From under-dressed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to overdressed Narendra Damodardas Modi, every Indian politician has been acutely conscious of attire. Like PV Narasimha’s famous comment that not taking a decision is also taking a decision, not dressing up is also a form of dressing. Some might think Mamata Banerjee doesn’t care a jot how she looks, but anyone who tries to persuade her to doll up like Mayawati is likely to be given short shrift. Mayawati would be equally upset if asked to give up her lacquered hairdo, dupatta flung round her neck like British undergraduates used to drape their university scarves, and swinging handbag.
Although hardly a tailor’s dummy, Gandhi appreciated the strategic advantage of what he wore better than one might suspect. How else could he have retorted “His Majesty had enough on for both of us!” when asked if he really wore only a loin cloth to tea with King George V and Queen Mary? The opportunity for a dig at the King-Emperor was worth the risk of catching a chill in Buckingham Palace, where his scanty dress exposed a pair of skinny legs. This semi-nudity also won plaudits in a popular pre-Second World War poem that CF Andrews cited:
Hitler with his Brown Shirts, riding for a fall,
Mussolini with his Black Shirts, back against the wall,
De Valera with his Green Shirts, caring not at all,
Three cheers for Mahatma Gandhi, with no shirt at all!
No Indian politician misses a chance to score a verbal—or sartorial—point. But few can match Modi when it comes to self- advertising even if the discerning fear a self-goal. The writing on Modi’s sleeve where someone else might wear his heart proclaimed to the world that Lal Krishna Advani is no longer the BJP’s top man. Nor has the glib English-speaking Arun Jaitley taken over. Gujaratis knew this already. The Prime Minister’s worry was that English-speaking voters committed to Jawaharlal Nehru and secularism might not. Hence the emblazoned jacket that gave Rahul Gandhi an opening for his cheeky ‘suit-boot’ crack. But was the boot on the right foot? Someone whose academic escutcheon yells ‘Doon, St Stephen’s, Trinity College, Cambridge and Harvard’ with nary a hint of paathshala or madrassa is surely more suited and booted than a former RSS balswayamsevak from the OBC ranks even if the splendour of his current and ever-changing wardrobe does indicate Modi is scrabbling to make up for lost time. Himself dependent on Roman Hindi, Rahul probably thought Modi was flaunting his mastery of English. His own kurta-pyjama outfit suggests a conscious uniform while his here- today-gone-tomorrow facial hair indicates the now-you-see- him-now-you-don’t revolutionary. He is Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad one day and Britain’s Prince Harry the next. Modi’s bearded visage speaks of the revolution that never was.
People must find this confusing, since a politician’s presence is expected to convey a message. The muffler round Arvind Kejriwal’s head, for instance, is politically invaluable. It is supposed to blur educational, social and financial differences and make a Ramon Magsaysay award winning, US-trained former Additional Commissioner of Income Tax with a wife who is still a senior officer in the Indian Revenue Service look like the fabled aam aadmi. What the camouflage overlooks is the aam aadmi’s craving for good governance at the hands of those whom it acknowledges to be better equipped for the task.
All political attire is a form of disguise. Ronald Reagan’s reply “How can a president not be an actor?” when asked “How could an actor become president?” applies to all politicians. Those who deliberately try to get themselves elected to public office might be permanently disqualified from holding one in Thomas More’s Utopia. In our more pragmatic world, they alone are deemed worthy of the crores of rupees that hard- pressed taxpayers are forced to squander on their salaries, housing, travel, entertainment, staff, pensions, foreign jaunts and other expenses, including the lavish Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme, as well as privileges and perquisites that legislators may be tempted to pass on to others, not always, perhaps, for a consideration. With so much gravy to be lapped up, no one will endorse Aristotle’s view of democracy as ‘a government in the hands of men of low birth, no property, and vulgar employments’. But the world’s largest democracy— Westminster with Indian characteristics—sees no incongruity in playing footsy abroad with tin-pot despots and dictators who are the new playboys of the Western world while continuing to thrive at home on poverty and pie-in-the-sky promises.
Clothes play an essential part in keeping alive the old myth of politicians as men of the people dedicated to the people. Hence the cartoon depicting the highly anglicised Cambridge-educated barrister, Jatindra Mohan Senguptta, whom fellow Bengalis called ‘Deshapriya’ (Beloved of the Country), and whose English wife, Nellie, was elected Congress president in 1933, sipping Scotch in full evening dress of white tie and tails while an attendant held out the obligatory khadi dhoti and kurta. The caption, ‘Bearer, meeting ka kapra lao!’ has passed into the language. Our netas always dress down to a level they calculate will endear them to the multitude, giving rise in the process to some fictional accessories. The Gandhi cap, for instance, could be renamed after Lord (Fenner) Brockway, the Calcutta-born British Labour politician who at least wore it once in the House of Commons. The Nehru jacket was the creation of Parisian couturiers. Nehru, who had a finger on the public pulse, affected a plebeian style until he became Prime Minister when he introduced the long sherwani. JBS Haldane, the rebellious British scientist who made India his home, disapproved of the garment, accusing Nehru of jumping from the frying pan of British fashion into the fire of alien Muslim styles. But the Nehrus were no strangers to fancy dress. Until he developed populist pretensions, Nehru’s father had no qualms about togging up in breeches, white waistcoat, dress sword and the bemedalled short jacket called bum-freezer for the 1911 Delhi Durbar.
