This would be a new “take” on that politicians’ specialty ~ washing dirty linen in public. Except that the linen is actually the clothes worn by them, and they would probably pressure one of their many underlings to do what the washermen’s community (‘dhobi’ would now be deemed a politically incorrect term) in Patna has threatened to refuse to do. Irked by the protracted refusal of the authorities to allot a “dhobighat” in the Kankarbagh locality, the Washermen’s Committee has announced a boycott of politicians’ clothes, but has been kind enough to give the authorities till 18 March to meet their demands. A similar “threat” some years ago had averted a dhobighat being converted into a vegetable market. It remains to be seen if Nitish Kumar will buckle under pressure as Rabri Devi had. Maybe a month from now the ‘test” will be if the politicians still strut about in crisply starched ‘kurta pyjama’ or are forced to alter their sartorial preferences.

The “story” is not as funny as it appears. Washermen and dhobighats are fast fading away from the urban landscape, cities have expanded so much that the local river is not easily accessible. Even if it was, chances are that its water would be too polluted for washermen to ply their trade. Perforce have city dwellers had no alternative to electric washing machines, and though there are still several ‘presswallahs’ around (with due apologies to journalists), most modern residences do not have space earmarked for drying of clothes. In one upmarket apartment-complex in the Capital residents are fined if their washing can be seen from outside. In other, less-fancy, colonies, the washing-drying on the balcony is an integral part of the scene. Urban architects deem it infra-dig to address such mundane needs, and schools of planning and architecture remain indifferent to middle-class woes. Even the most efficient machine does not turn out sheets and towels as “fresh” as the good old washerman used to.

Maybe the politicians in Patna are luckier than most residents of the Capital ~ beyond Lutyens’ luxury enclave dhobi ghats are few and far between. No wonder leaders from all over the country try their luck in parliamentary polls, and those who had “wangled” a bungalow are hesitant to move out even when the people have rejected them. It could well be that the washermen in Patna are alive to the increasing difficulties of modern living, hence their decision to hit politicians where it really hurts.

Most politicians at least for in his heydays George Fernandes (elected from Bihar) did his own washing, and made a trademark of his “carefully crumpled kurta-pyjama”. But like the washermen and their ‘ghats’, stoic socialists like Fernandes have been overtaken by guys with designer-sunshades ~ even if not members of a “suit-boot” government. The simple dhobi stands doomed.