Till yesterday, many Indians coping with a warm winter and approaching spring would have had little patience for any talk about puffer jackets, but now, the garment, considered the best defence against wind chill, finds itself in the middle of an ideological battle between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
And all because Congress president Rahul Gandhi wore one while attending a concert in poll-bound Shillong. The BJP’s Meghalaya unit’s Twitter handle was quick enough to zero in on the jacket’s provenance (from British fashion house Burberry) and posted a tweet, complete with the price of the jacket ($995) about “indifference", “black money", etc. The tweet also took a swipe at Gandhi’s famous “suit-boot ki sarkar" comment about Narendra Modi, which was a jibe at the now infamous suit worn by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his name inscribed all over it.
For Indian politicians, the outfit of choice, mostly a white kurta-pyjama, has always meant a harking back to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. After all, it was the Father of the Nation who urged Indians to wear khadi and shun British clothing. Over the years, the white kurta-pyjama became the symbol of the grassroots politician with the colour meant to reflect both austerity and pristineness. It also helped that it was one of the most comfortable outfits to wear in a country with hot and humid weather.
“There is no denying that the way a politician dresses impresses upon the voter a certain image of the individual," said Abhay Kumar Dubey, a social science scholar at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. His observation brings to mind the carefully crafted image of Mamata Banerjee, the current chief minister of West Bengal. Banerjee dresses in simple cotton sarees, wears flip-flops and continues to live in a two-room house.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s muffler acquired near iconic status when he wore it almost every day after he was elected to office. It was an attempt to don the look of a middle class man and thereby invoke confidence.
“Whether it is Gandhi or Modi, politicians can wear what they want but don’t preach austerity," said political analyst Pushpesh Pant. And if you are caught wearing the wrong jacket or the wrong suit, initiate damage control immediately, he added.
Gandhi has clarified that the jacket he wore actually belonged to someone else while Modi was quick to discard the bespoke suit in an auction.
“I think the jabs aimed at Modi after he wore the suit really ruffled him. Rahul Gandhi’s ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ jab was actually quite smart," said Dubey.
There is, however, no denying that it was the election of Modi as prime minister that brought some colour and smartness to the Indian political sartorial scene. In a 2014 piece titled “Is Modi India’s best dressed prime minister ever?" the Wall Street Journal described him as “dapper" with “well cut Indian suits", and a “peacock in the country’s crowd of drably dressed politicians". Even The Washington Post did a story in 2015, writing in detail about how Modi’s choice of colours has evolved and how his outfit of choice, the kurta-pyjama with a jacket, is tailored using traditional fabrics.
“There was a change afoot in the dressing style of politicians even before Modi came on the national stage. This was also because politics was increasingly becoming a visual medium thanks to the proliferation of TV channels. But it was only with Modi that the change became apparent," said Dubey.
But while colours are acceptable, exorbitant price tags are clearly not. Gandhi, who is mostly seen in a white kurta-pyjama, just learnt this the hard way. For while the voter may not notice, in this day and age of increasingly vicious and personal political games, the opponent will not let them forget it.