That was the event where Gaekwad Sayajirao III of Baroda declared sartorial war on the British Raj by “wearing the ordinary white linen everyday dress of a Mahratta” as the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, complained. Keir Hardie, founder of he British Labour Party, called it “the white robe of a bearer”, which must have been even more galling for Hardinge who saw it as a studied insult to the monarch whom Gandhi’s loin cloth outraged 20 years later. Fearing the offended Viceroy might bundle him off his gaddi, the Gaekwad sent an abject apology, but historians like Amar Farooqi feel the ‘commendable bravery’ of his defiance was the sartorial equivalent of hurling a bomb at the King-Emperor.
The problem with austerity, as the Sengupta cartoon underlined, is that it forces leaders to be all things to all men. If politicians are what they wear, where does one find the real person? Many Bengali voters might feel they have been landed with a Congress politician or, worse still, a Marxist if the Chief Minister suddenly sports high heels instead of her usual rubber flip-flops. Marxists would feel betrayed if Brinda Karat dropped her bindi. Two political women who tried to reinvent themselves lost their moorings: Tarakeshwari Sinha and Nandini Satpathy were unrecognisable in their smart bobbed hair and chiffon incarnation. The flamboyant Biju Patnaik refused a drink at a cocktail party because he was in khadi dhoti and kurta.
Stylistic schizophrenia reached its apogee in Indira Gandhi. I was at London’s Heathrow airport with other Indian journalists when she flew in from Delhi en route her first trip to Latin America, a democratically dishevelled figure with unruly grey hair in a crushed cotton sari. It was an altogether different woman we saw off three days later. Her face was beautifully but discreetly made up, a single lock of white blazed against the jet black sheen of her coiffure, pleats of radiant silk cascaded from the dark coat that enveloped her slim figure.
Mrs Gandhi dressed for the occasion even at home. She was the picture of elegance—hair set, face made up, and a short embroidered Kashmiri cape over her shoulders—when calling on Britain’s Prime Minister James Callaghan in Rashtrapati Bhavan the evening before her appearance before the Shah Commission. It was back to playing the fishwife in Patiala House the next morning. Her coarse cotton sari was hitched above her ankles, the pallu tucked in at the waist. Not a trace of the last evening’s lipstick or mascara could be detected on her face. Every drop of black dye had been washed out of her tousled grey hair. Whatever role she chose to take on, she played it to perfection.
In the case of men, it’s probably not deliberate. I once waited for Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in his hotel suite in London, not realising that the little old man in the shabby long overcoat (unfashionable because Carnaby Street coats stopped at the knee those days), thick woollen scarf and battered trilby was the future Indian president of Emergency notoriety. He was unrecognisable because one saw him in Delhi only in sherwani and Gandhi cap. In London, Ahmed had temporarily reverted to his long past Cambridge and Inner Temple days and possibly taken out of mothballs garments from those days too.
Good communists being excellent fashonistas, Nurul Hassan’s ample spread was much more smartly draped in a navy three-piece suit in Darjeeling. His justification for the camouflage was Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s advice that the Gorkha National Liberation Front, which was then on the rampage, preferred an Indian politician who didn’t look like one.
Rajiv Gandhi’s fresh- faced breezy appearance on the political stage heralded a sartorial revolution that was as pregnant with symbolism as the invasion of Paris by the sans-culottes–the ‘trouser-less’—but in reverse. It was the end, people said, of desi dhoti-kurta nationalism. Madhavsinh Solanki, who had been Chief Minister of Gujarat no fewer than four times without coveting the Delhi sultanate, lamented that the safari suit brigade was taking over. Rajiv Gandhi himself was careful to avoid a uniform associated until then with salesmen and insurance agents. But he neglected the opportunity of bringing back his grandfather’s sherwani. He chose, instead, to cut it short into that neither-here-nor-there garment that no ruling prince deigned to touch in the high noon of the Raj even though it’s now called a prince coat.
Whatever her political legacy, Rajiv’s wife may also merit a footnote in India’s sartorial history. Against the background of Haldane’s strictures, it must say something for the importance of being Indian that the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi clings as tenaciously to the sari as the Albanian Mother Teresa while so many ethnic Indian women—not Sushma Swaraj or Vasundhara Raje Scindia whose shape might not leave them too many options—are turning to the salwar-kameez, jeans and even frocks.