It is said that one must always pursue one's passion. Mine is to watch cookery videos on YouTube. That is exactly what I was doing one lazy afternoon last month when I chanced upon a video from one of my favourite YouTube channels, called "Village Cooking Channel". Usually, it shows a team of men from rural Tamil Nadu cooking up mountains of food. This one showed them making something they called mushroom biryani. I would normally have boycotted such biryani-heresy but I stayed on for the surprise guest the thumbnail advertised - Rahul Gandhi.
The Man-Who-Could-Not-Be-PM arrived on the scene and helped with making an onion raita. If you have ever watched any of the channel's videos (and you must), you'll know the chaps follow a ritual of shouting out the names of each ingredient at the top of their voice. It adds that je nais se quois and a certain joie de vivre (pardon my French), making the videos that much more watchable. Rahul tried his best to do the same, shouting "vengaai"(onion), "tayyir" (curd) and "Kal uppu"(no idea what that means). He wasn't awkward, but he wasn't entirely comfortable.
A few days later, social media exposed me to videos of Rahul Gandhi doing a jig on stage with the 'people'. This, as we old-timers know, is a family tradition. Indira Gandhi used to routinely dance with the 'folk' for NFDC newsreels that preceded trailers in movie halls. Later, Rajiv Gandhi did it on DD. What went viral though was Rahul's other move - jumping into the sea and swimming with fishermen. Rather foolhardy, I might say, since you could get eaten by sharks or catch a chill. He got out, dried himself, and then promptly partook in a push-up competition against high school kids.
It was a decent beginning to a reimagining of his public iconography. The BJP has successfully branded Rahul as a 'Pappu'. His gaffes - some real, others manufactured through clever editing - have made it tough for even hardcore Congressis to fully back him. If PM Modi has been established as the 56-inch iron man, Rahul's public image is that of a reluctant and bumbling politician. In India's patriarchy-infused public culture, Rahul is considered somewhat effete.
But now, people are talking about his physical prowess. A 50-year-old man who can outswim fisherfolk and out-push-up young students. Someone who is a secret master of Aikido, a martial art that not only helps the practitioner defend against attackers, but also ensures that the attackers too are not seriously harmed (yes, I got this off Wikipedia; So?) Whatever he may or may not be, the guy is fit. My wife sent me an Instagram link which pointed to Rahul's six-pack, which is four less than what I have. The entertainment value generated was such that even that part of the media which habitually pans him gave Rahul some positive press
Clearly this is part of an image-rebuilding exercise, which is likely to unfold episodically over the coming months and years. This is essential for the Congress to be able to position Rahul as a powerful leader. The objective is to present his outward softness as the life choice of a physically fit, even strong, man. The image accompanies the idea that although he was born in India's First Family, he is a man of the people. Provided, of course, that the 'people' never forget his superior social capital.
This is the exact counterpoint to the image Narendra Modi built after he returned as Gujarat Chief Minister in 2007. The idea was to project him as both India's Vikas Purush and the heir to Sardar Patel's "Iron Man" title. It took several years of concentrated effort, in the media and even academia, to perfect the image which would later create the 'Modi Wave'. There were stories, jokes, memes, cartoons, and Bal Narendra comic books that were used to manufacture Modi's persona. Now the Prime Minister is building a new image, that of a Rajrishi, the sage king. He presents himself in the public arena as the person who has attained ultimate mastery of both shakti and gyan, power and knowledge. As Rajrishi, Modi is no longer just a PM, who is meant to rule in accordance with the wishes of citizens; instead, he is meant to rule by his own internal guide, since he already knows what is best for the people.
This is a crucial transition that accompanies the BJP's centralising project, where decisions taken at the centre are to be applicable by law to all states (take GST or the new farm laws for instance). It is also a new phase where the government invokes its unprecedented public mandate to take structure-changing decisions, bypassing the old institutions of the Indian state. Things that once seemed politically impossible, now are done by fiat; for example, scrapping Article 370. This is a state that is diluting democratic conventions, with significant popular support. The Rajrishi figure is ideally suited for this polity.
Rahul's image-making is aimed as a counterpoint. It comes in a political atmosphere which is ruled by TINA (There Is No Alternative). Rahul and his advisors are trying to create that alternative. They have realised that politics is about power, and the Indian voter backs those who exude it. But in various traditions across India, both religious and secular, power can be absolute, or it can be gentle. By publicising his physical prowess, Rahul is trying to take up the second position. The question is not just whether he will succeed, but also whether he has the stamina and will to keep at it.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
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