Mental Maps of Nationalism: Indo-German Business Relations and the Challenge of Political Transition

India’s transition to independence created a host of challenges for business. Multinational companies of many origins set out to engage with the new political regime, often by showcasing their contributions to India’s development agenda. To that end, German firms did not only offer their technology and products but also elevated the non-colonial character of their endeavors. At the firm level, this required sensible political strategizing. In this process, German businesspeople were guided by their “mental map of nationalism” that foregrounded joint aspirations and the historical relationship between India and Germany. This paper explores the role of this mental map and argues that mental maps, defined as “spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world,” (Lewis & Wigen 1997: ix) reduced the mass of information on nationalisms and distilled them to a guiding vision. Based on archival sources from the electrical company Siemens, the chemical firm Bayer, and the steel manufacturer Krupp, I explore how mental maps were used to navigate the political transition in India. Yet, these maps did not replicate the world of nations, they distilled and packaged the various experiences with nationalism into useful shortcuts. As such, they were deeply ideological and changed over time. Tracing the evolvement of the mental map of nationalism from the 1940s to the 1970s, I explore a fundamental change that occurred in the way that businesspeople interpreted the Indo-German relationship and India’s role in the world. As actors perceived the world in new ways, the older mental map of Germany’s non-colonial contribution to Indian development was being given a new spin. What emerged was a new understanding of the global economy, now shaped by Cold War considerations, that foregrounded India’s stage of growth and its seemingly inevitable development path.