Bikini-clad photographs of Archana Gautam, 26, began flooding the Internet shortly after Congress nominated her as their candidate for the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in Hastinapur. Miss Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and Miss Bikini India in 2018 were both won by Gautam, a political newcomer. The Hindu Mahasabha has objected to Gautam’s candidacy, claiming that her choice of profession has hurt the feelings of residents of the “ancient, holy city,” which is a pilgrimage destination. Attempts by rivals to body shame the model and actress haven’t deterred her. “To those who make obscene statements, I’d like to point out that I have two professional lives. Gautam, who is running from western Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s most conservative states, said, “I have represented my country on an international scale and I am proud of it.”
Because of another struggle thousands of years ago involving a woman in a state of undress, Hastinapur inhabitants are familiar with the politics of nudity. The humiliation of her dress unraveling in court transformed her into rage personified, a powerful force who launched a fight against her adversaries. The vast Saharan tale hangs big over Hastinapur, a primarily rural people steeped in the notion that the queen’s curse hinders the area from thriving.
Women’s clothing has sparked debate throughout history, especially among those who dare to enter the public arena; everyone has an opinion about it. This isn’t something that only happens in India. During Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a challenger tweeted a photo of the future First Lady posing provocatively while wearing handcuffs and brandishing a gun. Trump reacted by showing a picture of his opponent’s wife (who seemed a little sad in comparison to Melania) and asking voters, “Which would you prefer?” This elicited a lot of laughter at the moment.
Women politicians in India typically campaign in saris with their heads covered. Electioneering has always included cultivating a demure (read: chaste) appearance, reminiscent of either the obedient daughter or the dutiful wife (though they are not spared criticism for this either).
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been accused of wearing “jeans in Delhi and sindoor in the gaon,” as if reclining in denim is a sin, or as if she is doing it on purpose, behind the voters’ backs.
Gautam, like many other 20-somethings of her generation, finds no conflict between posing in a bikini and campaigning, but her swimsuit obsession threatens to overshadow everything else. The judgemental remark that a woman in a bikini can’t be taken seriously as a politician is a sword wielded by the Opposition. A two-piece bikini is no longer astonishingly risqué in a country where more than half of the population is under 30 and fully exposed to the world through social media. On Instagram, the hashtag #indianbikini has thousands of posts, demonstrating how technology can influence identity and, as a result, culture.
The posers aren’t adult movie actresses, as the Hindu Mahasabha would have us believe, but regular women from small and major Indian towns, often wearing a two-piece with a sari. Now that a candidate has dared to be unrepentant about her fashion choices, the issue must be asked: how do nasty comments affect society as a whole? If one were to blindly theorize about our national dialogue, outmoded truths influence far too many people. Many unconstrained young people, like Gautam, will be needed to rebuild fresh personal values.
The bikini is so common in Hindi films that it’s no longer a prop for portraying a free lady. The bikini sari blouse is a common fashion item that can be purchased on Flipkart. Bikini tops are sold as workout clothing by companies like UnderArmour and Nike. Delegitimizing the women who wear them in politics is a symptom of inequality, implying that women are still not entirely welcome in the halls of power.