Trinamool Congress chief Mamataa Banerjee, besides shedding kilos by working out at the gym and adding an alphabet to her name, is priming up for the assembly polls in May with regular facials and pedicures.
While this is the latest sartorial transformation by a leader, it is by no means the only one.
Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi transformed the way the Indian neta looked. With a bomber jacket worn over elegantly stitched pajama-kurta or jeans-kurta combination, Lotto shoes in place and a tricolour scarf round his neck — Gandhi ushered in a new political symbolism.
The transformation of the political class in the last two and a half decades can be the subject of a fascinating study.
In the age of 24 x7 television, today’s politicians are fitter, more image-conscious and smartly turned up.
“The rules of the game are being set by television. Most politicians of consequence are in makeover mode,” says Dilip Cherian, head of Perfect Relations, a Delhi-based image management firm. “The image transformation sometimes happens involuntarily — as politicians, when they acquire political strength, become surrounded by hoards of people who nudge them in different directions — feeding them with suggestions all the time. Sometimes, the process is more conscious and deliberate,” adds Cherian.
Over the last few years, for instance, there have been a number of heavy-weight leaders from all hues of the political spectrum — Mayawati to Narendra Modi — who have tweaked their style and image, depending on the constituency they were addressing or the political philosophy they were trying to convey.
Historically, around the world, a sharp sartorial sense may not have been the only factor deciding election victories, but it helps. In the US, one reason for John F Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon in the presidential sweepstakes in 1960 — the first featuring televised debates — was apparel: Nixon wore an over-sized bush shirt, while Kennedy was nattily dressed in bespoke suits.
The Gandhis have always been astute students of sartorial nuances. Rajiv Gandhi’s choice of style went hand-in-hand with his modern leader and “21st century” political rhetoric. His mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, similarly had her own way of reaching out to people through her clothes. For instance, at a public meetings in Tamil Nadu, she would wear a Kanjivaram sari. It is a habit that Sonia Gandhi has emulated.Mandal Messiah Vishwanath Pratap Singh quit the Congress in 1988 after the Bofors controversy and shed his churidar-pajama kurta to get a makeover the backwards could identify with: a bell-bottom pajama and kurta made of coarse cotton, to align with his new political sensibilities.
Ready for the TV studio
Today, of the 570 television channels in the country, approximately 170 are news-based. “Television has bombarded people’s minds. It is a powerful political tool and the netas know this,” says NK Singh, general secretary of the Broadcast Editors Association.
Under relentless media glare, the smarter politicians have learnt to manoeuvre the message they want to send out. “It is about semiotics, the science of communicating through symbols, signs and motifs. Politicians like Lalu Yadav, for instance, projected a different image of themselves as a symbol of defiance of convention,” says sociologist Ashis Nandy of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
“Everything about person matters: From his gaze to gait and mannerisms. This is why impression management is becoming popular,” says Nandinesh Nilay, who conducts image-building workshops for educational institutes. “Talking to the camera means talking to the abstract. Several politicians are gradually learning to negotiate this art,” adds Nilay.
Sitting in a television studio, the more savvy politicians and spokespersons have even learnt to present their best profile for the camera. If a politician does not know where the camera is placed, he or she stands the risk of being taken as shifty-eyed.
Over the years, seasoned politicians have learnt the rules of the game. In an interview to a Bangla television channel some months ago, Mamataa spontaneously broke into a song. The attempt: Shedding her rabble-rouser image and becoming more conventional and acceptable. “Politicians wear different masks at different times. In the case of Mamataa, when she is being projected as a prospective chief minister, she should appear as being in control,” says Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav.
With Nagendar Sharma in Delhi, Mahesh Langa in Ahmedabad, Anirban Guha Roy in Patna and Manish Chandra Pandey in Lucknow.