Message from across the world: Many ways of wearing a muffler

  • Hindustan Times, Sumit Pande
  • Updated: Mar 03, 2015 23:38 IST

An opinion poll conducted recently found 35% of the women electorate, as compared to 25% of the men, were undecided on which party to vote for in the upcoming British elections. So Labour has decided to hit the road on a ‘pink minibus’ carrying female party MPs to talk to women, quite literally, around the ‘kitchen table’.

The Tories questioned the choice of colour of the mini-bus. They have dubbed the move outright patronising.

What’s in a colour, some would ask.

There is a lot more to it than what appears to be a facile debate on the pigmentation of a campaign vehicle. In fact, it is a fascinating reflection of the aesthetics of political mobilisation.

Any conflict — political or otherwise — and the concomitant mass mobilisation engenders idioms of its own. Among other things, the vocabulary, lexicon and the images developed to codify the message for proliferation affect the intended impact.

‘The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest’ explores the visual factor in the worldwide protests. Edited by Piana Werber, Martin Webb and Katherine Spellman-Poots, the book argues that 21st century apolitical mobilisations have invoked a “much richer and more inventive archive of evocative signs”. Gandhi embodying non-violence, for example, was a repeated trope in these agitations.

So was it in Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption. The inverted boat-shaped Gandhi cap, a powerful mobilising symbol during the independence movement, was a symbol in this “the second war of independence”, the irony being that this evocative symbol was being used in a protest against the very Congress that could even lay proprietary claims over it.

The recent elections to the Delhi assembly indicate richer aesthetics in political mobilisation as well. Richness is enhanced by the availability of technology as a mode of expression.

The muffler-man image of Arvind Kejriwal is another fascinating case study. There are many ways of wearing a muffler. The public-school gentry in Nainital and Mussoorie wrap it around like a cravat. The regular jetsetters in Delhi have a predilection for a more European style of tying a noose like knot around the neck. For the common man in north India, the muffler is a protection against the bitter cold.

The contrast, unfortunately for the BJP, could not have been more conspicuous with the Prime Minister’s sartorial gaffe at the peak of the election campaign.

The whole discourse knit around ‘chaiwala’ against ‘shehzada’ during the Lok Sabha polls was a well-thought-out strategy of the BJP.

The speed of message dissemination has also grown exponentially in a media environment that operates in a more hybrid format. Television, radio, print and digital no longer generate and distribute content in separate structured silos. Content creation is no one’s monopoly, which in many ways also explains why it is much more difficult to regulate the discourse in the changed paradigm.

Outside India also, political upstarts show a greater predilection and flexibility to adapt to changing politics. Earlier this year in Greece, people handed over power to the anti-austerity party Syriza. The aesthetics of this campaign were woven around what Syriza called ‘the three gentlemen in grey suits’ — the EU, ECB and IMF — responsible for Greece’s economic plight.

Another political upstart in Europe is waiting in the wings. All eyes are on Spain’s anti-austerity party Podamos. Its inception lies in the 2011 Indignado movement in Spain in the face of the economic crisis.

Sumit Pande is currently Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford

The views expressed by the author are personal

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