Bodies and Electoral Politics

The perception of a political candidate’s body, the projection of an ‘image’ playing a part for the electorate is something that one should examine critically.

The perception of a political candidate’s body, the projection of an ‘image’ playing a part for the electorate is something that one should examine critically.

  Picture Courtesy: DNA India

Assembly elections in Assam are due and slowly nearing and as new candidates are discussed in village street chowks or urban middle class drawing rooms, one often hears the phrase “Teor ‘figure’ nai/ase (He does/does not have the right ‘figure’)” The body has played a critical role in people perceiving a person to be a political leader.

However, the criteria of an ‘acceptable/desirable’ body for male and female political leaders are different. Whereas for men, the image of a tall, sturdy built body looks ideal; for women, it is one that is slender and a feminine body. And needless to say, the bodies are ideally imagined to be hetero-normative. A trans or inter-sexed body hardly finds support in electorate’s perception of a political leader. The increased emphasis of Narendra Modi’s broad chest size (link) or a BJP leader’s comment on Priyanka Gandhi being ‘chocolaty face’ indicates to this fact. Congress leader Sajjan Singh Verma went ahead to say that BJP only have rough, ugly faces (khurdure) and only one Hema Malini who is used by the party to dance in various places. They do not have smooth, beautiful (chikne) faces. In Assam itself, when actor Angoorlata Deka was elected as a first-time MLA, people tweeted congratulating her underlining her beauty instead. But why does the body continue to play such a critical role in Indian electoral politics?

Unlike body image politics wherein the perception of one’s own body becomes central, in electoral politics, it is the perception by others (electorates) about a person’s body. Hence, the image of one’s own body for others is important. Guy Debord, in his seminal work ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, talks about how in consumerist, capitalist society, one experiences one’s world/society, not through real objects but representations of those objects. Hence the world is experienced through spectacles, wherein more than the object, the image of the object becomes crucial. The spectacle shapes social relation between people through images. Politics and political leaders are also part of such spectacles. Thus, more than anything else, the representation or image of a political leader matters above all for electorates living in a consumerist society. Images of political leaders prove vital in shaping people’s perception and relation with them. Thus, visibility plays a pivotal part.

Electoral politics resembles rituals a lot. Elections are repetitive; they are liminal considering they are a phase that helps in transition of power and have use of lots of symbols. Hence like rituals, electoral politics put a lot of emphasis on aesthetics. Tolstoy argues that aesthetics is that activity by means of which men come together to communicate and experience similar feelings. It is an appreciation of a collective understanding of beauty. In the world of electoral politics that is marked by spectacles and rituals, visibility has taken over other senses, meaning the image of an object should be visibly aesthetic over anything else. There is a categorical shift from an aesthetics of hearing to an aesthetic of seeing. Rational, argumentative or dissenting voices are superseded by an appreciation of the image of how one appears in electoral politics. This categorical shift from the ear to the eye is dangerous for democratic politics. This also promotes the heteronormative, hyper-masculine and patriarchal notions of ideal bodies of men and women aspiring to be political leaders. When reality gets experienced through mediated images or representations, images of male or female political leaders can also be meddled with technically to fit the ideal body type. This, in turn, can push forward sexist, heteronormative body narratives in electoral politics.

Aesthetics of visibility in the post-Modi era is also promoting a narrative of a ‘fit’ political leader with images of him practicing Yoga vigorously have been circulating. The visibly ‘fit’ political leader is constructed to be more active, works late and hard for the public, etc. In an ‘informal’ interview by Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar of Prime Minister Modi, the latter was asked about how he manages to work with just 3 hours of sleep. The visibly ‘fit’ leader is celebrated as a dedicated leader too. In Assam, the viral photos of Minister Atul Bora showcasing his fit body by uploading again images of him doing Yoga or Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma’s pictures of him working even while being admitted for kidney stone with saline bottles hanging during the pandemic sits well into this narrative of appreciating and desiring a political leader who is visibly and physically ‘fit’ for it is believed that only a ‘fit’ leader can serve better and efficiently. The sight and the aesthetics associated with sight gains power over all other senses, and hence the culture of reasoned, critical voices dies a slow death.

The Assembly elections in Assam are just months away. Assam that was the epicenter of the country’s biggest protest in 2019 – the anti-CAA protests, now shows different symptoms post-Corona Virus with the electorate even warming up to the ruling BJP government and its Ministers. At a time like this, it becomes equally critical to understand how does the psyche of voters or electorates work, how do they chose what they chose and why. In this, the perception of a political candidate’s body (figure, as is talked about), the projection of an ‘image’ playing a part for the electorate is something that one should examine critically. Doing this is important, for it is through this one can shoot down the consumerist world’s obsession with spectacles, voters being non-critical and help save the last few strands of democratic politics in this country.

Bhargabi Das is PhD Research Candidate at National University of Ireland.