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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 20 New Delhi May 4, 2019

Political Importance of Dress and Smiles

Saturday 4 May 2019

by Nilofar Suhrawardy

Not all countries have as many political parties as India has. Also, the dress attire of politicians of other countries is not as varied as is that of Indian politicians. Certainly, regional, religious, political as well as personal and other reasons need to be paid attention while considering the kind of dress worn by most politicians. The politicians would probably not have been so conscious of their attire as well as their facial expressions if they did not accord some communication value to the same. In this context, what can be said about the significance of political communication assumed to be given by politicians to electoral impact of their dress and appearance? Prime Minister Modi’s dress attire and emphasis he has laid on the styling of his hair and beard stand out quite significantly. It would not be wrong to state that the latter (hair and beard) add a distinctive stamp to his appearance. With respect to his attire, though he hails from the saffron brigade, unlike other activists of this group, he has given minimal importance to displaying the saffron colour in his dress. In contrast, Yogi Adityanath (Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister) and several others have gone overboard in displaying their apparent affinity for the saffron colour in their dress and at other levels. Perhaps the saffron attire has been deliberately opted by them to be noted for their saffron leanings.

The fact that Modi used the dress of this colour during his road show recently in Varanasi (April 25, 2019) bears its own importance. For a change, perhaps, he chose to display his saffron inclination. This is a major contrast from the focus he laid during his campaign in 2014. It may be recalled, he had gone overboard then in donning the secular mask. Otherwise, on most occasions, including the present campaigning, Modi is not always visible in saffron attire. Rather, Modi’s appearance, from head to toe, gives a different impression. Linkage of his dress with a few Congress-stalwarts cannot be sidelined. The jacket, worn quite often by Modi, is also known as the Nehru-jacket. It is linked with the attire used quite frequently by first Indian Prime Minister, the prominent Congress leader Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Not many politicians are visible in churidars (lower dress worn by men with kurtas). But Modi appears quite fond of it. And so was Nehru.

Incidentally, the jacket is fairly popular in the Hindi belt and is commonly used politically as well as socially. Politically and commercially, it is referred to as the Nehru-jacket. The attempt made to use the term Modi-jacket hasn’t succeeded. Whatever are reasons which prompted Modi to include this jacket and churidar in his political attire, the combination certainly sets him a little apart from the rest of his saffron team. It is possible that the jacket’s usage by the BJP Premier, late Atal Behari Vajpayee, partly influenced this decision of Modi. At the same time, Modi did not pay attention to Vajpayee’s usage of dhoti. Just as he ensures that each hair on his face and head is not off-line, he gives substantial importance to design, colour and also to his footwear being meticulously polished.

The air about Modi’s dress-strategy cannot be missed. His apparent aim is to look better (and perhaps greater) than the rest of the Indian crowd. This may be viewed as a symbol of his political “identity”, which can be linked with his “ego”. This has perhaps influenced Modi’s communication strategy to look a little different from rest of the crowd, including his saffron colleagues and other politicians. His attempt to keep a distance from other politicians cannot be missed. This stands out in comparison to a totally different approach displayed by him towards leaders of other countries. The latter refers to his hugs and smiles for them. Hugs are hardly indulged in by Modi for Indians politicians.

In comparison to Modi’s dress-strategy, the style of most other politicians is hardly suggestive of their attempt to look different or a little apart from their political colleagues as well as common Indians. Nevertheless, most have succeeded in according their distinct individual stamp to their appearances. As for instance, the white kurta-pyjama donned by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi doesn’t bear any special or different mark. The dress is common attire of most male politicians in the Hindi belt. However, his hair style and usually unshaven look set him apart. So do his footwear, sneakers used quite often by him.

The same may be said about two dominant politicians of the fairer gender. There is nothing politically special or great about salwar-kameez and saree worn by Mayawati (BSP) and Mamata Banerjee (TMC), respectively. However, the nature of their wearing the same has added their individual stamp to their images. While the manner in which Mayawati folds her dupatta/chunni around her neck is linked to her style, the colour and style of Mamata Banerjee’s sarees mark her personality.

Though saree is quite common among ladies, politically and also socially, the manner and kind of sarees worn by Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka cannot be missed. This may be linked to their continuing saree-style legacy of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Of late, the Indira-image has been linked fairly often with the personality of Priyanka. Certainly, the latter also keeps her hair short like her grandmother did. But parting, styling as well as colouring of hair by Priyanka has hardly any Indira-stamp. With the lady now totally involved in campaigning, she has ceased bothering about whether her saree folds are crumpled or not. Priyanka’s key focus is reaching out to people through her smiles and waves. Substantial attention to his smiles and waves is also paid by Rahul.

Their smiles and waves may not have the magical electoral touch, but they have certainly helped the two gain substantial media coverage and also people’s attention. Though the two are viewed as political novices by their rivals, they appear to feel quite at home with people around while campaigning. Their warm, friendly smiles and feeling of being at ease, at least in the opinion of this observer, suggest this.

Communication strategy of several politicians’ dress-code may be associated with their conveying their political goals and/or inclinations. The apparent fondness of Chandrababu Naidu (TDP) for safaris can be associated with his development-oriented agenda. Dress-code of the AAP party leader, Arvind Kejriwal, may be linked to his party’s name. Yes, the pant-shirt is given greater preference by common men (aam aadmi) across the country than the traditional attire, including dhoti-kurta or even kurta-pyjama.

Quite a few politicians decide their dress-code to identify themselves with common people. With fewer Indians opting for dhotis, dress-code of dhoti-clad politicians has lost its earlier significance. But quite a few still don it. Even dhotis carry different regional stamps. The politicians’ decision of wearing dhotis clearly marks their distinct regional identities. Clearly, politicians have opted to choose the dress-code which enhances their political credibility in their own opinion, the one they feel satisfied with. Paradoxically, in this age of communi-cation boom, most have given little importance to their facial expressions. Smiles don’t sit easily on the faces of all, even during their road-shows. The question whether most find it difficult to smile or don’t want to smile is debatable. The lead here is definitely taken by Rahul and Priyanka!

The author is a senior journalist. She has come out with three books: Arab Spring: Not Just a Mirage; Ayodhya without Communal Stamp: In the Name of Indian Secularism; and Image and Substance: Modi’s First Year in Office.

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