The Spoils of War

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Last year's military heroics in the mountains of Kashmir have sparked a fad for patriotism in India

Indian theatrical productions normally can't afford the steep cost of advertising on television. But producers of The Fifty Day War recently launched an aggressive prime-time TV campaign, paid for with $300,000 raised from sponsors. Their secret? The play--with its 120-member cast--is about one of the most marketable emotions in recent times, India's campaign against Pakistani intruders in Kargil last spring. Despite the painfully flat patriotic songs, some corny dialogue (He may have been too young to marry, but he was not too young to die) and the hefty ticket price, the show sold out last month, applauded even by the Prime Minister.

The Kargil spirit also moved advertisers, who hoped the patriotic sentiment would rub off on their products. Just outside the set of The Fifty Day War, which was constructed on the hilly rocks outside Delhi with white canvas shrouds to depict the snow-covered mountains of Kashmir, Welcomegroup erected billboards promoting its hotels. On a giant video screen nearby, Essar touted its mobile-phone services. Footwear maker Liberty took the patriotic theme even further. In a makeshift bunker, plastic soldiers behind sandbags protected a pair of the company's boots, touted as a work of art made to the specifications of the armed forces and dedicated to the spirit of the Indian soldier. Awestruck Indians came and stared; some even picked the boots up. On a recent evening a young boy asked his mother if they had belonged to a dead soldier. No, she might have answered, just another marketer trying to cash in on the surge in nationalist feeling after the war.

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Advertisers look to make money from patriotic fervor India's politicians set the tone. Within weeks of the cease-fire last summer, the national election season kicked off. Popular songs were hastily rewritten to praise the courage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Even now, almost a year later, Brand Kargil sells. Despite a fresh upsurge of violence in Kashmir, a software-industry driven boom in the stock market and Bill Clinton's recent visit to South Asia, Indian businessmen still hope to capture the lump-in-the-throat effect. Admits the director of The Fifty Day War, Aamir Raza Husain: I am very happy with the kind of emotional response I am getting. There is a great sense of patriotism and it makes people get soppy and sentimental.

India has experienced insurgencies and militant secessionist movements for years, but rarely has any triggered this level of patriotic fervor. In the past, only films and cricket matches captured so much of the public's attention. Private TV networks brought the booming artillery guns into living rooms, along with images of comrades honoring soldiers killed in action. More than 1,000 Indian and Pakistani families lost sons in the fighting, and hundreds of soldiers are still rebuilding their lives after being maimed. Billions of dollars were blown to smoke as guns pounded the Himalayas--money that both countries could have used to provide health, education or food to the millions still struggling below the poverty line.

But there is little sense of regret. Indians are still outraged by what they consider Pakistan's treachery, and businessmen are profiting from this mood with stunning entrepreneurial chutzpah. Weddings are being held inside sets made of canvas tents painted to look like the Himalayan battlefield, with sack-stuffed troops standing guard. Music-video directors are indulging the theme, with countless productions depicting men leaving for war or returning triumphantly, or showing the plight of their dependent wives. Lions Clubs International is marketing a Kargil war memento: a model of an artillery gun made from the shell casing of an 155-mm howitzer.

Movie scriptwriters are also getting in the act, feverishly scribbling dramas based on the fighting for Bollywood producers. Grand dialogue is back. Cornered against a wall, the Indian hero in the film Pukar shoves a finger up a Pakistani nose: You could not take away even a pebble from Kargil and you dare to dream of Kashmir and her apples? Media Transasia is selling a VCD that promises exclusive frontline footage of the Kargil war. The CD actually traces the history of the conflict in Kashmir, but we called it 'Kargil' because the name has commercial value, explains Xavier Collaco, the company's director. With just a single magazine ad, he has already received 500 mail orders. Some people in the land of pacifist Mohandas Gandhi are discovering that there is a point to violence: profit.