Clothes maketh not the man, but they do make a statement. In 1931, when Mahatma Gandhi called on the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in his typical dress, Winston Churchill called Gandhi, a naked fakir “striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace... to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor”.
In the end, the ‘naked fakir’ became more than an equal, and brought the British down. Khadi became freedom couture and the starched white kurta pyjama/dhoti and Gandhi cap became synonymous with the Indian politician; and later with corruption, as the Congress’s linen got dirtier and dirtier. Elections are laundromats, and in poll-obsessed Karnataka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to take sworn foe Rahul Gandhi to the political cleaners, saying, “There is no way ordinary people like me, who do not even dress well, can sit with such high and mighty people like the Congress president.”
Modi is as well-known for his sarcasm as his sartorial elan—he is possibly the best dressed Prime Minister India has ever had, with a preference for elegant waistcoats, haute sunglasses, trendy winter scarfs, and impeccably cut bandhgalas during official visits abroad with the trouser leg falling with a perfect break on shoes more polished than a salon repartee. NaMo’s dig at RaGa’s supposed zootiness delighted trolldom, which had been suffering a joust-drought ever since the ‘suit boot sarkar’ jibe—a reference to NaMo’s monogrammed suit—created a fierce (Savile) row.
The Congress retaliated, accusing Modi of wearing a `17,000 Loro Piana jacket. Saffron fashion critics posted a picture of a `70,000 Burberry jacket Rahul wore on a Meghalaya trip. Suddenly it’s Fashion Week in Indian politics, and ‘achhe din’ and ‘achhe kapde’ are adding much needed jauntiness to sombre days.
Political costumes are useful for image projection: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s funky Chewbacca socks broadcast showed he was cool and hence, ‘boring’ Canada, too, was cool (‘cold’ would’ve been the mot juste). Sonia’s starched handloom look, Kejriwal’s fashion disasters and Mamata Banerjee’s crumpled white saris are style statements that define their ideologies.
But why shouldn’t we, and our leaders dress well? Talk about ostentation all you want, but stand on the porch of Parliament when the House is in session, and you will see many illustrious MPs disembarking from Audis, BMWs, Land Cruisers, and Jags. Voters are people too, and people love brands. For middle class India, brands are aspiration’s ozone layer. Makeshift markets sell knockoffs cheaper than a politician’s promise—aunties with faux Vuitton bags, uncles with flashy Bangkok Rolexes and fat kids with fake Hilfiger tees order pasta paranthas at satellite town restaurants.
Young India is trend aware, going by the glitzy malls that have sprung up even in remote small towns. Leaders who dress smart represent new India, which is not the starving British colony Gandhi’s wardrobe malfunction represented. As fashion police trawl social media and good sense tangoes with dress sense, Indian politics is experiencing a sublime fashion moment. At a time when leaders are but mannequins of propriety, the polls are giving us the ultimate catwalk experience. Let’s enjoy it, before it’s back to business with bank busts and truant tycoons.