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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

The symbolic politics of mufflers, jhadoos, onions and metros

n 10th February 2015, as news began to come in of the AAP win in Delhi, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were flooded with jokes. The best of these one-liners drew on symbols: the ordinary muffler weighing heavy on the bespoke pinstripe suit, or the jhadoo's clean sweep: "Modi wants a Swachh Bharat. AAP has the broom".

Of course, politics everywhere throws up symbols. But the Delhi elections turned bitter symbolic battles into smart, vibrant politics. The muffler made him seem like a chowkidar, went the sharply classist refrain in 2013. But the more Kejriwal-mockers made fun of his ever-present muffler, the more he clung to it. And eventually some clever young things in AAP turned the name "Mufflerman" into a kind of indigenous Dilli superhero — complete with T-shirts. As for the jhadoo, rarely has there been an Indian election in which the allotted symbol of a political party has assumed such far-reaching metaphorical meaning. The AAP jhadoo is now so profoundly linked to the party's "clean up the system" discourse that the anti-corruption message seems inextricable from the visual cue for cleaning up.

And yet the thing about images is that they can signify different things to different people, and mean many things at the same time. Days before the election, I happened to hear one of the city's cultural czarinas talking about how the visual matters in every field. Her example, but naturally, came from her driver, who had apparently said that Arvind Kejriwal and his message resonated with him to a great extent, but he could not bring himself to vote for AAP because its symbol – the broom – seemed to him to represent everything he had managed to leave behind. The visual association, in other words, was powerful enough to negate the effect of an otherwise convincing verbal campaign.

I don't know anything about the driver's background, but it seems unlikely that he was responding to the broom's valence as an instrument for cleaning. He was identifying it with those who usually wield it – not as a political weapon, but as a necessary act of earning their livelihood. Such are the powerful ways in which caste lives on in this country. Jhadoo dena remains an indelible Indian shorthand for manual labour in general, and polluting labour in particular. Those who followed the anti-reservation campaigns of a few years ago would remember students in front of AIIMS, would-be doctors who would eventually have to render service to human bodies in advanced stages of decay, protesting against the terrible fate that threatened them by sweeping the streets with brooms. And on 10th February this year, there was a WhatsApp joke doing the rounds: "Zadu wala becomes CM. Chay wala becomes PM. We Graduate, Engineers & MBA thinking of how to catch train at 8.37 AM & PM".

he Delhi election has been a turning point in many ways, but the real cleansing of our minds will need something more than empty Swachch Bharat slogans.

What is clear, though, is in a country so sharply fractured by class, symbols can go either way. While being a chaiwala's son definitely helped Modi win the votes of the poor in May 2014, it is not that aspect of him that appeals to "Graduate, Engineers and MBA" – though it seems that a ten lakh rupee suit might have swung too far in the opposite direction. And if the jhadoo's power is its everydayness, its familiarity, its emblematic connection with the poorest, then it also stands to be rejected for those very reasons — by that steadily increasing section of the population that aspires to something less every day, less basic, less poor.

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And yet the thing about images is that they can signify different things to different people, and mean many things at the same time.

Two other anecdotes might make the point better. The first is from a heritage walk I went on the day after the election. It was a young, upper middle class crowd, but for once, politics was on everyone's mind. The AAP enthusiasts may have been slightly more vocal, but I managed to overhear two twenty-somethings confirm their hopes of a BJP win. "The other night I saw a whole TV programme about the price of onions," sniggered the young man. "Imagine what will happen if AAP wins!" The price of onions, while it thankfully still has enough weight to swing the electoral taraazu, is something these young people think of as ridiculous.

The second anecdote is from the last day of campaigning. I was taking the metro from RK Ashram Marg towards Connaught Place when I saw a burly forty-ish Sikh man loudly accosting a group of AAP volunteers with caps. Apparently he'd seen one of them hawk and spit on the platform. I couldn't tell who the chastised volunteer was, but a whole host of his colleagues were apologising profusely: "He didn't know the rules, he's from outside, in fact he's from Andhra. But of course he shouldn't have done it. Humne samjha diya hai..." Sardarji, however, was not to be placated so easily. "You people want to run Delhi!" he raged. "But this is the respect you show to the metro. How will you ever make it a world class city!"

Whether it's onions or the metro, no symbol can ever represent any reality fully. But some symbols aren't interested in reality. What they want to do is to present an image whose grandeur people might aspire to — like a naam-wala suit, or a shiny new metro. The power of such symbols lies precisely in their distance from the real. In the politics of symbols, then, we must choose whether we want to be represented by our aspirations or our realities. Might our leaps not be more successful if we start with the ground beneath our feet?

 
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