At one point in his interview with Curly Tales, Rahul Gandhi realises that he can't be too harsh with his dislike for matar (peas) and kathal (jackfruit). He swiftly adds a note of tolerance: “But I will eat if I have to," somehow signalling that even these out-of-favour dishes are not to be left out of the attempted outreach of Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY). His appearance on the travel and food show hosted by a YouTuber is the latest in a string of his supposedly non-political interactions, if not apolitical. In doing so, Rahul has tried to be distant from what is called ‘political talk’ in an increasingly diffused and fuzzy world of news media.
The being and making of a mass politician is also about the politics of the non-political. It means that your dining table and other aspects of personal space are competing for projection with the polemics of predictable political positions. In most cases, leaders across political parties in India are opting for a blend of the two rather than treating them as rival options. And so, slice-of-life downloads on leaders in the public realm have found new feel-good genres and agents of know-your-leader connect. “You have strange notions of publicity,” Jawaharlal Nehru had to curtly tell Khuswant Singh, the press officer (PRO) at India’s High Commission in London. This was preceded by UK papers managing to publish photographs of India’s first prime minister and Lady Mountbatten having a quiet dinner at a Greek restaurant in Soho. While that would still be a discreet and guarded fort for any form of media to breach. It is unlikely that top leaders today will be less indignant with such breach of private space but certainly their idea of publicity has far more patience and use for the personal.
One of the early movers in political branding as a sort of a curated 'personal' self on social media include Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its most striking practitioner. It’s, however, arguable to what extent the personal intersects with the political messaging and how the digital-autobiography-in-instalments are feeding into the persona and longer campaign for these leaders. This has brought some new elements for both the chaotic media space and the political class to grapple with in the short and long run.
First, the wordy and pixelated peek into the ‘personal side’ of the political leadership, as sporadically seen in the press or TV screens, has now found more instant agents in the digital sphere. It has reconfigured the idea of publicity and image-building when millions of phone screens consume user-generated platforms. It has implied that in the last two decades ‘You’, the subject and creator of such platforms, became the centrepiece of online consumption. This has also given politicians a chance to bypass conventional media groups as well as digital media platforms.
One could, for instance, see how Rahul Gandhi relied on the reach of a Youtuber, and its spillover influence in social media, to answer non-political questions. As the yatra itself is a long political dialogue played out in the glare of social media, Rahul realises that agreeing to usual political interviews runs the risk of turning a narrative into overdone platitudes. Instead he has sought to replace the ennui of the predictable with glimpses of the immediate food on the plate. In some ways, it came across as an idea to pitch himself in the midst of a reality show while on his BJY. In a different genre, and on a more conventional platform, PM Modi chose to go on a wild adventure with Bear Grylls on Discovery Channel in 2019. This was barely a few months after India knew about his mango-eating preferences in a televised tete-a-tete with actor Akshay Kumar.
Second, the political class has realised that they have the curiosity-value usually associated with Bollywood celebs. The ‘need to know’ factor about top leaders — their dietary preferences and how they go about life in general — is no less than that of top notch movie and sports stars. Besides being a public figure of an entirely different pursuit and public interest-driven persuasion, the Indian politician today also senses their value as a celebrity who is interesting enough to be milked for eyeballs and column space.
Political stalwarts and their PR management arms are now more alert to tapping into this segment if it can push the political projection. More significantly, the political subtext in such interactions aren’t to be missed, even if the talk exudes the air of a casual stroll through personal alleys. In recounting some of his nasty teachers in his boarding school, for instance, Rahul Gandhi couldn’t let go of his strange reasoning that they behaved so because of his family’s pro-poor policies. The political signposts of pro-poor lineage could be seen in the memory lanes of his school life.
Third, as most celebrities of the digital age, mass leaders have found even more reasons to show how they are more like you and me. The unfolding of personal lives under the glare of cameras and curious interviewers has inverted the aura of celebrity. In the larger period of mass media, which included almost the entire 20th century, people gravitated towards celebrities because they were unlike them. But, as user-driven platforms inverted media consumption patterns, celebrities were more eager to show how they were in fact exactly like you and I. In a democratic polity, politicians always had incentives to look relatable, social media has now turned that incentive into a campaign imperative.
This makes some clear demands on the non-political side of a politician’s persona, a sizable section of the political class is now conceding it.
Even if the political value of the non-political pitch can vary significantly for different actors in the electoral fray, it’s gaining currency in the hard grind of personal campaigns that target cultivated charisma. In the process, it’s also finding new agents that are more suited to apolitical messaging, bypassing outlets that identify themselves with the fold of news media. In unlocking their potential as a class of political celebrities, the personal is going to intersect increasingly with the wider arc of long political campaigns.
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