The Broader Picture: If the cap fits

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THIS MONTH India's prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, marks one year in office. It's been a roller-coaster ride: from the struggle to put together a coalition with a majority in parliament, to the testing of India's nuclear weapons; from the endless fudging over economic policy, to the striking simplicity and boldness of his decision last month to ride the first bus to Pakistan.

But aside from the ebb and flow of politics, an Indian prime minister must play another role. Being father-figure to a nation such as India means acknowledging an incredibly varied brood of children. It means expressing sympathy and affection for them all. It means empathising with people of half a dozen different faiths, who speak tens of different tongues. It's an impossible task but Vajpayee, the old trouper that he is, has thrown himself into it with a will. His chosen means: hats.

Vajpayee's most celebrated hat of the year was perhaps the least becoming: the maroon-coloured baseball cap he wore to inspect the nuclear test site at Pokharan. There's nothing wrong with such a cap, but it looks undeniably sad on a man of his age and girth, especially when, as usual, he is wearing a long white kurta over a baggy dhoti. The rest of the year, though, he seldom got it wrong, whether it was an Indian version of the sombrero, rakishly aslant, or a kind of Viking helmet equipped with buffalo horns and a great bush of feathers pushing out of the crown, or an oversized Rajasthani turban with a starched fan sticking up at the back. If the cap fits, and sometimes even if it doesn't, Vajpayee wears it. The plain old Nehru cap, for example, has practically been patented by his old enemy, the Congress Party. Sporting it, Vajpayee permits himself a sceptical smirk.

In other countries, a politician who let himself be photographed in such an array of exotic headgear would risk being branded a buffoon. For Vajpayee, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian National Party) is widely identified with Hindu chauvinism and neo-fascism, not to wear as many hats as humanly possible would be to incur charges of communalism, arrogance, uninterest in the rights of minorities, and so on.

So the PM submits. He has his pate draped in marigolds. At the Hindu bacchanalia of Holi, he allows his face to be splattered first with red paint, then green. What in another democracy would be the assault of an enemy, in India you receive as the kindness of a friend. And keep on smiling.