The T-Shirt Debate Shows India Is All About Testosterone

What’s in a t-shirt you may ask?

Isn’t there too much conversation about Rahul Gandhi’s t-shirt on his Bharat Jodo Yatra and nothing about ‘real issues’?

I’d argue the opposite based on a mini-epiphany I had today, listening to my colleagues who were there as Rahul Gandhi walked through Kandhla town from Unchagaon to Kairana in the Uttar Pradesh district of Shamli, where we live and work. I was unfortunately out of town, but have plenty to say based on the conversation amongst my colleagues.

It all comes down to the t-shirt.

“Everyone was saying, ‘How could he walk in a plain white t-shirt in 4°C, in this cold?”. My colleague wondered if this, as usual, is all of us talking about the wrong thing, focusing on fluff instead of substance. But I thought this is the meat and potatoes of the ‘Rahul Gandhi Yatra’ that is likely to hit where it hurts most.

The machismo and identification of young men with a testosterone-driven enthusiasm and leadership – that is what the t-shirt has come to represent in a district where the only thing that counts is testosterone.

Here, mardaangi or male-ness is measured in feats of bravado. Here, poise, reason and logic are lost on a people hardened by the crustiness of nothing – of miles and miles of nothing and no jobs and no prospects and no justice. Everything is down to might.

At 4 and 5 am you see young boys running miles, trying to build up a body to be selected for a job in the army or paramilitary or police. In the evenings, the same boys are clad in tracks and tight t-shirts, hair shaved back like football greats in a land where even football isn’t about the game and Lionel Messi is only about a hairstyle. Everything depends on what you can do physically to drive people into a sweat, to get a rise, to make them feel with every muscular fibre of their beings.

And that is where apparently, Rahul Gandhi has done the unthinkable.

By setting out in the bitter cold fog, before the fittest and fastest, in a plain, white, short-sleeved t-shirt, he’s smashed his erstwhile ‘Pappu’ or ‘nincompoop’ image and replaced it with shock and awe.

Some BJP opposing people were overheard saying, “He’s out and about on the road, amongst people where, as you know, who isn’t. If he’d done this a few years ago, there’d possibly be no Modi in power.”

Another colleague said that BJP supporters were heard saying “Kuch bhi kaho, padha likha hai. Modi se toh zyada hi” – ‘whatever you may say, he’s better educated than Modi.’

What’s significant is that the same fact – Rahul Gandhi’s education – wasn’t an asset before this yatra. It was part of the quicksand that always made him sink – the privileged, the English speaker, the Italian and the foreigner. All of these were used to make him sink lower into a bottomless, effete pit where no testosterone goes.

But in the present political climate, testosterone is everything.

The waking up at the crack of dawn and walking with no muffler or jacket has caused a politically seismic flutter, capable of demolishing a PR empire constructed with crony capital.

Monikered and unmonikered, auctioned, designer, the half-sleeved kurta has now got a substantial sartorial challenge on the other side.

I am not being facetious. After two and more years of living in Shamli, I know that the politics that counts most is one that is lived on the ground and there is a palpable after-effect of Rahul Gandhi’s visit a day after he sped through our town on foot.

Whatever the tactile manifestation of it, this is the first time in a very, very long time of writing and smelling politics that I can smell something in what seemed like an odourless invisible absent Congress-Rahul space until now.

Revati Laul is an independent journalist and rights activist based in Shamli, Uttar Pradesh. She is the author of The Anatomy of Hate, a book that tracks the stories of the perpetrators of the Gujarat riots of 2002.

A version of this piece first appeared as a Facebook post.

This article was first published on The Wire.