India polls: In Varanasi, the fight's all in the head

Indian supporter of Bharatiya Janta Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi at an election rally in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, northern India. The Gandhi cap in its saffron avatar is part of the BJP campaign this election season. --P
Indian supporter of Bharatiya Janta Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi at an election rally in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, northern India. The Gandhi cap in its saffron avatar is part of the BJP campaign this election season. --PHOTO: EPA 
A supporter of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wears the white colour Gandhi cap emblazoned with the words 'I am Aam Aadmi' (I am Common Man) in Hindi and Urdu during a rally in Mumbai. --PHOTO: AFP  
A supporter of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wears the white colour Gandhi cap emblazoned with the words 'I am Aam Aadmi' (I am Common Man) in Hindi and Urdu during a rally in Mumbai. --PHOTO: AFP  

It was once a sign of nationalism and Indian identity during the days of the British Raj.

Nowadays, the white cap - fondly called the Gandhi topi after the Mahatma who popularised it during India’s freedom struggle - has become a symbol of political identity based on its colour and wording, and has been a ubiquitous entity this election season, adding a large dose of excitement to an already charged political atmosphere in the country.

So on one side we have the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – whose founder Arvind Kejriwal is responsible for popularising the cap among the masses in recent times – with a white weave emblazoned with the words ‘I am Aam Aadmi’ (I am Common Man), and on the other we have the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party with a saffron version flaunting the words ‘Modi for PM’ in support of its candidate Narendra Modi.

A glaring exception to this rule would be the Congress camp, which ironically is the grand old party of the Mahatma himself and all other freedom fighters of the era. The homespun garment used to be part of the wardrobe of independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru, who continued to wear it during his premiership in free India. His grandson and late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi would often wear it at campaigns and rallies, but it is a rarity on the head of Rajiv’s son Rahul who is also vying for the highest political chair this election.

The cap was a given in rural parts of India, especially Maharashtra, where farmers and elders routinely wear it as part of everyday clothes alongwith the dhoti and kurta. Crusader Anna Hazare belonged to this group of people, and was instrumental in bringing it back into fashion during his anti-corruption movement which hit a nerve among middle class Indians a few years ago.

Back then, supported by Mr Kejriwal, the cap was seen on most heads, from people on street corners to yuppies office cubicles to collegians - it was the new ‘cool’. Mr Kejriwal took the symbol with him when he broke away from Mr Hazare, and made it his signature style.

Now, as officials get ready to wind up the marathon nine-phase election by May 12, and the temple town of Varanasi gears up for the most-watched electoral contest between Mr Modi and Mr Kejriwal, the brisk distribution of Gandhi caps is perhaps one way to determine public sentiment.

Both BJP and AAP have been doling out their own versions of the cap in hundreds of thousands over the past couple of weeks, as campaigning heats up in the run up to the voting day for Varanasi on May 12. Every second person in the densely populated town and its nearby villages sports either a saffron or white cap, and the two parties claim to have lost count over the actual numbers given out. AAP spokesman put the figure in Varanasi and nearby regions alone to 500,000, while the BJP said it never kept a tab.

It is obvious the cap craze is now uncontrollable, and a recent scene at a traffic intersection in the temple town of Ayodhya provided a glimpse of the power of the topi.

Here was a group waving brooms and shouting ‘parivartan’ (change) as they distributed the white coloured caps emblazoned with ‘I am Aam Aadmi’ (I am common man). They were affiliated to Mr Kejriwal, who is responsible for popularising the cap among the masses in recent times. Walking towards them from the opposite direction was another group shouting ‘Har Har Mahadev’ (Hail the warrior god Shiva) and wearing saffron caps flashing the words ‘Modi for PM’. That group clearly belonged to the opposition BJP camp. A face-off looked likely as the two groups neared each other, but it soon dissipated as both sides let the public decide on their preferences. People in cars and on motorbikes took their pick as both sides stretched out to distribute the topi to those willing.

But, for some, the cap is beyond affiliation.

“Today I am wearing a BJP cap because I got it,” said Varanasi beetle leaves seller Sunresh Gupta, 50. “Tomorrow I could wear an Aam Aadmi cap.. I just like wearing it. It looks good.”

gnirmala@sph.com.sg