Avik Chattopadhyay: Opportunities in Adversity

10 Mar,2023

By Avik Chattopadhyay


Avik ChattopadhyayOn March 5, there was hue and cry on Indian social media. A video was shared on a set of banners and a tent set up on a quadrangle outside the UN office in Geneva when the UNHRC session was going on. The messages were disturbing, about child marriage, social oppression of women, atrocities on minorities, religious extremism and mistreatment of Dalits.


It was a sure ‘diplomatic’ embarrassment with the UNHCR delegates getting to read all this in Geneva as well as coinciding with the G20 Summit in India. And then the wider exposure through social media!


The government quickly swung into action right away branding the entire set-up as “malicious” and “anti-India”. The press carried the government’s message far and wide. And then of course social media machinery got into action of how such conspiracies are being hatched by the leftists, liberals, woke and anti-nationals who deliberately wish to do India down and break up the country at a time when it wishes to be the “vishwaguru” and teach the world lessons in democracy, social harmony, geo politics and economic growth.


In every WhatsApp group I am a part of, there were outbursts. Incidentally, all by the male members. Not a single woman spoke against the banners. I found this singularly interesting. One reaction read: “These dirty works have been done by our own inhouse traitors who are living like parasites.” Another read: “This is how the ecosystem against India works. Keep your eyes and ears open always.” Yet another read, “The same scriptwriter as RaGa’s speech in Cambridge.” And then the diatribe quickly degenerated into open filth about certain categories of Indians and certain faiths. I directly reached out to a few otherwise women in the groups and asked them how they react. They all agreed the act was brazen but each was embarrassed to face certain harsh realities!


Anger or embarrassment?

This is the first thing that struck me – are we angry at someone spreading lies or are we actually embarrassed? If it is the latter, why did the men react so virulently? Do they actually believe India has no social evils like child exploitation, religious bigotry and untouchability? Do they think these are stories woven by vested interests for centuries to always bring us a bad name? Why did the women not react on the same lines then?


This is so true for brands when they face such tests on issues like ecology, ethics and employee relations. Here too, their fundamentals are being questioned, not their existence. When protests are taken out against telecom or pharma companies how do they react? Do they get angry at the protestors or do they get embarrassed by their hidden realities that are now out in the open?


Anti what?

This is the second filter to be applied. What exactly is the protest against? Is it against specific deficiencies and ills in the country or the entire country itself? Is it based on concocted stories or realities? So, was the banner anti-child marriage or anti-India? Are we deliberately missing the wood for the trees? Would we be okay with the same protest happening in Gurdaspur in place of Geneva?


What is true for a nation brand is also true for a product brand. If people in Kerala protested about mercury poisoning from an HUL plant there, they were not against the entire company but a specific operation. The company has to have the basic maturity to understand this and then respond accordingly.


Introspective or seditious?

The third filter is about the intended impact of the protest – is it to expose you on a particular aspect or create situations that encourage division and social strife. Does the action expose a certain method of governance or openly attack the Constitution of India? The latter is the only benchmark that allows one to measure any action as being either defamatory or seditious. If the protest does not attack the constitution but instead upholds the values of nationhood that it espouses, that protest is very much valid and within the rights of citizenship. Forget about applying Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, the judicial system can uphold the very case for such a protest.


The same applies to any other brand. One has to evaluate the protest as whether it allows the organisation to relook at its operations and improve or whether it is created by competitive forces to destabilise its very existence. The response will be accordingly either redressive or reactionary.


Hubris or humility?

This was such a wonderful opportunity for India to take the higher ground and react as a true “vishwaguru” that we so yearn to be accepted as. The Ministry could engage with the institution that put up the display and assure the world that we acknowledge and accept our shortcomings but shall certainly surmount them. “Thank you for reminding us of some of our deficiencies. Nobody is perfect but we are constantly striving to improve as a nation.” Instead we behaved as a typical bully, brandishing a hockey stick as offence is the best form of defence. We branded the entire exercise as “anti-India” and increased the embarrassment on the global stage, no better than how a Turkey or Russia would have reacted.


Brands should never lose the opportunity of a protest to actually improve their connect with their stakeholders. Every adversity is another chance to renew ties and rebuild relationships. A protest is a warning to wake up, engage and improve. Not to refuse and rescind reality.


Every time there is something like the Hunger Index, Happiness Index, Women Safety Ranking or a simple protest like in Geneva on March 5, as a nation we get into the ultra-aggressive mode of denial and denigration instead of engagement. And we lose yet another opportunity to take a higher, mature ground. Ending up being more anti-India ourselves than those banners on some quadrangle!


On the occasion of the festival of colours (which has just passed us) I sign off with some words from Kanwal Dibayavi.


Holi Mubarak!


Avik Chattopadhyay is a senior brand strategist and commentator based in Gurugram. He writes on MxMIndia every other Thursdays and sometimes on other days as well. His views here are personal.


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