Difference Between a “Real” Indian and an “Elite” Indian – Read the Interview of the Viacom-Network 18 COO & the WSJ India Editor

We first discussed India’s “Colors” Network in our August 2009 article about Fox Business & CNBC . This network  began as a startup in July 2008. It exploded through India’s cluttered media space to become the No. 1 rated entertainment network in a short span of time. We heard Viacom’s CEO Philippe Dauman rave about the success of Colors during his interview with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo. That is when we realized for the first time that Colors was partially owned by Viacom.

There is nothing American about the programming on Colors. In fact, the most successful show on Colors is Ballika Vadhu (a very young bride). Yet, we watched a feminist liberal Indian-American woman get captivated by this show, a woman with a Ph.D. in Mathematics who has been an American for over 40 years. She watched this show in Mumbai with a couple of Indian women who worked as domestic help and was equally enthralled. That is when we knew Colors had struck a gusher. 

During the CNBC interview, Viacom’s Dauman had said that they were going to bring Colors to America, Last month, they did. The Viacom-Network 18 joint venture launched this channel in America as ‘Aapka Colors” (your Colors) on Dish Network. Mr. Rajesh Kamat, CEO of Colors, spoke with S. Mitra Kalita of the Wall Street Journal last week. Read the edited excerpts of this interview at 
This Channel Hopes to See Green on the WSJ website.  

Mr. Kamat explains some interesting aspects of their strategy to increase their viewership. They got the 15-24 year old viewers with their reality show “Fear Factor:” with Akshay Kumar, the Bollywood star. This demographic was the tip of the iceberg according to Mr. Kamat.

But the chunk of the iceberg is the homemaker or the housewife. (The chunk, we presume, is used to describe the size of the viewership and not the size of the Indian housewife.)  How did Colors get this chunk? Mr. Kamat explains “The housewife uses the up and down button on the remote control. We started a strategy to be near the other popular channels. If Zee was channel 8, we’d be 9. In Gujarat, if Star Plus was leading, we went and sat next to Star Plus”.  

Allow us to digress for a few moments. 

Indian-Americans have been successful in America in many fields, Medicine, Technology, Internet Startups, Private Equity, Hedge Funds, Wall Street and Management Consulting. In our experience, these people are proud of who they are. They remember their roots and are rooted in their values & culture. 

Recently, several Indian-Americans have become visible in journalism and liberal arts. Unfortunately, we find these people to be quite different. In our experience, they strive to be even more “correct” in their viewpoints than their European-American colleagues. They exhibit their Indian-ness to differentiate themselves a little bit but not too much. They go to great lengths to show that they are as european* in their outlook as their non-Indian colleagues. They are extremely liberal in their professed viewpoints. For example, they will wax eloquent about the virtues of public schools but never will they think of sending their own children to public schools. They will never correct their colleagues about wrong pronunciation of Indian names or correct any misconceptions their colleagues might have. In fact, they tend to look down on real Americans as well. They do not watch Football or Baseball, they dislike Hollywood films and they shy away from small town America. They talk about their summers in Tuscany but would not dream of going to Tuscon or Santa Fe.

We see a lot of these people in New York, Washington DC and Boston. It is hard to tell these “elite” Indians apart. But here is a trick. Their use of a code word usually sets them apart. That code word is “masses”. 

These “elite” Indians use the word “masses” to describe ordinary Indians, people who have traditional Indian value systems and culture. “Masses” is such a pregnant word. Use of this elitist code word denigrates an entire continent of people to a lower category, to a status of non-individuals and it elevates the people who use the code word to a high-brow, cultured status of people who are above the poverty, the ordinary problems and non-English or “uncouth” aspect of Indian society.  

“Real” Indians would never think of using the word “masses” to describe their countrymen. Because they consider themselves to be one of the “masses”. This is why you find “real” Indian-Americans going back to their colleges, institutes and cities to give back knowledge and funding to help others like themselves. You will find these “real” Indians at football & baseball games in America; you will find these “real” Indians enjoying both Bollywood & Hollywood movies; you will also find these “real” Indians embracing their values in public and teaching others about the greatness of their culture. 

Getting back to the Wall Street Journal, we have wondered about S. Mitra Kalita since she began writing for the Wall Street Journal India Edition. Her New Global Indian series portrays people and issues that seem suspiciously like “elite” Indians, the type more at home being British than Indian.  But this has just been a suspicion of ours. Then we read her exchange below with Rajesh Kamat, the CEO of Colors:

  • Ms. Kalita of WSJ – “Is your programming catered to the masses or the middle class?” 
  • Mr. Kamat of Colors – “We recognize there is an India and there is Bharat. Their aspirations are different. We have aspects that cater to both.”

This is such a subtle put down by Mr. Kamat. The “real” name of India is Bharat. Go to any political rally in India and hear smart politicians talk about Bharat-Mata (Mother Bharat). So when you want to reach “real” Indians, you use the name Bharat. But that is not a name the “elite” Indians use. To be successful in India, companies need to understand and appeal to Bharat. If you get Bharat right, you will also get India right. Remember our Mathematics Ph.D. feminist liberal Indian-American lady who watched the Ballika Vadhu show with two Indian women who do not speak a word of English. She is Bharat and India.

The distinction between Bharat and India is just as critical in the economic arena. Companies that are successful in India learn to sell to the rural Indian market and that is all Bharat. Niche companies like Gucci or Versace can make a decent living selling only to India but Proctor & Gamble, Colgate, Coca-Cola, Pepsi as well as Microsoft thrive by selling to Bharat. 

Any American journalist who wishes to cover India should become familiar with Bharat. If they do, they will succeed in a way that the “elite” Indians cannot. This is because  the vast majority of Indians in India want to speak with “real” Americans than “elite” Indians like S. Mitra Kalita. 

It is quite possible that we are being unfair to S. Mitra Kalita of the Wall Street Journal. After all, her use of the code word of Indian elitism might be accidental rather than intentional. So in the tradition of this blog, we invite her to tell us her point of view. If we are wrong, we will apologize to her and to our readers. But will she care to speak to a simple Bharatiya-American like us?

* Remember the Seinfeld episode about the man-purse. When Jerry was put down for carrying a purse, his response “it is european”.

Send your feedback to [email protected]