Clothes might not make the man but they apparently make the politician. Rahul Gandhi seems to have decided that the way to the revival of the Congress is through its wardrobe.
Rahul told villagers in Amethi “We want your sarkar. Shirt ki sarkar, chappal ki sarkar, kurta-pajama ki sarkar. And we will show it to you.”
Of course what he does not say is that the UPA government had ten years to show that to them. One thing they did prove conclusively was you can wear your kurta pajama and scam with the best of them. If a safed kurta pajama could be the guarantor of safed politics then India’s corruption problems would have been behind us decades ago. Instead what we have is the image of the corrupt politician hiding behind the piety of his Gandhi topi. And it’s rather condescending to think the villagers of Amethi do not understand that.
What Rahul is trying to do is position the Congress as the party that is pro-poor, which has always been the Congress’ professed mantra, whether they have lived up to it or not. That means, he needs to paint the BJP as the party in the pocket of industrialists. Clothes, he hopes, can become a handy metaphor for different ideologies.
Narendra Modi offered him a golden opportunity to do that by wearing the infamous uber expensive Modi-nama suit. Perhaps he’d hoped that in an aspirational India that suit would be marveled at. Dekho, how far the boy who sold tea on a railway platform has come. Instead, it made him the butt of social media jokes. India might be shedding its socialist distaste about displaying wealth, but that suit was sartorial overreach in what is still a very poor country. The 1.1 crore it eventually raised for cleaning the Ganga, will not wipe it clean of its original vanity. That will remain written all over it.
Rahul, usually not known for great political timing, seized the opportunity gleefully and hammered away at the “suit boot sarkar”. The charge did sting. Modi, a quick learner, has clearly done a rhetorical course correction. His Independence Day speech said Reuters “sought to shed an image that he governs for big business, vowing to help the poor and create jobs.”
In 2014, when he first addressed the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Modi used the word “poor” 18 times in his speech. In 2015, it popped up 42 times. And he unequivocally stated off the bat “there is only one mandate of this ‘Team India’ and that is all our schemes, all our systems should benefit the poor of this country.”
Whether anything changes on a practical level for the poor or not, it’s a safe bet we won’t be seeing anything like the Modi suit again.
Rahul’s problem however is that he’s hanging onto the lapels of that one suit-boot quip for his dear life. But he is mistaking a clothesline for a lifeline and runs into the danger of it boomeranging on him because all quips, like clothes, eventually wear thin from overuse.
The other problem for Rahul is that despite his own rumpled kurta pajamas, no one is under any illusions about his own background. He comes from the suit-boot class of immense privilege. The khadi kurta look is part of “dress up” for him. The BJP tried to make that point when Arun Jaitley made jibe about how “the generations of a family which has dominated this country’s politics have not worked for a living.” Poor Rajiv Gandhi’s years as a pilot apparently count for nothing. But the larger point the BJP wants to make is, that India now has a Prime Minister who understands poverty from lived experience, while the Congress has a leader for whom poverty is more akin to adventure tourism.
It does not mean his politics cannot be oriented towards the poor or that a Modi cannot favour the big industrialist. But it means a Mamata Banerjee has more street cred when it comes to claiming a “chappal ki sarkar” than Rahul ever could.
The reason the “suit boot sarkar” jab drew blood, is no mainstream political party in the country can afford to look unsympathetic to the poor. But the reason the “suit boot sarkar” is also a jab of diminishing returns is because "suit-boot" is not necessarily viewed with unremitting suspicion in the country. Many want their children to get a “suit-boot” job and sacrifice enormously to get them that opportunity.
An elderly cycle rickshaw driver in our neighbourhood in Kolkata, told me proudly about how his sons had gotten through the Joint Entrance engineering and medical examinations even though he could barely sign his name himself. “But I will drive this rickshaw, beg, borrow, do whatever I have to to pay their fees and deposits,” he said. In Rahul's own Amethi, young people could give him an earful about their "shikshit berozgaari" (educated unemployment), that they do not have enough opportunities,movie halls and air-conditioned malls.
Rahul ultimately needs to persuade the poor that the NDA government does not have their interests at heart and will sell them out to the highest bidder. The suit boot quip is a peg but he cannot hang everything off it.
Meanwhile, his party seems to be very much veering to the other extreme. Recently, Youth Congress activists decided to do a shirtless protest at Jantar Mantar and outside the Speaker’s house looking, as Firstpost’s Rajyasree Sen noted , “like a flash mob of hundreds of Salman Khan fans ready to swivel their hips.”
Yesterday ,a bandh called by the Congress in West Bengal too turned into a striptease as its state leader Adhir Chowdhury ripped off his shirt to dare the police to come shoot him. “We should protest that you are taking off your shirt!” supermodel-turned-grooming expert Nayanika Chatterjee tells The Telegraph. “Are you trying to gross us out or attract attention?” What Chowdhury should worry about more is that a protest march in the heart of Kolkata drew, according to the media, 250 police, 30 journalists and 21 marchers.
In the end ,neither a kurta pajama nor a safari suit mean that much because what Rahul Gandhi really needs to persuade voters, when it comes to Modi, is that the emperor has no clothes.
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Updated Date: Aug 20, 2015 11:26:46 IST