Political business

Merchandising is making Indian politics the new Disneyland.

The Aam Aadmi Party's brand is the Gandhi cap, a hand-me-down via Anna Hazare. But as Delhi went to the polls, an embarrassing detail emerged: AAP's caps were made in sweatshops from a cheap material called "China net", and sold for tiny margins. Maybe it's more paying now, because AAP merchandise is online, competing energetically with Dhoom 3 action figures. Film merchandising is often a losing proposition, but those Katrina Kaif dolls and plasticky motorcycles probably helped to power the film's takings beyond the Rs 300 crore mark. And NaMo chai and swaraj caps, along with Modi bricks, may play a role in deciding who gets to be prime minister in 2014.

The US had led the way in political merchandising, with cars wearing their owners' colours on bumper stickers and decals since the Sixties. The tradition found its finest hour in Barack Obama's campaigns, which leveraged alternative promotion and developed merchandising so aggressively that commentators wondered if the Democrats had discovered the future of election funding. If India has AAP caps and NaMo tea, the Obama campaign had designer apparel and "Cats for Obama" collars for cats, who do not have a vote in the US (yet!).

In 2014, India is playing catch-up. In a nation where teashops may outnumber all other retail outlets taken together, NaMo chai is dying to be franchised. Amma canteens selling subsidised idlis are proliferating in Tamil Nadu. And with its middle class focus, the AAP could dominate merchandising online. Indeed, enduring merchandising is typically identified with protest the Che Guevara T-shirt, the caps bearing a Soviet star sold at Checkpoint Charlie. Actually, India is home to the most sophisticated and powerful example of the form khadi. Originally, you didn't buy it. You made it. And that simple, homespun philosophy brought down an empire.

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