When did Narendra Modi become a “poster boy?”
I’ve encountered some interesting descriptions in the press of India’s political leaders. My favorite is “supremo,” which I’ve heard comes from British English. “Honcho” and “strongman” are common too. The one that catches my attention, primarily because I disapprove of it, is “poster boy.”
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was today’s poster boy, according to the Times of India print edition (I also see the article here). I’ve seen many more examples in recent weeks and months. Perhaps that’s understandable. Wherever you live, you will read a lot more about Modi in the next year because many people say that he will be the Bharatiya Janata Party’s selection for prime minister. As the most likely chief rival to the Gandhi family dynasty and its scion Rahul, Modi has captured the nation’s attention in a way that few other politicians have.
Why call him a poster boy? The term comes from the United States, where people used it to describe children with diseases who appeared on posters or other literature meant to get people to donate time or money to efforts to fight the disease. Its meaning evolved to describe people who are emblematic of any number of causes or movements. I suppose that this describes Modi. He is the face of opposition to the Congress Party. He is the most recognizable BJP politician. He articulates economic policies and says things that appeal to enough of India’s voting population that it might just put him into power next year.
But… “poster boy?” When I was in college and my friends and I spent our time mocking everything that we could, “poster boy” or “poster girl” was a term that we threw around like an insult. “Oh, him? He’s the poster boy for Deadheads.” That sort of thing. It reeks of sarcasm in the land where the term was born. Maybe over here, it doesn’t. Maybe few people even know what it means. Regardless, wouldn’t you prefer a more conservative approach to news writing? We could call him the chief minister of Gujarat. We could call him possible prime minister candidate. But calling him the BJP’s “poster boy” when he’s a 62-year-old politician feels just the slightest bit on the wrong side of right.
I understand that news editors sometimes like to jazz up their copy to keep the kids reading and to sound cool and so on. That’s where you get the strongmen, the honchos and the poster boys. But think about how well you can apply that term to others. Imagine the Times of India writing about Mahatma Gandhi as “the poster boy of Indian independence and non-violent resistance.” Or, “Guru Dutt, the poster boy of self-pitying, suicidal alcoholic movie directors.” You could, given the chance, but why would you?
(Reuters photo: Modi speaks during the 29th annual session of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) Ladies Organisation in New Delhi April 8, 2013. Photo: Adnan Abidi)