Two images have really caught my eye, recently. Rishi Sunak’s washboard abs in his tucked-in office shirts, and Rahul Gandhi sprinting spontaneously and without any signs of fatigue against a trio of young boys during the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Both reveal a long-term, sustained commitment to fitness, the kind that can’t be faked by staged photo-ops or cunning photoshop.
A nation likes to feel its leaders are fit. It reassures the populance, makes them feel like they are in capable, disciplined hands. A leader who wakes up early, watches what he eats (and drinks), spends time outdoors, and can do any number of push-ups, both one-handed and two-handed, is clearly in control of his body and mind. This clean, wholesome fitness is a huge part of the cult around leaders like Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and the late Queen Elizabeth II. They ride bicycles, walk dogs, ski, box, swim and run.
Then there is Vladimir Putin who has taken the fit leader archetype to dizzying new heights. Often photographed riding horses with a gold chain glinting alluringly against his smooth bare chest, he is also been clicked shirtless with a rifle, shirtless while fishing in a mountain stream, shirtless while swimming the butterfly stroke, you get the picture. It is all part of his macho, man-of-action image, and when sniggered at by other G7 leaders, he has retorted that, “You would look disgusting, shirtless,” which, let us face it (and not to fat/flab shame anyone) is an argument that carries some weight.
But even Putin must bow before the mightiest of them all—North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who once, jaw-droppingly, climbed the 8,500 foot Mt. Paektu, while it was fully covered in snow and he was fully covered in an ankle length trenchcoat and immaculately shined leather shoes. The official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, reported that, “His eyes reflected the strong beams of the gifted great person seeing in the majestic spirit of Mount Paektu the appearance of a powerful socialist nation which dynamically advances full of vigour without vacillation at any raving dirty wind on the planet.”
Our Modi ji is no slouch either. He congratulates all our athletes on Twitter. He watches their biopics, meets them, and asks them what their mothers give them to eat. Why, if you tune into the BJP’s official YouTube channel, you can enjoy any number of episodes of the animated series yoga with Modi where a muscular, and extremely flexible cartoon with Modi ji’s face on it performs the most difficult of asanas with ease and a beatific smile.
Coming back to Rahul, his critics have been sneering that all he will prove by walking 3,750km, is that he is a good walker. So what?
They are being deliberately disingenuous.
Fitness is important. Putin knows that. Sunak knows that. Even the North Koreans know that.
By marching doughtily from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, 24km a day, for 150 days, through sun, hail, rain and probably snow, with a beard growing bushier and more Modi-esque by the minute, and media attention and public interest snowballing with every step he takes, Rahul is demonstrating the very discipline, accessibility, charisma and complete commitment that his critics claim he lacks.
Rahul is not merely trying to flex his fitness. He is trying to prove that he is fit enough for the top job. It is a point he may very well end up proving.