Monday, February 20, 2012

Political Fashion in India

In his Aligarh dress
Hakim Ajmal Khan, rais of Old Delhi, was a great doctor, institution-builder and one of the most important public persons of his age. Hailing from the most prominent Unani physician family of Mughal Delhi, Ajmal Khan started out in traditional Mughal dress of fitted coat over a long angrakha. Then he adopted the Aligarh dress of dark long sherwani and Aligarhi pyjama along with a matching broad cap. After joining Gandhiji, he shifted to Khadi and then when he went to Europe – to acquaint himself with modern medicine – he switched to western style suit. You are what you wear! And for people in public life, your dress needs to be tailored according to the message you intend to give.

Time magazine has recently listed Nehru Jacket as one of the top ten global political fashion statements. The magazine has noted that this dress, popularized by the first Prime Minister of India, descended from the North Indian court dress, achkan. Though Nehru typically wore a longish version of this dress over his tight Aligarhi; we know this dress better as a bandh-gala and typically associate it with politicians and bureaucrats. This dress is also known as Jodhpuri. After independence, this was adopted as the formal dress for official occasions. After his selection in Civil Service, every male officer is directed to report at Mussoorie academy with a black bandh-gala. In fact senior bureaucrats and Indian Foreign Service officers follow this dress code most diligently.

Sarkari bandhgala
All western male politicians – in fact most world leaders – mandatorily wear dark suits with a crisp white shirt. Only colour in their ensemble comes from the tie.  Compared to that Indian politicians display a great deal of variety. However a close inspection shows that they are also bound by stereotypes. It was part of Gandhiji’s well-thought out communication strategy to wear a simple dhoti (along with travelling in third class in railway and using simple Hindustani for speech) to identify with the masses. This has to be seen in contrast with the first generation of highly Anglicized leaders, who travelled by hiring an entire railway coach, always wore western suits and gave speeches in English. Charkha and wearing Khadi were important symbols of self-reliance and identification with the masses. Every Congress member was obliged to spin a certain amount on his/her Charkha. Soon Khadi dhoti-kurta and sarees along with the Gandhi topi became the official dress code of every nationalist.

Since 1930s, the broadly accepted dress code for Indian male politicians has been this khadi/handloom dhoti and kurta. Another common feature has been the adoption of a short, sleeveless, closed-neck (normally black) jacket with buttons in the middle. This is also commonly referred as Nehru jacket.  Senior leaders like Pranab Mukherjee or L K Advani effortlessly shift from dhoti-kurta to bandh-gala. P Chidambaram, normally seen in elegant crisp white dhoti-kurta, looks equally suave in business suites while travelling abroad.

Younger generation does not dare to challenge the dress code
Dhoti has now gradually been replaced in North India by pyjama. South Indian politicians wear dhoti – mundu - in their distinctive style. There would be minor variations here and there – some prefer cream colour shirts instead of white, Chandrababu Naidu for example. Narendra Modi wears a half-sleeve white shirt with collar. The humble farmers’ topi of Western India has largely become a Congress heritage till Anna Hazare’s recent movement, where every protestor was spotted with one such topi. Senior politicians in Himachal are never seen without their distinctive cap. In Punjab, Akali leaders are always seen in their trademark navy blue turban. Even politicians from other parties are known to prefer basic turban colours while on campaign trail – of course Navjot Singh Sidhu remains an honourable exception.
Nawab Collection by Canali
Rajiv Gandhi brought the last significant change in Indian male politicians’ attire. His youthful image of driving SUV in white kurta-pyjama with white snickers is still the model for the entire youth brigade. A recent trend however is to elevate this fashion statement – an insider revealed some of the white dresses nowadays are made from an imported fabric, which gives the look and feel of Khadi but is actually much more comfortable. Desi designers like Raghavendra Rathore already carved out a space for bandh-gala in fashion high table. Now top global brands have also joined in – one of the top draws this winter was a slim black bandh-gala by global fashion house, Canali.

Some women politicians are still seen in elegant chiffon or designer sarees. On the other hand, both Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi (particularly on campaign trail) are always seen in exquisite handloom sarees – closely following the tradition set by Indira Gandhi. Three notable women politicians from different regions are trend-setters in their own right. There have been endless talk about Mayawati’s pink salwar suits and accessories or Jayalalitha’s cape but hardly anyone follows their style. Mamata Banerjee tries to identify with her slogan of ma, mati, manush through her fashion statement of simple tant saree and slippers.
Santorum: Vote for Change
Though a minority of top business leaders abroad do not hesitate to discard their business suit – Steve Jobs being the most famous example - it is very unusual for Western politicians to break the mould. Time magazine was compelled to dwell on the subject thanks to Rick Santorum. A Republican Presidential hopeful, Santorum created waves by appearing in colourful cardigan-type half sweaters - sweater-vest in American lingo. In India, even younger politicians, except for one Omar Abdullah here and Priya Dutt there – do not want to challenge the archetype. Amit Mitra – not long back a senior industry leader, now appears mostly in kurta-pyjama in his new avatar as the West Bengal Finance Minister. When career politicians appear in their trade-mark dress – adopted ostensibly to bring them closer to their electorate – their appearance itself differentiates them from the public. Anna Hazare movement was a trend-setter in many ways – civil society leaders seemed absolutely comfortable in their everyday attire – something seen earlier with a fading generation of Marxists.


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