Ravinder Kaur: From ‘Third World’ to ‘Emerging Market’

To talk about development is to talk about change. And along the notion of change comes the idea of ‘the new’. The notion of development goals for the future world has been around for quite some time. In this article we look at the contemporary notion of change and ‘the new’ in the region generally referred to as the ‘developing world’. This article specifically focuses on the rise of India as a ‘brand new nation’, and how we went from talking about ‘developing countries’ or ‘Third World’ countries to ‘Emerging Markets’. And we pay attention to the ambiguous affects and ideological consequences that arise from this change.   

I went to the University of Copenhagen’s South Campus to talk to PhD, Associate Professor and Head of Center at Modern South Asian Studies, Ravinder Kaur, about how a nation’s experience of change. When I step into the professor’s office, I notice a fascinating array of pictures on the walls. Our appointment takes place late February 2020 where protests against the Indian government’s 2019 Citizen Amendment Act are still taking place. On Dr. Kaur’s walls I see pictures of protestors demonstrating their solidarity with those threatened with exclusion from citizenship in India.

After receiving her MPhil in International Politics and South Asian Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Dr. Kaur came to the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and Roskilde University to do her PhD in International Development Studies. Today Dr. Kaur is an associate professor and head of Center at Modern South Asian Studies at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS), University of Copenhagen (UCPH). 

Brand New Nation

Dr. Kaur has invited me to discuss about her forthcoming book Brand New Nation – Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First Century India (to be published August 4, 2020). Kaur tells me that the book presents her work on India’s historical notion of itself as a ‘new nation’. Specifically, how the country went from colonial to postcolonial India and later evolved into its present state of ‘emerging market’: ”The work that I’m doing is basically about transformation and change. Since the mid-twentieth century the idea of development has been central to the making of the North/South power relations. This is the broader framework we have grown up with, also in the realm of scholarship. The change that I’m looking at is that ‘the south is now not deemed as the South anymore’. The nations in the global south are no longer seen as developing nations but are now referred to as emerging markets. Consider how increasingly financial assistance from the Western nations is increasingly labeled as ‘emerging market funds’ focused on innovation and enterprise rather than development aid.

What becomes apparent is that something new has been happening in the way nations in the global south are seen and imagined.

If you start to look back at the term ‘New India’, you will be surprised how old it actually is. When the term ‘new’ was used for the first time in the 19th century it was coined to indicate its entry into the world of British imperialism. It later came to be used to indicate social reform movements and later the anti-colonial struggle that led to the formation of an Independent India. Thus, terms like ‘the Dawn of new India’ or the birth of “New India” were associated with the emergence of India as a free nation.

Today, when we speak about New India, then the freedoms we speak about are mostly in economic terms, the mobility of capital. This language of economic freedoms emerged from the 1990’s economic reforms – or what was labeled as liberalization, privatization, globalization (LPG) – that worked to bring down trade barriers and open markets to foreign capital investments. This, broadly speaking, is the phenomenon of ‘emerging market’ that gained currency in the early twenty-first-century. Across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, nations began making structural adjustments to their economic institutions to open up for capital investments.

The present idea of ‘New India’, in that sense, is closely aligned with economic liberalization. This is the phenomenon that I have been trying to study. I call this phenomenon the making of the “brand new nation” that addresses how the nation has been rebranded as an investment destination. The idea of an investment destination is what I am calling a ‘brand’ – a double meaning of the word ‘brand’; as commodity and as something that flags its newness. ‘New’ as a claim, that ‘this is something new’. In business policy circles, investors often tend to speak about nations as futures commodity, that is, speculate whether a given territory is currently the investment hotspot, or where the next big growth is going to be.”

Incredible India

As the phenomenon of ‘New India’ is both an economic and cultural change, Kaur has paid attention to the circulation of new imagery in making its newness. Along the production of new images of ‘New India’ a new notion of ‘nation’ has been established. Kaur explains that a lot of this imagery is made for a global audience to generate tourism, however, Kaur has drawn attention to a domestic circulation of these tourist campaigns: “The Incredible India campaign was meant as a tourist campaign to present a different image of India to the world. But surprisingly a very large consumption of those images took place in India. In today’s digital age, images can’t really be controlled, or limited to specific audience. Incredible India images gained currency among Indians who started circulating those images. Incredible India imagined and showed India in a way the Indians wanted the world to see India.

The typical image of theIncredible India’ campaign is a beautiful clean image and one of the most remarkable thing is that there are hardly any people in it – which is surprising given that India is the worlds most populated place. What this indicates is how you would like to be seen – a kind of self-portrait – that contributes to the making of a new national identity which looks beautiful and attractive. So Incredible India became something everyone wanted to take part in, not just people but also big export firms. These images become something to hold on to and at the same time used almost as a trademark of novelty.”

Global Nationalism

What is remarkable in Kaur’s research is how it reveals the close affinity of what we call globalization with the resurgence of nationalism. Kaur claims that while globalization has opened the world for multinational investment, this global movement of capital plays a big role in shaping nation and nationalism in the twenty-first-century. This helps explain why we in recent years have seen a worldwide return to nationalism under globalization:

“The idea of globalization, at first, seems in contradiction to the idea of nationalism, yet seeing through the processes of branding specific territory and specific nations, we get a different picture. The ‘brand-new nation’ I am speaking about is a particular form of nationhood or particular form of nation and nationalism which has become part of our life in the 21st century. I was not very surprised when people stated saying that globalization is falling apart, and that nationalism is back. This is because you could see that national identity had never been weakened or dissolved and instead was taking a new shape all along albeit on different lines. Lets take a step back here. When we think of nation and nationalism, it is often in cultural historical terms. We are more used to the romantic notion, where the nation is seen as ‘a living thing’, where land and people, poetry and landscape is seen as part of that entity. The nation, this, is often referred to as the fatherland or the motherland just like human figures. What I am showing is something different, namely, that the nineteenth century idea of nation and nationalism is not sufficient to understand the twenty-first-century reality. We see that the nation has been put to work as a place/idea/resource where you produce economic growth. The economic and material side has always been important but it is now more visible than ever. There is nothing new in that trade is important and looking for material riches, but what is different in this is that this is no longer something to be ashamed of. That it is something we don’t hide. Actually, the more income or wealth you can produce, the more capital you can accumulate, the more it is seen as a kind of reification of the nation. The inflow of capital is often interpreted as a sign of approval of the nation and its culture ‘we are so loved that so many people want to come here’. The emotional side of this is important. When we speak of optimism and hope, it cannot be quantified, you cannot make quantitative data to put down, but they play a tremendously important role in creating a particular kind of reputation or image or brand imagery.”

Innovative India

Another stunning point that Kaur’s makes is that the North-South-Dichotomy is being reshaped in the 21st century. In her article “The Innovative Indian” (2016) Kaur points to the change of status that India has seen on the global scene: “For someone who has been working with development studies for long, I thought it was quite dramatic to see, how the Indian people who previously were seen as poor and in the need of development aid were now being portrayed as innovative entrepreneurs”. With reference to the influential book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (2004) by Indian professor of Corporate Strategy C.K. Prahalad (1941-2010), Kaur explains how the poor Indian people came to be perceived as an emerging group of consumers and innovators: “The influential idea that gained currency was that businesses have overlooked the potential of the poor as consumers. If you just start looking at them as consumers, you can solve a lot of problems. This was a major shift in the gaze. We were being asked to no longer look upon the poor as deserving sympathy and help, and instead see them as consumers. Take this scene in a short film shot in a Mumbai slum where C.K. Prahalad points to a boy collecting and organizing garbage and says, ‘look! on the street everyone is a hustler’. The garbage collector is seen anew as an entrepreneur capable of hustle. This is the neoliberal approach, that if only the free market was allowed to operate with total freedom then all of these people who have been caged and trapped, they would be liberated, and this would eventually trickle down wealth and prosperity. The mirror version of this logic is used in this part of the world (northern European countries) as a critique of the welfare state. Once the former British prime minister David Cameron referred to the Indian economic upheaval and innovativeness as motivated by ‘hunger’ and that the British society could benefit from experiencing such hunger. This is a (new) reimaging of the poor; first as consumers second as innovators.”

Interrupting the North-South-Dichotomy

It is also necessary to look at the shifting perception of the global south in ‘the developed’ part of the world: “What does it mean for the part of the world that has previously been referred to as the developing world to now be called emerging markets? Words are not meaningless, and they can activate an apparatus which can also create a world of its own. It is important, then, also in the global north to think about what these words do. The idea that ‘the south’ cannot exist without ‘the north’ has always been the power dynamic which has shaped our lives in different ways.

Yet the north-south dynamics are getting more blurred. Consider the ongoing backlash against globalization in the global north with factories shutting down and jobs moving elsewhere. Capital has of course moved on elsewhere looking for cheaper labor, that’s how capital works. For example, a place like Detroit which was known for its car industry was abandoned by the manufacturers. This abandonment came to be spoken of as the “third-worldization” of Detroit. What we see here is the language of hopelessness associated with the old third world was being used in this context. On one hand, it seems, there is no other language than the north-south contrasts to describe what is happening in Detroit, yet these geographies that have been fixed (North=Prosperity,  South =Deprivation) are getting disrupted. What I am saying is that many of these geographies that we are very familiar with are not that certain anymore, and that is important. Similar in Denmark we have started talking about peripheral Denmark [Udkantsdanmark], (referring to the American Marxian Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s term of ‘the periphery’) when we speak about deprivation. This is the same process of accumulation and abandonment when capital moves elsewhere in search of growth.”

Nicklas Alexander Kirchert is Master of Modern Culture and Cultural Dissemination, UCPH, and DDRN Culture Editor