Here is a consideration of INDIA, the acronym chosen by the opposition alliance, considered purely as a name and a strategic idea. 

It’s from the perspective of our work in naming. We name entities (products, companies, brands) that are being born, and often rename others that are changing course. 

Maybe the INDIA alliance is a bit of both?

Let’s begin with the conclusion. It is this: that the excitement over the name as a masterstroke by the opposition alliance is greatly overdone. Likewise, the consternation that the BJP is said to be showing, is a temporary phenomenon, and it should not over-weigh the importance of the name. 

There is a tactical advance that the name INDIA suggests, especially to its hopeful legion of followers.

It’s a cheeky move, appearing to steal from the Modi/BJP playbook of acronyms and coinages. In the manner of a once timid schoolboy, who jumps over the benches and dares to rip a page from the class bully’s notebook, it signals an opposition ready for a scrap against unequal odds. It’s countering the NDA’s three words with five, even if it is a somewhat clumsy mouthful (developmental? really?) which shoehorns its entire election pitch into the name. 

And the other evening, for example, INDIA made for chatpata television viewing. It allowed the Congress spokesperson to retort to her RSS opponent that he should, if he dislikes INDIA, “go to Pakistan”. 

Such fun will be short lived. Political parties can’t draw clever double meanings from their names in anything but the very short term. The name AAP presents many opportunities to stand for a truly aam aadmi politics, but it hasn’t done so. 

Some claim that the name will cramp the BJP’s style as they will appear to criticise the nation when they lampoon (as they will) the INDIA alliance. This amazing effect will last about three hours. The alliance can be branded “yeh INDIA wale log” pointing to a typically angrezi name owned by rootless dynasts. Alliance supporters will reply (and have) that INDIA is nowadays a Bharatiya word; the BJP has used it to suffix a dozen programs, and that millions cheer India, not Bharat at cricket. It’s a draw!

Already a BJP leader has complained to the Election Commission, citing among other things, a “lack of originality”, and the dignity of the country. I sympathise, but the complainant should take a few deep breaths and let time pass. The INDIA alliance is not an electoral entity; its fate will be decided in Parliament. Lawyers must be drooling at the prospect of arguing this spicy matter should it arise in court. 

The perspective missed by most is that names have a temporary effect. Over time, the meaning or emotional response to a name comes from the thing to which it is attached, not the name itself. We do not think of a marwari or a Congress financier (as Jamnalal Bajaj was) when we ride a Bajaj, or care whether Volkswagen is a people’s car, or associate it with Hitler. 

Instead, the process flows in reverse. 

The car, and its imagery, gives the name Volkswagen meaning. The process that occurs over time, like sediments of image and memory overlaid one over the other until a complex, rich picture emerges. If it survives, that is; if the Beetle had not carried VW into automobile lore, the name would have stood for an obscure German idea with Nazi roots, deservedly stillborn. 

Let’s apply this to INDIA. 

If the alliance does well for itself, the name will be favourably viewed, as an appropriate, even profound, reclaiming of space from a rival political discourse. Conversely, if the alliance flounders, it will be seen as an overreaching, presumptuous and failed effort to shove a sub-continent sized bite into its sorry mouth, a typically undercooked move by Rahul Gandhi. But the name and the alliance will die together.

If the gains from the move are low, so are the risks. That makes it an acceptable strategy for the challenger in the battle, not the incumbent leader. Where the risk of failure can be ignored, where the uncertainty of the future gives the move an appearance of daring, with nothing to lose. After all the alliance itself is just an intention, a sentiment, not a hard political formation—yet. So it can afford to have the feel of a ‘lightweight’ campaign idea rather than as a well considered name for the longer term. 

The success of INDIA the name will be decided by the battle for India. Not the civilisational idea of India that both sides are fighting for, but the electoral one decided by the Lok Sabha election. And its delicious aftermath: but let’s hope it’s decided by an election and not in sundry resorts…