AAP's Gandhi topi - printed text reads 'I Am The Common Man' followed by the election symbol of the broom

As Delhi gears up for its legislative assembly elections tomorrow (Dec 4), a small group of political campaigners for the AAP caught my interest as they were handing out Gandhi topis at Janpath the other day.

The AAP or the Aam Admi Party (Common Man’s Party), for those who may not know, is led by Arwind Kejriwal and is an off-shoot of the India Against Corruption movement initiated by Anna Hazare in 2011 (from whom Kejriwal parted ways in pursuit of a political direction for the movement’s ideals). AAP’s party symbol is the broom (jadhu) and its key goal is, for lack of better words, to ‘clean up’ the corruption currently present at almost every rung of Indian politics and within a plethora of government bodies. As the party’s title suggests its aim is also to serve the common man – who in a country like India suffers tremendously due to rampant corruption as well as the extreme polarity between the rich and the poor.

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In my albeit politically inexperienced opinion, at times it is unclear as to who this ideal common man is for the AAP – as on one hand they hope to uplift those belonging to the lower and laboring classes but in doing so rely on the support of the middle-class to succeed (who in turn are also in desperate need of less corrupt system of governance and a less onerous system of bureaucracy). While the common factor is corruption, both these segments of society have different needs, and in the current context the party has come under criticism for being out of sync of the hopes and expectations of a growing middle-class charged with India’s economic progress within a globalized digital age.

Coming back to the purpose of this post, what caught my eye is the way in which the AAP has once again employed an iconic piece of clothing – the Gandhi topi  – as a political symbol and visual medium for connecting with these two mismatched segments of Indian society during this election.

The topi, named after Mahatma Gandhi – who is said to have first worn such a piece of headgear in 1919 at the Amritsar Congress (Bean 1989) – has a long-standing relationship with politics and political movements in India. Even though Gandhi himself wore it only briefly, he actively promoted it as a symbol of rebellion and swadeshi ideals. Though its exact sartorial roots are unclear, it is thought to have been inspired by caps worn in South Africa and/or similar to a Persian style as well as various styles of caps worn across India at the time. The topi was an effective symbol not only because of the importance given to the practice of head covering by various religious groups in India (Cohn 1989), but also because it acted as a powerful visual tool that could communicate beyond language, regional and societal barriers to help unify otherwise distinct groups of people towards a common cause. The wearing of the topi became popularized around the time of the freedom struggle and greatly irked the British when worn by Indian officials and subordinates (ibid). It became associated with political leadership subsequent to India’s independence and a number of politcial leaders continue to wear it to this day. It is also worn widely across India by farmers, rural officials and the RSS, for example, and is even a part of the uniform of Mumbai’s infamous dabbawallahs.

While the Gandhi topi was originally made and constructed from khadi, which was in keeping with with swadeshi movment, the topis AAP’s representatives were handing out were mostly made from a recyclable non-woven polypropylene material. Here it is interesting to note that despite the evolution in the materiality of the topi (from woven to non-woven, natural fibers to manmade) its political symbolism and intent has remained intact.

My conversations with many rickshaw drivers while navigating through Delhi this past week highlighted a growing support for the party. Whether this will be a new chapter for Indian politics only time will tell, but it most certainly is a new addition in story of symbolism of cloth and clothing in India.

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