There is, on YouTube a video unimaginatively titled Hardik Patel Patidar Harday Samrat Viramgam. An orange side tag stamps it as Jay Sardar. Fifteen seconds into it and you know it’s a juvenile puff job on the new face of political immaturity: Hardik “I-am-the-answer to-all-problems” Patel. The video flamboyantly uses the music of music directors Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy popular number Maa Tujhe Salaam to infuse patriotic adrenaline in the veins of the watchers. It is pasted on assorted photo montages of Patel with backgrounds that vary from martyr’s memorial Amar Jawan Jyoti at Delhi’s India Gate to a posse of television reporters surrounding him. Patel is seen carrying a gun on his shoulders at one point (more Dharmendra as Veeru in Sholay then Sunil Shetty in Border); briskly striding through crowds while Patel peers cheer; negotiating across a table, raising his arms in emphatic protest and later posing as beleaguered by the glare of flashbulb. Then, oh my god, he is seen sitting on the bonnet of an Ambassador car dressed in a shirt and military print pants holding a pistol. Right next to him is a sunglasses-toting stooge, also holding a pistol. The embossed lettering on the bonnet of the car (and let’s hope it is just Photo shopping) reads President of SPG, 108, Ahmedabad District.
Posturing is at a ridiculous high in this video. So the “rukna kabhi seekha nahi, jhukna hame aata nahin,” lyrics sung for patriots who lay their lives for the land are pasted on the visual resume of a 22-year-old boy at a political toy shop.
A couple of people who have posted their comments under this video have called Patel an “illiterate gadhedo”. The rib-tickling Gujarati word gadhedo means donkey. Another commentator comments on how Patel just about managed a B.Com degree.
Let’s first state the obvious. Hardik Patel is no style hero. Instead like his “Reverse Dandi March” he is a reverse lesson on dress and identity. So far, he is a flash in the pan rebel riding on flawed arguments and ignorance about everything from laws of the land to Indian history; from facts to figures. He may style himself as a furious Patidar seeking reservation for his caste and introducing new arguments to the positive discrimination policy for backward castes and tribes but if you read his interviews, he blabbers like a boy who should write his graduation exams again. “Each person in this country should be given a gun for their protection,” he told Outlook magazine’s Ushinor Majumdar. Also, “If terrorists are captured in this country, they should be shot immediately. There is no need to arrest them.” Ask journalists who have interviewed him and they will tell you that for every factual question Patel throws a “nothing works in this country” answer.
Interestingly and if you haven’t already noticed, Patel uses more tools of body language and dressing than many have in Indian public life recently. Like his speeches, his dressing is full of “look at me” symbols. Checked shirts tucked into belted trousers, a silver bracelet with twisted threads on one arm and a large watch in another, two rings on one hand, a light beard and moustache as macho facial hair. There are enough pictures of him in a red Bandhini turban to observe that he seems subconsciously inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who he doesn’t stop critiquing. He is usually seen in Kolhapuri chappals but for an interview on TV9 Gujarati channel, Patel wore a skinny, acid washed blue jeans with pointed brown shoes and a white shirt. He looked like a badly styled reality TV contestant.
From a rabble rousing suburban Gujarati, Patel becomes theatrical and ponderous by turns on TV. He raises his arms above his head in emphatic protest, curls his hand into fists for a battle ready pose; brings up his ring laden right hand closer to his eye in a thoughtful posture (not convinced, see his interview on NDTV India of 19 August).
Patel suffers from the Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS), a metaphor that journalist Mark Leibovich used as metaphor to comment on the “politics of distraction” so fervent these days. Writing from an American viewpoint in The New York Times, Leibovich put his hand on the pulse of a global trend. Certainly noticeable in India. “There are figurative devices, known as ‘shiny objects,’ that rely on principles of distraction, outrage and misdirection. They also involve a hapless dupe in the middle of it all—in this case, us,” writes Leibovich.
Patel Junior, (since he is so obsessed with pulling statesman extraordinaire Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel into the debate every time) is a shiny object himself—swords, red holy threads, silver bracelet, fight happy fists—all put together. “Instead of eating his dinner close by, Hardik Patel bundled us into a car with a group of associates and drove 15 miles out of the city to a fancy Kathiawar restaurant that cost him much more. During the meal, he took great pains to explain each food item and its recipe to me,” recalls Outlook’s Majumdar of two weeks back when he met Patel for an interview in Ahmedabad. “Patel checks his smartphone every few minutes but an aide—also called Hardik Patel—answers calls for him,” adds Majumdar.
A Gujarati TV journalist who interviewed Patel twice but doesn’t want to be quoted says: “Hardik is arrogant and immature, a jumble of stock replies who believes criticizing everyone from Modi to Arvind Kejriwal fuels his reservation andolan. Actually he is styling himself as the next big political sun to rise from Gujarat.”
The thing is Patel’s shiny objects are actually a clue as to why he has a sell-by date that will start hurting our eyes very soon. He is using too many tools, too many props to make a case for himself. The “Patel club” that surrounds him, his close associate Chirag Patel included (apparently four boys are called Hardik Patel in Viramgam, Patel’s hometown in Gujarat), is not a Rang De Basanti gang of passionate patriots. They are more like boys of bluff and bluster complicating the public image of the Patidars as an influential and well-to-do Gujarati caste.
By presenting himself as the “Sardar” of the Patels, by oscillating from Gandhiji’s non-violent beliefs to Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Azad’s not so peaceful ways of protest, by toting guns, swords and roses, Hardik Patel has given us a reverse lesson in dressing.
It should be called why losing your shirt is bad style.
This series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words. Shefalee Vasudev is the author of Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion.