“The Thane of Cawdor lives; why do you dress me in borrow’d robes?” Macbeth.
Politics without a tailor is like a demagogue without a microphone. In history’s fashion parade, ideology is like a well-cut suit for a leader. It defines his public image, tailor-made to suit his persona as well as the need of the hour. The stylists of the undisputed Hindu nationalist leader and the BJP’s Great Saffron Hope for 2014, Narendra Modi, have decided that changes to his wardrobe is a stitch in time to make him appear a trans-secular leader. Using the measuring tape of rhetoric, they will be designing special pathan suits for him to wear at public rallies, while the party mascot’s coat is cut from a different cloth.
India’s most popular leader and prime ministerial choice is one to have recognised the power of distinctive image marketing early in his career: the Modi kurta, with its short sleeves and a shorter hem in different colours made him stand out among the rest of the political khadi fashion crowd. Modi has been under pressure from the BJP’s urbanised secular faction to re-tailor himself as one acceptable to Muslims, who make up around 14 per cent of India’s population. Perhaps, they feel that the Gujarat riots remain a large, indelible stain on the Modi kurta which needs to be bleached with a pathan suit—but the dark memories of 2001 are kept alive only by a handful of PIL secularists and a section of the media that insist on visiting the site of burned homes as an annual candlelit television pilgrimage as if they have bought season tickets for an ongoing horror exhibition. Gujarat has moved on. So have its Muslims. The minority mood against Modi has changed considerably in the last decade. In the municipal elections held in Gujarat in May, an overwhelming portion of Muslims voted for him. Most of the Muslim candidates fielded by the BJP won. The municipal results cemented the Hindu party’s clout in Muslim-dominated constituencies in the December 2012 Assembly polls, which brought Modi an enviable fourth term in power. In 22 of 32 Muslim-dominated seats, 30 to 67 per cent of Muslims had voted for Modi in spite the BJP not fielding a single minority community candidate for Gujarat’s 182 Assembly seats.
Perhaps, Modi’s stylists should realise that pathan suits would be unnecessary to refashion Modi’s image in Imran Khan style to impress the minority electorate. For a leader who declined to wear the skullcap offered to him during his sadbhavana fast in 2011, Pakistani couture would be seen as a political wardrobe malfunction. Clothes make the man, but they can also disguise him. It would be foolish for Modi’s opponents both inside and outside the BJP to wish away the effect of Gujarat’s positive economic growth on the Indian Muslim. Suburban, non-ghettoised Muslims who live in India’s Bunty Babli cities and towns, comprise about 35 to 40 per cent India’s Muslim population and form the largest chunk of the Muslim vote. It is this section that is showing signs of supporting Modi’s economic success in Gujarat. The Muslim trader community that form less than 2 per cent of India’s total Muslim population may not have the electoral clout to swing poll results, but their aspirational gratification in Gujarat is already a grapevine factor in the minority community.
Sartorial style defines a politician. Jawaharlal Nehru’s jacket became an iconic style statement in international couture inspiring designers like Ralph Lauren. The jacket, with its upturned mandarin collar, has a subtle suzerainic connotation, being part of clothing worn by India’s erstwhile Mughal rulers and their courtiers. Indira Gandhi’s coiffure with its silver streak and Rajiv Gandhi’s style of wearing a shawl across a shoulder than around both were political style statements that made the dynasty look distinctive. Modi’s tailors should leave him alone. His kurta is part of his bespoke politics. Remember the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes?