts the image of India. The truth is that Formula 1 is here because it needs the Indian market, not because India needs an image boost.

More importantly, this argument rests upon a mistaken notion about the idea of brands. The belief that a brand is something that gets created by magnifying selectively chosen good news about oneself is far too simplistic, particularly when we talk of a country and a civilisation as a brand. The idea that impressions about India can be controlled and depend on what messages are emitted is simply not true. Any country, and certainly one as large and diverse as India leaks messages from every pore. The world does not only see what we want it to see, and forms its impressions about the country from several different sources. Even any one event like the Formula 1 can get reported and understood in several very different ways. For instance, the day before the race what made news was the appearance of a stray dog inside the circuit. And an event of such grand scale like the CWG, far from raising the image of India ended up doing the very opposite.

The implicit principle at work is that whenever an attempt is made to project an image that is too far from reality, sooner or later the truth is likely to break through. In a country where good roads have only recently begun to appear and even those disappear after every monsoon, a world class race track built with international expertise is more likely to draw attention to the abysmal state of roads in general than to the excellence of the race circuit. The importance given to a sport like Formula 1 only underscores the pathetic condition of other sports in India. Brand India is not a fiction we put up for the benefit of the developed world but a reality that we are constructing for the benefit of all of India. The country cannot be hijacked by a small minority in the name of this misunderstood formulation called Brand India. There is nothing wrong with staging the Formula 1 race in India, as long as we recognise it for what it is. An exciting indulgence for those who can afford to pay for it.