Updated: January 23, 2022 9:34:54 am
Right after the Congress named Archana Gautam, 26, as their candidate from Hastinapur for the coming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, bikini-clad images of her began flooding the Internet. Gautam, a political debutante, won Miss Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and Miss Bikini India in 2018. The Hindu Mahasabha has objected to Gautam’s candidature claiming her career choice hurt the sentiments of citizens of the “ancient, holy city”, who consider it a pilgrimage centre. The model and actor is unfazed by attempts by rivals to body shame her. “To people making vulgar statements, I want to say I have two professional lives. I have represented my country on an international platform and I am proud of it,” said Gautam, who is contesting from one of the most conservative belts of India, western Uttar Pradesh.
The residents of Hastinapur are familiar with the politics of nudity because of another battle thousands of years ago that involved a woman in a state of disrobe. The humiliation of her garment unravelling in court turned her into wrath incarnate, a mighty force who instigated a war that diminished her enemies. The legend of Draupadi’s vastraharan looms large over the town of Hastinapur, a mostly rural population enmeshed in the myth that the queen’s curse prevents the land from prospering.
Throughout history, women’s attire, especially those who dare enter the public fray, has attracted controversy; everyone has an opinion on it. This is hardly unique to India. During Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, his rival posted an image of the prospective First Lady posing provocatively, wearing handcuffs and sporting a pistol. Trump retaliated with a picture of his opponent’s spouse (somewhat dour compared to Melania) by asking voters “Which would you prefer?”, eliciting many chuckles at the time.
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Typically, women politicians in India campaign in saris with their heads covered. Cultivating a demure (read, chaste) appearance, reminiscent of either the obedient daughter or dutiful wife, has been part and parcel of electioneering (though they are not spared criticism for this either).
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been accused of wearing “jeans in Delhi and sindoor in the gaon”, like there is something villainous about lounging in denims, or that she is doing it deliberately, behind the voters’ backs.
Like many 20-somethings of her generation, Gautam sees no contradiction between posing in a bikini and fighting an election but the Twitter fascination for her swimsuit threatens to obscure everything else. The sword the Opposition wields is the judgmental critique, that a woman in a bikini can’t be taken seriously as a politician.
It is worth noting in a country where more than half the population is under 30 — and fully exposed to the world through social media — a two-piece swimsuit isn’t so shockingly risqué anymore. The hashtag #indianbikini has lakhs of posts on Instagram, a revelation on how technology can impact identity, and thereby, a culture.
Contrary to what the Hindu Mahasabha would have us believe, the posers aren’t adult movie actors but ordinary women from small and large Indian towns, often juxtaposing a two-piece alongside a sari. Now that a candidate has had the temerity to be unapologetic for her sartorial choices, the question must be asked, how do the mean things people say affect society at large? If one had to blindly theorise on our national discourse, too large a majority is influenced by outdated truths. Reconstructing new personal beliefs will require many uninhibited youngsters like Gautam thrown in the mix.
The bikini is so ubiquitous in Hindi films it’s not even a prop to portray a liberated woman anymore. The bikini sari blouse is a standard fashion item, available on Flipkart. Ath-leisure brands like UnderArmour and Nike make bikini tops as gym wear. Delegitimising the women wearing them in politics is a sign of inequality, the message being women are not fully welcome in the hallowed halls of government just yet.
(The writer is director, Hutkay Films)
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