Stalin’s new clothes

Can an image makeover help win an election?


Stalin has traded dhoti and white shirt for trousers, T-shirts, buttoned down shirts and sneakers.
Stalin has traded dhoti and white shirt for trousers, T-shirts, buttoned down shirts and sneakers.

Tamil Nadu political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK’s) leader M.K. Stalin has kept aside his trademark dhoti and white shirt for trousers, T-shirts, buttoned down shirts and sneakers. Dubbed as an image makeover, which it is, political and image observers are trying to analyse the reasons and outcomes of Stalin’s new look.

The 62-year-old politician, who looks considerably fit for his age, regardless of the bicycles and scooters he has been riding, is supposedly trying to woo 8 million first time voters who will join Tamil Nadu’s electorate ahead of the assembly elections for the state next year.

What will help him, we are being asked to believe, is younger looking T-shirts (will there be a DMK slogan on one soon?), the red helmet he wears while driving a scooter across villages and the metaphorical high fives he is busy exchanging with autorickshaw drivers, pavement stall owners and other representatives of the working classes.

Without any sustained or well-documented regional youth survey on lifestyle choices, clothing preferences, likes and dislikes, there is an undocumented assumption that the Indian youth, whether it is Bihar or Tamil Nadu, prefer Western dressing. Apparel sales are a good indicator of course, and perhaps these inferences are also drawn by looking around to see what young people are wearing. Clearly, they don’t wear dhotis.

The inference about what the Indian youth like, however, can never be just limited to clothes. It is about digital connectivity, jobs, freedom of choice, absence of moral policing, education opportunities and such. “Youngsters clearly want a transparent, scam-free and commission-free administration. I’m able to clearly understand their feelings,” said Stalin to NDTV some days ago. But how he aims to convince his electorate of those promises through his formal shirts worn for an informal appeal is a tad difficult to understand.

There are no case studies to prove if politicians who have attempted image makeovers have won elections because of a new image. If that were even a remote possibility, Rahul Gandhi would consider one, perhaps even give suit-boots a chance or Bihar biggie Nitish Kumar would wear slim fit shirts with tapered trousers like the Bihari youth.

Anyone who has travelled in Tamil Nadu by road could not have escaped the hundreds of posters pasted everywhere in the state with DMK politicians on them, Stalin’s most crucially. His crisp and spotless white shirts with elbow length sleeves, not so long back known as the Kamraj shirt and his white dhotis in fact were his trademark. He had a recognizable signature.

It was regionally symbolic, seasonally suitable given Tamil Nadu’s climate and you can’t easily fight with white if it is worn right. In a story I wrote on the white shirt’s journey and meaning in India for Mint Lounge, I referred to Stalin as a good instance of style signature among politicians. Read here.

Being culturally in sync with your region if not your country was what politicians formerly believed in rather strongly. Most still do. South Indian politicians particularly, they stayed away from suits and boots. There is H.D. Deve Gowda or to cite a quick example from Stalin’s own family—his 92-year-old father M. Karunanidhi, the DMK veteran, unimaginable without his shirt, dhoti and yellow-ochre angavastrams. Shashi Tharoor changes into his traditional Kerala look with kurta and angavastram given event and projection appropriateness and Congress veteran P. Chidambaram has perhaps the most strongly cultivated dress identity with his dhoti-shirts.

A file photo of Stalin in his trademark dhoti and white shirt
A file photo of Stalin in his trademark dhoti and white shirt

Stalin should be applauded for his guts; it isn’t easy at his age to give up an image cultivated and sold over the years. But to project that he is changing over a new leaf because of his new clothes is being too simplistic. It assumes that young voters are naïve and will vote for his Western clothed new image rather than who he is. Not to mention that in a flash Stalin has lost his distinction of appearance, because now he looks like one among the crowd, perhaps a neatly dressed guy driving a scooter or the corporate professional taking a day off. He doesn’t look like a political leader. A smarter image change would have worried a bit about retaining a sense of distinction.

I also hope Stalin isn’t ditching his dhotis entirely. For one, young people want their political leaders to look and behave their age, they expect them to be people of lasting loyalty, sturdy horses of the long race, not chameleons who change colour. Two, if he does get elected, he will have weddings, funerals, cultural functions and regional ceremonies to attend: the dhoti-shirt will still come in handy.

Never desert your identity Mr Politician. You can change the shirt, yes, but you can’t change what you evolved into. And next time someone in your state is accused of not keeping “bharatiya sanskriti” alive, make sure which side of the debate you want to be on.

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