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Nehru’s sartorial tastes have endured, with various interpretations of the bandhgala by today’s fashion designers. Photo: Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images
Nehru’s sartorial tastes have endured, with various interpretations of the bandhgala by today’s fashion designers. Photo: Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images

A sartorial theory of politics

Modern politicians' attire shows they are living in a world distant from that of the ordinary Indian

One of the most endearing political anecdotes I have read concerns M.N. Roy and V.D. Savarkar. They both began as firebrand revolutionaries in the first decade of the 20th century, but then went along different paths. Roy discovered radical humanism after a dazzling career in the global Communist movement. Savarkar became the lodestone of Hindutva.

The story has been recounted by the film-maker J.B.H. Wadia in his memoirs about Roy. Roy was staying at the Wadia residence in what was then Bombay. One morning, in 1938, his hosts were taken aback to see Roy come to the breakfast table in a spotless white dhoti-kurta worn in the Bengali style. He usually preferred to wear suits or a bush shirt and trousers.

Noticing the puzzled look he received that morning, Roy explained to Wadia: “I am going to pay my respects to Veer Savarkar and I thought I should do it in the fittest manner possible. I am sure the old man will be pleased to see me dressed as a full-fledged Indian rather than as Westernized revolutionary." Wadia adds: “I have a sneaking suspicion that when Roy was in Veer Savarkar’s presence he must have touched his feet in the traditional Indian way."

The obvious lesson from this is how two brilliant men could have respect for each other despite their deep political differences. The less obvious point is that the sartorial choices of Roy and Savarkar at a subliminal level reflected their political attitudes: the suit and the dhoti. The change from a suit to traditional Indian attire was how Roy signalled his respect for the man he was going to meet.

Sartorial choices tell us a lot. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote about this way back in 1776. He used the example of a linen shirt: “A linen shirt, for example, is strictly speaking, not a necessity necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present time, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct." In other words, a linen shirt was proof of social virtue.

One can find similar behavioural patterns in politics as well. Now consider the case of two great political rivals: M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar. Gandhi chose to wear the attire of an Indian peasant. Ambedkar preferred suits. The sartorial difference was perhaps also politically significant. Gandhi glorified rural life. Ambedkar had contempt for it, believing quite rightly that it was a cesspool of caste oppression. Gandhi wanted to rejuvenate Indian villages. Ambedkar advised his followers to migrate to towns. One was a traditionalist while the other was a modernist. That could explain why the two rivals dressed the way they did.

In a biting speech comparing the “dark age" of Gandhi with the more enlightened age that preceded it, Ambedkar made it a point to say: “Not only is there a difference in their mental make-up there is a difference even in their viewpoint regarding external appearance. The leaders of the old age took care to be well clad while the leaders of the present age take pride in being half clad…"

What is common to all these political personalities is that their choice of clothes was consistent. Gandhi, Roy, Savarkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari), Maulana Azad…they did not change their look depending on the circumstances. There was no difference between their private and public looks. It reveals their fundamental political honesty.

The same cannot be said of the current crop of Indian politicians, especially the younger lot. It is not uncommon to see the scions of influential political dynasties moving around in casual urban attire at social gatherings or sporting events. That seems to be their preferred way of dressing. Yet, they change their look as soon as they are on the political stage; out go the jeans-and-shirt and in come the pristine white cotton kurtas. The sports shoes are perhaps the only crossover part of their outfits, or perhaps an oversight.

My guess is that the convenient switch is a reflection of dishonesty: You signal to your supporters that you are somebody else. What is even more interesting to me is that the attire of the young politicians today is quite unlike anything that ordinary Indians wear, even in the villages. It almost marks the new politicians as a class apart, living in a world quite distant from the realities of the ordinary Indian.

They may pretend otherwise, but their clothes give them away.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.

Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns--

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