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Can American motorcycle icon Harley-Davidson decode Indian culture?

A family rides a motorcycle in Pushkar, Rajasthan, June 24, 2009.
REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A family rides a motorcycle in Pushkar, Rajasthan on June 24.

BANGALORE — Imagine a motorcycle designed for cruising on U.S. highways traversing through potholed roads while dodging quick-footed street vendors, assorted stray dogs and ambling cows.

That is no incongruity. The iconic, heavyweight Harley-Davidson motorcycles will soon thunder through the traffic-clogged streets of India, one of the world's largest motorcycle markets, where an estimated 100 million bikes are already on the roads.

The American classic's entry into India, long embroiled in diplomatic parleys about tariffs and emission regulations, was finally cleared in a 2007 trade negotiation famously termed the Mango-Motorcycle deal. The quid pro quo agreement allowed the import of Harley-Davidsons into India, in return for the export of Indian mangoes to the United States.

Heralding the motorcycle brand's arrival in India last week, two dozen classic Harley-Davidsons roared through downtown New Delhi, in streets dominated by Japanese brands such as Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki.

Eager Indian bikers will be able to buy the first of the motorcycles from dealers in 2010.  The bikes will be manufactured and assembled overseas and imported to India.

For Harley-Davidson, which has battled flagging sales in Western markets and has attempted to boost revenues through events and aggressive brand licensing, India is attractive territory.

The aspiration level of India's middle class is rising. These consumers increasingly covet foreign brands in all product categories ranging from clothing to sports shoes, deodorants to, Harley hopes, HOGs (the porcine acronym for the company's devoted members club, Harley Owners Group).

"The strong Indian economy, the growing middle class and the government's investment in infrastructure makes this the perfect time for our entry," Harley-Davidson president and COO Matthew Levatich was quoted as saying at the New Delhi launch.

India is indeed adding a network of fast highways, such as the so-called Golden Quadrilateral road network that links Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Its younger population is traveling more fore leisure. And the sizzling economic growth of recent years has boosted spending on lifestyle luxuries such as sporty motorcycles (the flashy Italian brand Ducati entered India last year).

But for Harley-Davidson, based in Milwaukee, Wis., there may be a sour mango in the basket.  With India refusing to drop import tariffs, the price of an entry-level Harley-Davidson bike in India is expected to be $14,000, or twice the sticker price in the United States.

So in India, the world's second largest market for motorcycles after China, that pricing does not exactly compare favorably when Japanese motorcycles manufactured by their Indian joint venture partners in the country are selling for $2,500.

These motorcycles are as popular a mode of transport in rural India's uneven roads as they are in busy city streets.

Additionally, Indian car manufacturers like Tata are trying to entice motorcycle owners into the car dealerships. Tata has recently launched a bargain-priced car called Nano for about $2,500, the same price as a motorcycle. So it is unlikely that the high-priced Harley-Davidson will become a hot seller motorcycle brand in India anytime soon.

Still, for an affluent slice of the population, including motorcycle buffs like Bangalore's Girish Desikan who have been content riding souped-up versions of local bikes, the entry of Harley-Davidson could not have come a day too soon.

"Bikers crave the Harley-Davidson experience," said Desikan, an accountant, who frequently hits the highway in his Japanese bike to feel the wind in his hair.

That there is room for marketing to the top layer has already been demonstrated by purveyors of luxury brands like Jimmy Choo shoes, Louis Vuitton luggage and BMW cars.

Some Indians will want bragging rights as being part of India's first HOGs.

But most, like the dozens who chased the Harley-Davidson fleet through the streets of New Delhi on launch day, will have to be content with just looking. And, of course, listening to the roar.

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