The glory can obscure the ignominy that dogged the Commonwealth Games, but learn we must from our mistakes..
K. Murali Kumar
Brand India, but at what cost? (Above) The closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games 2010, at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
It was the 14th of October 2010. As I sat in front of the TV set, my eyes glued to the fantastic closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, I felt a sense of pride. Surely the opening and closing ceremonies that we made happen were comparable to anything that the rest of the world may struggle to put together.
The Commonwealth Games ended in a blaze of glory for India. Our athletes did us proud by winning over a hundred medals including silver for hockey, the national game we seem to have forgotten. (It would be churlish to talk about the margin of defeat to Australia — it is much better to talk about how we brown-washed them in cricket). The visiting dignitaries were impressed with our handling of the Games and a few who mattered did speak of India having the capability to host the Olympics in the not-too-distant future. The media too, which had been extremely critical in the build-up to the Commonwealth Games, has thankfully turned its attention to the performance of the Indian athletes who rose to the occasion.
The spiralling Sensex, the medals, and the phenomenal performance of Sachin Tendulkar have all made Indians and the Indian media forget the heartburn and the embarrassment of the last few weeks. They have worn rose-tinted spectacles as India shines again and Brand India is again something to be respected and deified.
Indians are great examples of the statement that public memory is short. Anything will be forgotten and time will heal any insult or enable one to come out of it. But I believe India and Indians should not be carried away by the moment and not forget what happened or forgive those guilty, which is precisely why I admire social activist and actor Gul Panag for planning a protest on the day after the closing of the Games.
Let me jog your memory about what happened just a few weeks ago as India made a collective ass of itself and invited the scorn of the world. If this column were to have been written on September 27 instead of October 14, what would I have written? Here goes…
Blame it on the time
Have you heard the term ‘ Rahu Kalam'? Let me explain for the benefit of those from other parts of India. It is a dreaded 90 minutes of the day when no Tamilian will undertake anything important or auspicious. Most of us know these timings like the back of our hand and often plan our day taking this frightening time of day into our calculations. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Commonwealth Games, which is as big a disaster as one can imagine, must have commenced at the peak of Rahu Kalam! For everything that could have possibly gone wrong with it went horribly wrong. It has been amplified by the media and a critical Indian middle-class, with uninhibited support from our NRIs, educated at IITs and IIMs, who have used the Net to great effect to vent their ire.
I had resisted the temptation to add another 1,500 words to the megabytes already spewed on the subject till now. But then, I was reminded of what the RBI Governor, D. Subbarao, had to say about learning from crises — that they are too good not to learn from. There is a similar need to talk about the learnings from the CWG fiasco and the implications for Brand India and its image, which has taken a severe beating over the last few weeks, never mind how good the salvage operations turned out to be. So, what are the learnings for Brand India?
Brands need champions
Every brand needs a champion. Someone who is passionate about it and will ensure that it succeeds against all odds. Today, the Delhi Metro is something that we are all proud of and maybe the Commonwealth Games needed a E. Sreedharan to see it through. Who is the face of the Commonwealth Games? Suresh Kalmadi? What a misfit! It is like appointing Harbajan Singh and Andrew Symonds as moral science teachers!
Brands too need leadership in crises and if this was not a crisis, I wonder what is! India losing to Ireland in the cricket World Cup next year maybe? So where was the leadership of India? Where was Manmohan Singh and where was the “new, white hope of India”, Rahul Gandhi? He would have been better served making a few visits to the Games Village than to colleges in Bangalore. The Games and Brand India suffered from a lack of leadership and the absence of a champion and the leadership that finally surfaced was clearly a case of “too little, too late”. Who is Brand India's champion?
What's a minor glitch between friends?
Every student of public relations must analyse the entire CWG fiasco in the context of the need to be honest and come clean instead of attempting to sweep the dirt under the carpet. And clearly, there was a lot of muck that was floating around. When the s**t was literally hitting the roof, what was one to make of the statements about “minor glitches” and “Indian standards of hygiene”? When all eyes were on the debacle and the media was out to magnify even minor issues, the blatant misreading of the mood of the nation smacks of either complete arrogance or blissful ignorance, take your pick. Even a junior brand manager in a large, well-run corporation would have shown a greater understanding of the magnitude of the crisis. I daresay that this comes from the larger Indian malaise of “anything can be fixed”. Most things probably can, but not your image. Even if your image is fixed, it would take time, effort and hopefully some strategic direction. It is important for people in branding to gauge the mood of their target audiences and their consumers.
The power of the Net
Some old-timers talk of how the much touted Asian Games too was in complete shambles till the inauguration, of how public memory is short and how soon all will be forgiven and forgotten.
There is a difference. Today we have the Net, where errors of this magnitude are cast in stone and preserved for posterity, unlike 28 years ago. Also India's situation in the world has changed. It is no longer a country that no one cares or writes about. People are watching it and, if I may add, waiting for it to fail. And boy, have we given our critics enough fodder!
A time for action
Let me cut back to the present from the sordid past. I think whatever we have done now in terms of retrieving the situation has been more in the nature of fire-fighting. The damage has been done to Brand India, both in India and globally. Instead of trying to wish it away, I think the sensible option is to learn.
Yes, the focus has shifted to our performances on the field and on the glitz and glamour of the opening and closing ceremonies. But those concerned with India must introspect. If we still keep saying this is a minor glitch then we deserve every bit of criticism coming our way and forget any aspirations of being a brand that the world will look up to. What is more likely is that we will be a brand that constantly provides learning on “what not to do”.
So, where do we go from here? Brand India, learn and move on! And what about the rest of India that is watching from the sidelines? Remember how we almost made a mess of our opportunity to take a place in the sun. If nothing changes, change the custodians of Brand India to someone who truly will care for it, when we still have the chance!
(Ramanujam Sridhar CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.
Find me on Facebook: facebook.com/RamanujamSridhar & Twitter: twitter.com/RamanujamSri .)