The world’s foremost political leaders must have been surprised as they read the invitation to attend India’s official gala dinner, held Sept. 9 during the G20 Leaders Summit in New Delhi. Who was welcoming them to this dinner? None other than Droupadi Murmu, President of… Bharat. Throughout the summit’s negotiation rounds, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat behind a nameplate identifying him as the representative from Bharat, the Hindi name synonymous to India, as recognized in the first article of the country’s current constitution. Parting with the country’s international name would require a constitutional amendment, though the government has not formally announced any intentions of pursuing this as of publication.
Recent global examples demonstrate how a country rebranding can be effective as a political instrument, while diverting attention from pressing issues.
A state’s decision to alter its name has enormous power, and those who do this can explain it as an attempt to market themselves as attractive tourist destinations, or as a symbolic way to break away from a troubled past, according to National Geographic. However, behind the scenes, no other sphere is more concerned about these rebrandings than the political class. Leaders are often aware that a big part of a nation’s pride and self-perception lies in its basic identity; as explained by University of Victoria professor Neilesh Bose, “…if one were to erase Bharat and only refer to India, then one runs the risk of erasing the vast and ancient foundations upon which India is built.” In a world of rising populism, this profound sentiment within the people is often targeted for electoral gains.
In India, controversy around this public name change for the country has ensued. Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is noted for its Hindu-nationalist ideology, which causes conflict between the state’s Hindu majority and Muslim and Sikh minorities. Modi’s administration is making a push to embrace Bharat as the main way to refer to the nation, on the grounds that “India” is a name originating from past colonial rule. Bharat, the name for India in various local languages, derives from the name of the ancient Vedic tribe of Bharatas. Meanwhile, India originates from the Sanskrit “Sindhu,” which Greek and Arab conquerors transformed to Hind and later to its current form.
Reuters recently reported that Modi’s political opposition opposes his interest in renaming the country, which they say has surged after the formation of Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), a political coalition that includes 2 out of 6 national parties, earlier this year. INDIA’s main aim is to remove the ruling BJP from office in the upcoming elections. This will prove a very difficult task, though, as Modi retains the highest prime minister approval rate in the world (76%), according to the Morning Consult.
High-profile country rebrandings have recently become a trend. In June 2022, the Turkish government officially announced that their country would stop being internationally referred to as Turkey, and from then on be known as Türkiye, the name of the country in the Turkish language. Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan has also been criticized for his ultranationalism, like Modi, and he expressed in 2021, “Türkiye is the best representation and expression of the Turkish people’s culture, civilization and values.” This renaming ties into Türkiye’s growing role in the international sphere, exemplified by its decisive role in allowing Sweden’s entrance to NATO, after vetoing it for months. Like in India, the rebranding happened right before the start of a competitive election season, resulting in Erdogan’s reelection. Unsurprisingly, the LA Times reported that he centered his campaign around themes of national pride.
Leaving behind a colonial past is often cited as the reason to rename a country. In 2018, for instance, according to CNN, absolute monarch King Mswati III of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, announced that his country would change its name. Swaziland was the name given to this African country by the British after establishing it as a territory in 1906. King Mswati III pushed for a change to eSwatini (also spelled Eswatini) a name he says more accurately represents ethnic Swazis, who make up 82.3% of the population.
The action drew pushback. Human rights activist Thulani Maseko started legal action against the decision, deeming it unconstitutional and too expensive for the country, which has the seventh highest income inequality in the world. It cost an estimated 26% of the country’s gross domestic product to rebrand it.
Tourism and marketing are also used as excuses to rename a country, hiding the one-sided desires of politicians. In 2013, former Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman revived the debate around shortening the Czech Republic’s name to one word. In a bid to motivate key players to use their national image, the Czech Republic initiated a campaign in 2016 for the country to be referred to as Czechia from then on. However, between similarities to the Russian region of Chechnya and the admission from Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis that he thought the name change was “stupid,” the campaign doesn’t appear to have quite achieved its goal.
Despite there being legitimate reasons why a country would want to change its name, this resource has often been instrumentalized into a weapon for political gain. As exemplified through several cases, the nationalist sentiment that populist and personalist leaders exacerbate can be one key reason behind renaming a territory.