Comment: Indian year of beauty and some beasts


CANBERRA, Australia: 2021 has been tumultuous for India: floods, fires, plague and pollution, but also healthy economic growth figures, a successful vaccination campaign, a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and more visibility on the world stage in non-political ways.

India also claimed a soft power victory at the eleventh hour in, among others, the Miss Universe world beauty pageant, with Indian Harnaaz Sandhu taking the crown.

Normally I would be slightly dismissive, but this year it’s rude to laugh at the joy Indians express about victory, given the year they’ve had.

Sure, the contest is backslid, but if it brings a measure of happiness to the masses, then it’s worth every step in a bikini.

In any case, Miss Universe has its place in the discussions on soft power. India, for a time, took the pageantry of global beauty very seriously, especially in the 1990s after Indian models simultaneously won Miss Universe and Miss World (Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai both had a long career in Bollywood).

The victories came a few years after the deregulation of the Indian economy in 1991, and sparked great jubilation as they were seen as the ultimate symbol of India finally finding its place on the world stage.

It set up a determination to win competitions on a par with countries in South America, or the way Australia approaches swim meets. (There’s even a Wikipedia page tracing India’s placement in each of the world’s major beauty pageants since 1951).

This year’s winner is India’s first Miss Universe since 2000 – coincidentally, the year she was born.

But in a sign of the times, the media is not reporting breathlessly on her measurements, but rather that she is an avid menstruation rights activist and that her winning dress was signed by a trans designer.


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