Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s watch has become the talking point in the run-up to assembly bypolls and panchayat elections in the state. What’s a Rs 50-lakh watch doing on the wrist of a self-proclaimed socialist, asks Janata Dal (S) leader and former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. An irritated Siddaramaiah has offered to sell it to him for Rs 10 lakh. Kumaraswamy zeroed in on his ex-Janata colleague’s watch — and sunglasses, which he claims cost Rs 2 lakh — after the Congress claimed that the JD(S) leader had spent Rs 60 crore on his son’s debut film. Since both leaders claim to identify with farmers and the backward classes, this exchange has acquired a bitter edge. But more generally, there is a question here: How different can a politician’s public self be from the political image he seeks to project?
During the 2014 general election campaign, Narendra Modi successfully projected his lower-middle class origins to buttress his claim to be the outsider to the bastions of privilege and entitlement. Later, when Prime Minister Modi wore an expensive suit, Congress leader and Modi’s chief target during the campaign, Rahul Gandhi, accused him of running a “suit-boot ki sarkar”. The image of the PM in a suit was turned into a political metaphor that signified anti-poor politics and a betrayal of a past promise. In the past, BSP supremo Mayawati has been criticised for excessive spending on building statues and memorials for Dalit icons. Her critics may have railed against her exhibition of wealth and power but it was seen by her supporters as an expression of political assertion and empowerment. In sharp contrast, however, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa lost an election after the public witnessed the ostentatious display of wealth at her then foster son’s wedding. Her mentor, MGR, had, after all, projected the AIADMK as a party that promised to wipe the tears of the poor.
There is a politics of the image here, but it is clearly influenced by the context. Siddaramaiah’s watch raises a question to which there is no one answer.