Rahul Gandhi’s swimming video gives Modi’s image minders a run for their money

Videos showing Modi lying on a rock, feeding peacocks at home or meditating in a cave received phenomenal viewership. Now a video of Rahul Gandhi diving into the Arabian Sea is breaking the Internet

Rahul Gandhi’s swimming video gives Modi’s image minders a run for their money
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Sanjukta Basu

Do looks matter in politics? Must political leaders be well groomed and glamorous? In a country like India, not too long ago, politicians would cultivate the careless look in crumpled clothes and worn-out sandals in a bid to make poor constituents feel at home. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for his grooming and expensive tastes, would carelessly throw a Gamcha round his shoulders while addressing rallies. He would also make it a point to wipe his sweat like people do in sweltering heat.

In western countries, the slovenly look doesn’t often get popular votes. Looks matter. In a scene from the award-winning HBO series Veep, the character of Selina Meyer was seen worrying that her shot at Presidency would be over the day she is no longer able to wear a sleeveless (due to ageing body) garment. American media is heavily invested in making headlines about Presidential candidates’ hair style, botox, facelift, jawline etc. American audiences are fed the image of a tall handsome President who can single-handedly fight off terrorists in movies like Air Force One (1997).

If looks did not matter, why would scores of articles be written about Narendra Modi’s beard? If agility and bodily skills did not matter, why was he asked questions by celebrity interviewers like “aap thakte nahi hain?” Why were we fed images of a saffron robed Modi meditating in a cave with cameras all around? And why would he throw fitness challenges to the likes of Virat Kohli on social media?

In Indian politics, however, looks did not matter for most part of our independent history. Though Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were endowed with good looks and charisma, they were the exceptions. The norm was that most political leaders paid little attention to grooming or high fashion. Bollywood too mostly portrayed them as pan-chewing, pot-bellied corrupt people with no heroic characteristics or charisma.

But things are changing. Image is a key weapon in the armoury of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi has started to threaten him in ‘charisma’ and ‘masculinity’ departments.

Starting with his infamous Rs 10-lakh monogrammed suit to changing clothes four times a day, to wearing fancy head gears, scarfs, jackets, silks, pashminas, Maybach glasses, Mont Blanc pens and so on, Narendra Modi certainly understands that looks matter. His image building also consists of hyper-masculine myths – a Virat Hindu with 56-inch chest (which according to Shashi Tharoor is not really 56 but 50 inches) who fought with crocodiles as a child, and whose beard is giving Pakistan a scare.

So far this has worked for Modi Ji. He had a monopoly over the art of making-headlines-for-random-things like growing beard, eating mangoes, keeping a wallet and pontificating on radars and cloud cover.

Suddenly, out of nowhere Rahul Gandhi dives into the sea, for real, and his “boxer-like abs”, as Boxer Vijender Singh described it, started making headlines. Twitter users started comparing Modi’s waistline with Rahul’s abs. Social media has been agog these past few days with Rahul Gandhi having a black belt in Aikido, he being a licensed Pilot, a deep-sea diver and a scuba diving instructor, and a marathoner.

Compare this with Modi, whose real 56” is not in the chest but in the waist area, who trots about the garden and lies down on a rock in the name of fitness, feeds peacocks, and talks of gutter gas, and many ways of eating mangoes!

Many would call me shallow for penning this ‘non-political’ column on Rahul Gandhi’s abs which became visible through his wet T-shirt, a photo of which is currently breaking the internet. I don’t care, because Indian media have been eulogizing the shallow and fake for a long time.

Photos of Rahul Gandhi interacting with a group of fisherfolks, giving a hand to the fishing net, swimming in the Arabian sea, and his abs first emerged on social media without any context.

Later it was revealed that in the early hours of February 25, Rahul Gandhi had joined popular vlogger Sebin Cyriac, who runs a YouTube channel Fishing Freaks, to a deep-sea fishing expedition in the Arabian Sea. The 23 mins long video on Cyriac’s channel opens with a pitch dark night, and a fishing boat being prepared by a group of fisherfolks to hit the seas.

Next, we see Cyriac receiving Rahul Gandhi. It then takes us through beautiful images of a fishing boat in the middle of Arabian Sea. We see Cyriac asking Rahul if he knows swimming, to which Rahul merely nodded. During the conversation Rahul revealed that he is a scuba diving instructor and can dive up to 38-meters under the sea.

On being asked to wear a life jacket Rahul said, “We will take it when we need.” Though the whole expedition including the dive was done by Rahul Gandhi without wearing any life jacket. He also ate the meals cooked on the boat, and spoke to the fishermen about their plight, hardship, GST and lack of insurance. The dive was apparently a spontaneous decision. Even Cyriac was not aware of it. After a brief swim, as Rahul hopped back on the boat all soaked up, that’s when the picture of his visible abs was shot, which soon went viral.

Ideally, image building and PR stunts should not matter more than ideology, domain knowledge and ability to connect with people not just with words but with deeds. But Narendra Modi’s style of politics has forced the whole nation to collectively abandon the things that really matter and embrace faux images and jumlas.

In contrast Rahul Gandhi is not faking any of his skills. And he is not just talking to Harvard or Oxford dons but also interacting with migrants on the footpath and fishermen in the sea.

The fishing expedition video has already received 1.5 million views in just two days. That matters.

(Views are personal)

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Published: 01 Mar 2021, 12:53 PM