Food is often overlooked by the average voter when thinking of politics but it is actually used by politicians as an insidiously powerful tool to further their agendas.
The election season we are in now is no different. The present government continues to use food to both galvanise and alienate voters with the obvious intent of remaining in power for another term and rewrite India in their own image, for good (pardon the dramatics, these are trying times).
So many of the things we consume have been catalysts for major administrative changes in Indian polity over the years. The 1857 Uprisings and the controversial ‘Chapati Movement’ before it (when something as simple as our round chapatis being distributed from hand to hand in the country set the ball rolling for the freedom struggle) are pertinent examples of the power of food to instigate unrest or disturb the status quo.
“A chowkidar–an Indian village watchman. All Indian villages had one, and it was these men, running between their homes and the nearest neighbouring settlement with chapatis, who so effectively raised panic among the ruling British.”
This election and India’s current state of affairs going back especially to the last five years seem to be moving in an eerily similar space. Only instead of a united movement against a government clearly not suited to lead in these changing and fragile times, opposing forces have still ended up standing against each other.
There’s no simpler way to say this: this is an clearly election fuelled by divisions of caste and creed. Those vying to (re)gain power get this very well and are making unflinching use of it for electoral gain.
Bans have been imposed in the name of religious sentiments. The controversy surrounding the banning of beef and the almost proportional rise in buffalo slaughter has not only affected the lives and livelihoods of many, depriving them of easily accessible, nutritious and cheap food but also sown further seeds of division among the people.
This itself shouldn’t be the case in the professedly secular state of India. Others are using the origins of some of these dishes to both consolidate their majority vote banks and promote a sense of separation and disjointedness.
There is also unchecked violence in the name of religion and food that has scarily become very commonplace in India in the recent past that very few in power feel the need to address. And let’s not forget the blatant shaming based on food choices politicians feel securely entitled to engage in.
All this (and more) is very intricately worked into our current elections and the results they are clearly intended to produce.
Prevalent in so many Northern states (and rapidly escalating in the one I call home for now), it’s an epidemic that seems to show no signs of slowing down, especially if the results of the previous elections are repeated.
(That is not to say that some of these distressing signs haven’t already started recurring in states where the tide has recently turned.)
India, even with all its supposed development (read vikas) that is advertised before every election, is primarily an agriculture driven economy (and that too not even a highly mechanised one at that).
Production of food, mainly by intensive manual labour, is what still provides the country with economic aid to stay afloat while the producers of this food either die of debt or are forced to live lives of acute poverty and dissatisfaction.
Despite the curious absence of consolidated data, numerous observers and opponents of the current government have claimed that farmer suicides have increased to record percentages in the last five years causing massive protests.
How are we measuring progress when there is such an expansive gap in society?
And, more importantly, how much further are we willing to tolerate governments that refuse to be accountable to its people in almost every meaningful way possible?
Then there is, of course biryani, the light in our lives, the fire in our souls that wields the power to momentarily make us forget our woes and escape into its perfect pillowy textures and delicate gorgeous flavours.
The beloved rice and meat dish is the staple in almost all Indian households in one or more of its numerous local variants as a beloved option to enjoy during celebrations or as an indulgence.
The dish has a checkered origin story with very little known about where and with whom it all truly began (much like the contested origins of our grand old country itself).
It is truly an object of ardent passion among many of us. But once innocent questions and debates about which variety was better (with or without a potato, spicy or sweet, etc.) have now been nudged into murkier territory about the people who consume it or the kinds of meat used in it.
Its popularity is possibly rivalled only by the humble khichri, of which also many iterations exist. It came under quite a fire of controversy in recent times as rumours of it being proposed as India’s national dish went around for a while.
This ultimate comfort food is however as Indian as the rest of us, with its history and geographical variants all over the place. From the roots of its name in Sanskrit, to the kitchens of the Mughal Emperors and Hyderabadi Nizams to the festivals of Durga Puja in West Bengal and Pongal in Tamil Nadu.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that almost every region of the country has its own spin and recipe of these beloved dishes.
And why not? A country as varied in its culinary repertoire as ours is a rarity. Just like its many local languages and more prominently in its food, India’s creative range is as vast as it is diverse. Although one could say that the rice and lentil concoction is an ideal representation of these varied cuisines, it would be a crude and reductive argument at best.
Food and traditions vary from household to household and are exquisite in their many iterations. To propose a national dish is not just ridiculous but frankly quite disrespectful of the nation’s many cuisines.
And yet, here we are.
Biryani (because let’s face it: between the two, you would always pick biryani) is also the much laughed about crowd-pulling agent in electoral meetings, campaigns, rallies, and, as it turns out, a commodity that has frequently been used to ‘bribe’ voters at polling stations since 1926, if not earlier.
That aside, political candidates are constantly using consumables to appeal to the voter, whether they offer you the food, or photograph themselves indulging in it, all in the hopes of being #relatable or local and thus appealing.
The recent trend however is demonising food for favouritism. Bengal itself, for example, has had targeted attempts at polarisation with leaders of the BJP asking us to stop eating fish (!) and more recently mutton as well. These are but humble attempts when compared to their increasingly boisterous Ram Navami processions and the equally riotous campaign rally we were subjected to recently.
Clearly, not everyone loves their cows for being holy.
The de-facto ban of beef (that apparently started out as a closure of illegal slaughterhouses only) has already led to so many lost lives and ruined livelihoods due to extremism from fanatical supporters (of religion or and silence from the rest.
Then there’s the entire issue of mainstream public discourse, or whatever passes for it these days. Debates as a whole have become these strange exchanges that deal in sound and fury over all other concerns.
In this heightened state of affairs, food finds itself in the midst of undeserved and unnecessary scrutiny.
But that is what makes it so important and worthy of attention for all of us who votes will (hopefully) have a decisive impact on the outcome of the ongoing elections.
Think about it. Biryani and khichri being discussed in these newsrooms with an almost fanatic fervour is taking an apparently harmless discourse on rice and promoting the false binary sense of ‘Us vs Them’ using misleading origin stories of the two and marking them out as ‘Indian’ and ‘Foreign’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’, respectively.
(Maybe the Nation does need some khichri before all this is over, but not in the way they think.)
As an often silent observer I find myself seeing the most ridiculous and banal reports on issues ranging from the miracles of cow urine to the rape of a daughter by the father slowly becoming the norm in recurring news cycles.
While these are not explicitly related to food they are certainly related to the mass fantasy that the people in power are promoting with the promise of a return to some prelapsarian notion of a pure and peaceful (read Hindu and perfectly patriarchal) India that is based on everything but facts.
All this and so much more while the party in power once again comes up with a campaign not of actual facts or figures but of patting itself on the back because the “people” have come up with yet another slogan that creatively and cleverly rhymes “baar baar” (again and again) with “Modi Sarkaar” (Modi government) while others of their ilk make ominous predictions that these are the last elections this country will ever have.
There’s an enormous amount of evidence building up over the years about how intimately our stomach is connected to how we think and feel. The gut is now pretty widely known as our second brain and with very good reasons.
Notwithstanding that you might be surprised to see how clear a picture one can frame of this election (and the policy matters that it should have been fought over) by privileging issues that concern this organ ranging from farming to starvation and unemployment to midday meals in public schools, cow vigilantism, and even minority rights .
Surely, we must stop and consider whom to vote for (and I sure hope most of us already have). There are alternatives everywhere, regardless of all the noise around us saying otherwise.
Think about it. It’s (really) easy, if you try.
Are we really what they ask us (not) to eat?