Is it media scrutiny in the ongoing Uttar Pradesh election that has sparked interest in the Yadav bahus or are Dimple and Aparna Yadav actually improvising the politics of their appearance in the spotlight? The crafting of a personality cult, particularly during elections, needs careful strategy and is (usually) a story worth following. Political history is replete with examples, from the late J. Jayalalithaa’s crepe capes to Mamata Banerjee’s Missionaries of Charity-style cotton saris—all self-consciously styled to suit the persona and promise of a political leader and sync with the poll visuals.
In the current scenario unfolding in UP, the Yadav bahus are clearly sending a message about their intent. The Yadav family rift makes for a riveting plot anyway. It shares some threads with the joint families caricaturized by Indian TV soaps and, like other political households, is restive with intrigue and infighting, where ambitious daughters-in-law are coached in the virtues of restraint. A tale that looks similar and sounds familiar but is poised to become a stand-alone saga.
Dimple Yadav, wife of chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and a two-time member of Parliament from Kannauj, wears saris, the standard uniform of an Indian political spouse. Her well-chosen cotton or cotton-silk drapes are paired with fitted, three-quarter-sleeved blouses, mostly in contrasting colours. She wears her hair loosely or in a careless knot at the nape, her body language one of quiet engagement instead of being emphatically attention-seeking. Dimple, in her late 30s, is an important note in her husband’s orchestra but never the co-conductor. Her saris, as well as the salwar-kurtas she prefers when the couple are interviewed at their Lucknow home by the media, tell us that monotone is her favourite. Plain salwar-kameez sets offset by (Kani) shawls draped on one shoulder in winter or simple dupattas in summer, a bangle or two on her arms and a tiny bindi on her forehead point to her fuss-free style.
Aparna Yadav, wife of Akhilesh’s younger brother Prateek, is contesting the election from the Lucknow Cantonment area. She may be a bahu from the same household but embodies a vastly different dynamic. She seems to prefer printed synthetic saris or those with slim borders, mostly the artificial georgettes preferred by working women of the Hindi belt for their ease of use . But she doesn’t look as comfortable in saris. She too wears blouses with three-quarter sleeves or longer and often, a red bindi and some bangles—conforming to the traditional expectations of a Yadav bahu. Aparna, in her late 20s, also drapes her pallu around her shoulder rather self-consciously, not effortlessly like her sister-in-law.
Political observers who have observed Dimple when she campaigned for Akhilesh in the last UP polls notice that she no longer covers her head, especially in the presence of her father-in-law, Mulayam Singh Yadav, or other family elders.
Interestingly, the Yadav bahus haven’t so far used Lucknow’s famous hand-embroidered Chikankari saris or even Varanasi’s weaves to make a more strategic socio-political statement. “Aparna only wears saris for campaigning, else she is comfortable in salwar-kameez, and that’s what she wears when she travels from one venue to another,” says a political correspondent currently covering the UP election for a daily newspaper.
Jaya Jaitly, former Samata Party president, a politician with a distinct handloom dress sense and the founding chairperson of Dastkari Haat Samiti, says that through their clothes, the Yadav bahus make a dual statement of being modern and well-behaved. “It is good to see them in saris as the cities are full of conversations about young women who don’t prefer saris, but I can also see that they are not necessarily rustling rhetoric out of handloom saris. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them in synthetics or nylons instead of what the bunkars (weavers) make,” says Jaitly.
Uttar Pradesh is no humdrum state when it comes to the politics of dress. It is the home state of the Nehru bandhgala, the most memorialized and referenced piece of male dressing from India given the way Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, stitched it into his ideological narrative. The state is also the headquarters of the most discussed and envied clothing statement among women politicians: that of Indira Gandhi’s tasteful handlooms. A legacy so influential that it has been carefully nurtured and carried forward by her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi and her granddaughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
The state is also the karmabhoomi of Mayawati, a former chief minister of the state and a firebrand Dalit voice in politics. She is the mistress of a dozen statements of ambition and personal vanities through her dress. Her satin-y salwar suits that speak of expensive fabric, mostly bright pink if they are for her birthday, the faux-leather handbags frozen in her statues, her obsession with leather shoes (her chief security officer was photographed bending down to clean her shoes in 2011 and a WikiLeaks story that same year alleged Mayawati had sent an empty jet to pick up her leather sandals from Mumbai), aren’t just incidental anecdotes. They symbolize her much voiced resentment for the elite in politics and what she has described as “Manuwadi media”.
The question that should engage us currently is whether the Yadav bahus will move beyond their conformist styles to create a more personal handwriting in clothing and live up to UP’s peculiar USP in the politics of appearance. Will Aparna get a youthful hair cut (she really needs to look her age) and stop tying her dark hair with plastic clips?
My vote is for embroidered Chikankari saris in soft hues for Dimple and straight, cropped trousers—an elegant way to show ankles—instead of salwars, with long plain kurtas slit on the sides. Aparna would stand out in plain chiffons, a short, blunt hair cut and a lesson in posture correction from her fitness-expert husband Prateek. The sleeves on her blouse need less length and more imagination.