Politics for us has mostly been about symbolism. You vote on symbols. You get symbolic empowerment. You believe in netas because they are symbols of a particular caste or religion or region or gender. Parliament is a symbol of level-headed policy making and government and the legislative assemblies are symbolic seats of government in a land, where level-headed discussions and governance are fast disappearing.
Perhaps the most widely encouraged drama of political symbolism lies in the dress styles of our politicians. What you wear is what you are – or what you pretend to be. So our netas stick to their uniform of spotless white cotton dhoti-kurta or pajama-kurta, black Nehru waistcoat and Gandhi topi. It is clean, simple, no clutter and formal, complete with a headgear that harks back to an age where ideologies ruled our lives and the dedicated were ready to sacrifice one’s life for the motherland.
Unfortunately for the netas, though, decades of unclean, crooked and ideologically decrepit politicians intent on lavishly robbing the motherland have badly soiled that uniform. It is now only good to silently announce your trade, counter the humid heat and hide the neta’s bullet-proof vest in this violent land of Gandhi’s grandchildren.
But within this, there are individual styles. And the latest style statement is by the fresh new ministers of the refreshingly new and charmingly confused pack that rules the state of Delhi. The lead style statement is by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, popularly known as the Muffler Man.
Kejriwal has made the generally horrific grey muffler wrapped around his head, ears and neck into a style statement. It acts as a curious bridge between the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) childishly simple cap on top and the drab shirt, ultra-boring pullover, dreary trousers and chappals down below. And with that, the clever Kejriwal is a new style icon. It is the indisputable style of the aam aadmi – the common man. It may look simple, but it represents a quiet determination. As the AAP cap says: “Main aam aadmi hoon… Mujhe swaraj chahiye! (I am the common man… I want self-rule!)”
Kejriwal’s colleagues largely follow this sartorial style as well. True, not everyone has the gall to sit in their minister’s chair with their face framed firmly in a muffler that seems to represent the deep, dirty smog of Delhi. But they do make an effort at being casual. They try hard to be ostentatiously ordinary. They stick to their jeans and pullover routine (it is winter, after all) with sneakers and the AAP cap thrown in. Except the lone woman minister in this extraordinary Cabinet of first time politicians.
Rakhi Birla, 26, the youngest minister in the Delhi Cabinet, and the only woman in it, unsurprisingly does not dress like the aam aadmi. She represents the aam aurat. And like most of Delhi’s working women, the minister of Women and Child, Social Welfare and Languages goes to work in a salwar kameez. But she makes her identity clear with a sleeveless Nehru jacket and AAP cap. Also, unlike most working women in India, but like a certain kind of free-spirited, young, middle class Delhi women, Rakhi Birla wears sneakers.
We have come a long way from the era of Indira Gandhi’s fabulously understated sartorial elegance – where her refined charm and grace, her arched brow, piercing eyes and sharp wit complemented her stark white khadi saris with a simple ‘temple’ border. But unlike Mahatma Gandhi, she limited this dress style to her public appearances in India. On her official trips abroad, she appeared in fine silk saris usually in muted pastels, with stylish accessories. Indira Gandhi may have had many faults, but a bad dress sense was not one of them. Not surprising, since she was shaped by the best-dressed and most presentable politician India ever had.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi’s father and India’s first Pime Minister, made the rose an essential part of politics. In his impeccable formal ‘bandhgala’ and special ‘sherwanis’ – later to become ‘Nehru jackets’ – his ‘Nehru cap’ (an upper class ancestor of the AAP cap) and a red rose to complete the image of the thinking man with not just a mission, but a heart as well, Nehru was the trendsetter in sartorial elegance among Indian politicians.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru understood the importance of power dressing. Unlike Mahatma Gandhi, he did not wish to represent the common people and chose to stick to his own class and sophisticated taste. Gandhi’s loincloth symbolism may have worked with the masses, but it did confuse many – and triggered Winston Churchill’s comment about the “half-naked fakir”. Nehru would never risk such affront.
Thankfully, as Kejriwal and company show, the common man’s appearance has changed substantially since Gandhi’s time. Which is not to say that we are enormously better off politically. Our electoral choices may have actually shrunk. And the exasperation of the electorate is clear from their black humour wailing about the coming parliamentary polls where ‘India needs to choose between a Duffer, a Bluffer and a Muffler!’
But the Muffler Man is not the first surprise style icon. A few years ago, it was Mamata Banerjee, with her crumpled, white saris and rubber chappals. (I believe she is also designing saris, apart from singing, painting, writing poetry, and turning photographer – and I am curious to know who, other than Trinamool Congress cadets, would buy the Mamata-designed saris.)
Before Mamata Banerjee, it was Dalit queen Mayawati with her shiny silk salwar kameez and diamonds, her omnipresent handbag and her dupatta hugging her neck like a long muffler. She represented the aspiration of the severely downtrodden, and the promise of riches, respect and empowerment. She was the polar opposite of the well-off, well-educated, high caste Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s chosen attire of the ‘half-naked fakir’.
Symbols rule. And sartorial symbols often determine who rules.
Antara Dev Sen is Editor, The Little Magazine.
Antara Dev Sen