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Left-wing, right-wing or chicken wing, taste is the real political test

We think of taste when talking about whisky, curtains, music, even the company we keep — or at least enjoy. But somehow no one talks about taste when applied to politics.

This isn’t about being left-wing, right-wing or chickenwing. You can be a raving free marketeer and still implore the government to impose import tariffs on polka-dotted sponges that you happen to produce from a dinky factory that you can now call an MSME. You can also be a smashing socialist who wants national borders to be opened up for migrants to come into the country, while cussing at the influx of ‘outsiders’ from another Indian state.

This is about the factors that come into play when liking or disliking, approving or disapproving a political product — which essentially comes in two packages: parties, and party leaders. Like choosing a Labrador over a Spitz as a pet, or a sugar daddy over a Babaji as a pillar of support, political choice, too, boils down to your innate, social milieu-crafted, honed-over-the-years aesthetic sense.

While the slogan ‘The personal is political’ has developed over time to empower gender, gay, minority rights, its corollary, ‘The political is personal’ has been left unrecognised. Take Narendra Modi. The depth of the political support and advocacy he musters must be understood from beyond the pat confines of his being a very popular or ‘strong’ prime minister. The depth of distaste towards him from fewer, but a substantial number of people, is also derived from a very personal source: dislike for an overt show of strength, or something as banal as the ‘carefully careless’ beard he sports, or his ‘non-Lutyens’ pomp — the very things that send his fans into a tizzy. Modi does this to people — to the horror of some others — not because of what he represents, but for exactly what he presents. Bhakts love his style, critics detest it. Like Salman Khan fans going to see his films no matter what the reviews say, Modi is criticism-neutral.

LOVE OR HATE: Bhakts love Modi’s style, critics detest it. Like Salman Khan fans going to see his films no matter what the reviews say, Modi is criticism-neutral

Like an over-the-top movie being loved and detested for the very same reason (for being over-the-top), Modisthetics is embraced or discarded wholesale. Policies, decisions, statements are just trimmings.

There was a time when political commentators would be aghast by the displays of wealth Mayawati would literally bring to the stage — garlands made of (pre-demonetisation) Rs 2,000 currency notes, giant birthday cakes matching her ascending age and luxury handbags. The very same accessories deemed ‘vulgar’ was meant to showcase a dalit leader flaunting the very stuff that, say, industrialists flaunted on their children’s birthdays as acceptable kitsch. ‘Bad taste’ empowered those bahujan sharing Behenji’s taste. The same principles of shared aesthetics — that of ‘enforced simplicity’ — holds for Mamata Banerjee in her chappals and basse couture for her ‘consumers’. Holding this ‘Grunge is Bling’ style in the 2021 Summer Collection won’t be a catwalk though for Didi.

Like non-working class Britons taking to a fake cockney accent (mockney) to appear cool — staunchly upper-middle class Mick Jagger and Jamie Oliver being famous examples — many of India’s English-speaking upper-middle classes, too, find the BJPesthetics of Hindu-Hindi to be ‘quite wonderful’, couching this neo-Orientalist fascination with hopes of the coming of a ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘Thatcherism’ in ’indoostan. Many self-styled liberal secularists find this equally abhorrent, spotting ‘fascist tones’ in everything from anyone showing a fondness towards cows or vegetarianism to a Tulsidas bhajan.

Of course, communally targeted policies, riots and pogroms from one side, and minority appeasement, riots and pogroms from the other side have mixed much of ‘style’ with ‘substance’, making every JNU student with a jhola an anti-nationalist and every tilak-wearing Hanuman bhakt a bigot. But for all the politically savvy creatures we claim to be, when we press that button on the EVM at some point (or even don’t), it is a choice we make according to our taste. As the fictional doyenne of the fashion industry Miranda Priestly reminds the most self-righteously ‘political’ among us in The Devil Wears Prada, “…it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff”.

This does not reflect poorly on our politicians or political parties — or, for that matter, on ourselves. It’s just that taste crafted from ‘a pile of stuff’ should be recognised for what it is: a key factor shaping one’s politics. I’m guessing there would have been far fewer takers for Che T-shirts if the great revolutionary had looked like, say, Jagjivan Ram.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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