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Coolie Number One

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By Dr. Satish C. Aikant

A picture of Rahul Gandhi donning a coolie’s attire at Anand Vihar railway station in Delhi has gone viral on the social media (I hate the horrific word ‘viral’ unless social media itself is considered a form of viral disease).  It may sound preposterous to compare the scion of the Gandhi family with a coolie, drawing analogy from a Govinda starrer comedy film Coolie No. 1, but let me, at the risk of being misunderstood, clearly state that I don’t mean it in a sense which metamorphoses Rahul Gandhi into a subaltern subject. I would rather affirm his dignity as a common man. Invoking a comic movie may not seem far-fetched considering that politics in India today resembles a comic drama which sometimes acquires the shades of a dark comedy. One may recall the recent outburst of a BJP Member of Lok Sabha Ramesh Bidhuri against a fellow member of Parliament using language that uses words which cannot be reproduced here. Bidhuri, of course, has been suitably rewarded by the BJP high command by being made the in charge of an assembly constituency in poll -bound Rajasthan.

There is another video that is circulating in the social media: that of the former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who was recently seen at a train station carrying his own bags and a backpack without seeking any assistance. However, Boris Johnson’s video did not go viral in the UK as did Rahul Gandhi’s in Indian social media.  For the British public Johnson’s act was not conspicuous but a common enough scene. In India it will be considered scandalous if a sahib or a ruling party neta is seen carrying his own bags. Fans and followers will rush to the neta ji to divest him of the encumbrance with the protestation that the neta ji, already weighed down with the problems of the common man, cannot be allowed to suffer any more burden.

While most of the congressmen may not agree with me, it is my contention that Rahul Gandhi’s coolie avatar was more of a symbolic gesture devoid of any deeper reflection into the condition of the poor and the underprivileged. But even as a symbolic gesture it is a welcome act in as much as it brings him closer to the common populace. In recent years he has been performing such acts which, in some way, is a reaction to Narendra Modi’s image carefully cultivated in the social media as a very successful political leader, a self-made and humble person who once sold tea at a railway station in Gujarat. Modi’s qualities of oratory and a knack for histrionics have only bolstered his image of a populist leader.

The use of symbolism in Indian politics is nothing new though its form and content have been changing.  The Salt March by Mahatma Gandhi was a brilliant and strategic exercise in public relations.  Like Modi Gandhi was a powerful communicator and effectively used media to put across his message. Media persons were scrambling for a picture of the precise moment when he broke British law by defying the Salt Act, a symbolic act of civil disobedience that destabilised and eventually overthrew the British power in India. Public rituals during mass mobilizations were a means of reclaiming self in colonial India.

The political symbolism currently being appropriated by the Hindu right in India shares a great deal with much older, Congress- driven forms of national mobilization. Apart from employing supposedly unifying national myths and figures, the use of different public arenas – festivals, public buildings, or temples – in often quite theatrical ways, for example, to convey political messages across India, is common to the late colonial period and contemporary times.

In one of Modi’s speeches in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, in 2014, during his election campaign one could hear him declaim: ‘India is done with this (i.e., Nehru- Gandhi) dynasty. India has had them for over sixty years. It’s time for the poor and the dispossessed to rise to the top … the government of mother and son is about to go, nothing can stop it now.’  Rhetoric about the end of a dynasty automatically evoked the idea of the end of an era, and movement away from autocracy to democracy, and reflecting the idea of the end of the new princes’ rule over India. If India had its tryst with real freedom the moment came not in 1947 but in 2014 !

The Modi phenomenon also represents a celebritization of Indian politics and denotes a significant shift in political communication. The personality cult associated with Modi can be seen  in terms of a corporate deity replete with majoritarian religious symbols and populist tribalism that is infused into public subjectivity through astute use of tools of global capitalism such as public relations, narrative and  lifestyle branding, making generous use of technology. Modi  emerges as a unique figure in the Indian political sphere as the first major political leader to utilize media, marketing, branding and public relations in a strategic fashion in his political campaigns. The  innovative use of social media and technologies captivate the middle class with their symbolism of indicating modernity and progress while simultaneously mesmerizing the common masses, many of them illiterate, with technology-driven affect. Creating a digital public sphere through media and technological innovation shapes a customized image of a political leader as in a marketing process, specifically in the deliberate construction of his larger-than-life persona, which is similar to the persona of a celebrity in the entertainment industry.

Modi straddles the world stage with extraordinary pomp and élan. Politics for him is a series of performative acts.  While speaking at a public platform he is always conscious of what he speaks and how he speaks. At times when his rhetoric takes over the substance, he seeks tacit approval of his captive audience to validate his assertions.

Unlike Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru whose exalted political status is often referred to as iconic, Modi’s political celebrity attainment is invariably called a brand, due to its genesis within the corporate discourse. Modi’s political brand thus is exhibited as a phenomenon that is laboriously constructed in order to create a persona that establishes his direct link with the people to make him more popular and in the process increase his electoral benefits and political fortune. This celebrity narrative not only contributes to his populism but also helps him gloss over a controversial past. The cultural and social absorption of the Modi brand are enabled through multi-platform interactions with the public. Ironically for a leader who is seemingly directly accessible on digital platforms, the public’s accessibility to the ubiquitous ‘digital’ Modi remains unilateral and selective.

Much like Mahatma Gandhi’s association with khadi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s with the Nehru jacket, Modi has a sartorial item named after him. The short-sleeved version of the traditional kurta that Modi prefers wearing is now known as ‘Modi kurta.’ While this could be seen as assuming simplicity his reported fondness for top luxury brands such as Bvlgari glasses, Movado watches and Mont Blanc pens also create a social buzz. But that, according to fashion analysts, could be identified with ‘upward mobility’ and ‘aspirational lifestyle.’ With Rahul Gandhi a brand acquisition is incidental, as when he wore a Burberry T-shirt during his Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Modi’s success in the 2014 and 2019 elections was, to a great extent, due to his skilful use of social media as a political campaign tool. Both Twitter and Facebook played an important role in his campaigns and helped him appeal to India’s fast-growing young voter base. His Mann Ki Baat is a monologue on a variety of subjects. Recently he has added YouTube to his social media repertoire. Addressing the YouTube Fanfest India 2023 the Prime Minster told the content creators that he is ‘just like them,’ and that he is ‘extremely happy to be among them as a fellow YouTuber,’ not forgetting to appeal to his viewers to ‘hit the bell icon, like and subscribe.’ Let us hope this  new digital mantra does not supplant the earlier tagline ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas, sabkaa vishwas.’

Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi are both tech -savvy and adept at sending appeal to the people (actually the potential voters) with digital messaging. However, the digital divide also leads to democratic deficit in India where real time democracy still seems a utopian vision. Going by our abysmal ranking in the global democracy index, while we may call ourselves the mother of democracy, we have much to learn from the toddlers of democracy.

    (The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department
of English, H.N.B.  Garhwal  University
)