Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Union minister of state for youth affairs and sports and now information and broadcasting, a few days ago asked his followers on Twitter to post pictures and videos of themselves engaged in activities to keep themselves fit. He started a #HumFitTohIndiaFit campaign on Twitter and sent a #FitnessChallenge to actor Hrithik Roshan, cricketer Virat Kohli and badminton ace Saina Nehwal. He asked his followers to send similar challenges to friends and post their videos. The minister posted a short video in which he does push ups and says how he has been inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Rathore’s campaign has evoked two types of responses. The first of these picked up the gauntlet, took the challenge and posted personal videos while performing various drills. They included Kohli, who further challenged Modi, who has since accepted. The official Twitter handle of the Bharatiya Janata Party also asked people to share their #FitIndia videos on the Narendra Modi App and “be the part of the movement”.
Learn and practise ‘Tadasana’ that will improve posture and strengthen thighs, knees, and ankles. Share your #FitIndia videos on Narendra Modi App and be the part of the movement. https://t.co/f0ytXYhIVp #4thYogaDay pic.twitter.com/Inif4CEhSB
— BJP (@BJP4India) May 22, 2018
When the prime minister eventually posts a video of himself performing a fitness drill, it is sure to go ‘viral’ and add to his specially-crafted public image. As it is, his Twitter handle has been posting for some time daily animated video clips of a Modi figurine performing various yoga asanas.
The second response was of derision, and critical of Modi. This is a price he has to pay for cultivating sycophancy – Rathore was ‘inspired’ to stay fit because of Modi and not for having been an army officer and a former Olympian. As a result, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, unwilling to let an opportunity to take a shot at Modi go by, tweeted #CompassionChallenge with a picture of the prime minister with a screenshot of his tweet expressing shock at the Orlando shootout, juxtaposed with a photoshopped image of the premier with tape over his mouth symbolising his silence on killings in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu.
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) May 24, 2018
Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav, giving Modi endless headaches in the absence of his father (Lalu Prasad), too jumped into the challenge pool with #jobchallenge for Modi. Congress president Rahul Gandhi also entered the fray and set a #fuelchallenge, asking the government to reduce fuel prices or face a nationwide agitation soon.
Rathore’s campaign, which could possibly soon be declared as a rasthriya andolan or national campaign, promotes an elitist, specifically Page-3, notion of the crucial issue of health and fitness. The campaign is aimed at cultivating the urbanised millennial generation which is being goaded into self-obsession by a smart collaboration between the political leadership, social media and an ever-expanding ancillary cosmetic industry.
Almost every video being posted on Twitter, be it actor Anushka Sharma or BJP’s Yashodhara Raje Scindia, is inside private or public gyms although a few odd ones, including the Jawaharlal Nehru University vice chancellor, in an example of brazen flattery of the political establishment, have posted videos of exercising outdoors.
— Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar (@mamidala90) May 25, 2018
The Rathore campaign, backed by Modi and the BJP, aims at cultivating and providing a sense of ‘belonging’ to a political thought or ideology and creates an impression of social ‘arrival’. The campaign’s target audience is that generation which does not end a single day without clicking at least a dozen selfies and posting these as profile pictures on social media accounts.
Self-obsession negates social concern by being focussed on the self over the ‘other’ and prevents mass movements based on social concern. Participation in campaigns – Swachh Bharat for instance, is again used as an instrument to gain entry into the Page-3 club in the ‘national’ media if you are big enough, or the local mohalla WhatsApp group, if you are relatively a small fry.
Prima facie there is nothing wrong in being fit as this enables a person to function to his/her fullest potential. But to equate personal fitness with national fitness (FitIndia) is a tad too much. First, it shows a very myopic understanding of being ‘fit’. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4 (2015-16), 35.7% children below five years are underweight, 38.4% are stunted and 21% are wasted in the country. The disadvantaged and marginalised groups in India are still having unacceptably low levels of nutrition and good health.
Rathore’s #HumFitTohIndiaFit campaign is selfish for placing self before society and obfuscates the real health challenges in the country. By promoting this campaign, the ruling party and its supporters are legitimising the gulf between the super-rich and the rest of society. It exposes the lack of sensitivity of ministers towards real issues confronting people, the basic challenge the invisible majority faces every minute of their lives. Survival is more important for them than fitness. This is possibly Rathore’s Marie Antoinette moment.
Globally, in urbanised societies, fitness is becoming a cult among the well-heeled. Among them, exercise is addictive because they can afford this and do not have to wait in neighbouring labour mandis to be picked up every morning for work as a daily wager who does not get the officially declared minimum wages because of poor enforcement of labour laws. Studies in the US have shown that the “hygienic ideologists” have historically displayed high “levels of devotion, asceticism, and zeal” in setting their health and fitness targets. ‘Fitness freaks’ believed in a sound mind and body, physical education, vegetarianism, and often “espoused Christianity.
Fitness movements internationally have perpetuated myths about masculinity and added to pressure on women to become super-slim. Thereby, a campaign where fitness is divorced from health, deepens stereotypes. Most paid-for fitness programmes also necessitate complete surrender to the ‘trainer’ who often in a mushrooming industry require more training that the trainee. The hierarchical relationship in fitness centres is possibly what begins to provide legitimacy to autocracy, and one ‘hands over’ one’s body to another in hope of fitness. At a political level, such reasoning has manifold implications.
It must never be forgotten that physical drills with the objective of military training of Hindus was a core programme of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from its initial years. But the RSS shakha still had a collective purpose and has served little purpose – waistlines of RSS leaders has been a matter of joke for decades – barring elevating self-importance by participation in drills.
When Modi campaigned for international recognition for yoga after being elected prime minister, it was seen as an instance of the leveraging India’s soft-power internationally. The campaign initiated by Rathore does nothing like that except saying that there is nothing wrong in limiting one’s objectives to just the self.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.