Like most Indians, I was a little bemused by all the controversy generated by Sarah Palin’s $1,50,000 wardrobe. Don’t get me wrong. Sure, that is a lot of money for a self-professed hockey mom to spend on a makeover, even if it is for the US Presidential polls. What surprised me was why it became an issue in the first place – and such a huge one at that.
But then, for us it’s hard to understand why we are supposed to care about the way politicians dress; what they wear; and how much they spend on it. In India, those in public life pretty much stick to a tried-and-tested formula: saris or salwar-kameez for women and kurta-pyjama or churidar-achkan for the men. And we are so used to seeing our politicians in these staples of their work wardrobes that we don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to what they actually wear.
The only time that clothes became an issue recently was with the hapless Shivraj Patil, who was hung up and left to dry on his many well-tailored bandhgallas when Delhi was reeling from a series of bomb blasts. Though what his sartorial choices had to do with his work ethic still escapes me completely.
But other than that everybody in India pretty much ignores the way politicians dress. If this was America or even the UK, fashion writers would be tripping over themselves to write about how Renuka Chowdhury is such a wonderful role model for plus-sized women in her elegant south Indian saris. Or how the younger lot of male politicians might think about wearing blue jeans with their white kurtas rather than the regulation churidar.
But no, nobody bothers because with the current identikit style of dressing it’s just more of the same really. And truth be told, it’s boring, boring, boring.
So, the only time the fashion press can really come to life is when someone like Priyanka Gandhi – who is at least closely associated with politics if not a full-fledged politician herself – decides to push the envelope a bit. All she had to do was wear a pair of black trousers and a fitted white shirt rather than her usual Indian ensembles to Parliament and suddenly it was as if the floodgates had opened.
But however much the press may ignore all matters sartorial when it comes to politics and politicians – somehow this is seen as essentially frivolous nonsense best left to silly little feature writers rather than grave political columnists – sometimes how those in public life dress is a pretty good indicator of how our society is developing and where we as a nation are headed.
Surely, it can’t be a coincidence that as India takes its rightful place in world affairs as a global power, our netas have quietly abandoned the rough-hewn simplicity of khadi to go far more upmarket in their choice of fabric. Only old-timers bother any longer to keep up the pretence of being seen in it (in public at least). Most others have switched to more luxurious choices when it comes to tailoring their churidar kurtas.
In fact, as the new Indian asserts himself as a global citizen, even the kurta-pyjamas are junked on occasion. These days nobody thinks it odd if MPs and ministers come wearing shirts and trousers to Parliament. Some of them are even daring enough to wear formal Western suits on visits abroad rather than the standard bandhgalla.
The last taboo, of course, remains the Prime Minister of India who has never to my knowledge worn a suit and tie at a formal event. The only one to do so was Rajiv Gandhi, and that was at a Doon School function where he wore an old school tie, so it doesn’t really count. But even a technocrat like Manmohan Singh who probably wore a suit to work most of his like is now fetchingly kitted out in a bandhgalla. Maybe it will be left to the natty Arun Jaitley to break that last taboo when he moves into Race Course Road.
With women politicians, however, it is harder to break the barriers and cross over to a more Western style of dressing. Ours is still a deeply conservative society – more so when it comes to women – and the idea of seeing a minister or an MP in a trouser suit still doesn’t seem right.
And that works out pretty well for our women politicians. They can hunker down in the safe folds of a sari, knowing that they can’t really go wrong so long as they are secure within its drape. It doesn’t matter what your shape or size, your age or political affiliation, you simply can’t go wrong with a sari. It hides a million flaws, it is suitably modest and it sends out a strong message about your inherent Indianness.
Indira Gandhi understood best just how potent a symbol the sari was. She always wore one that was indigenous to the area that she was visiting. So, it was south Indian silk in Madras, a kantha or Dhakai in Bengal, a Patola in Gujarat and so forth. Her daughter-in-law Sonia has made that her patented style as well, sticking closely to regional variations as she travels across the country.
But while saris and kurtas are all very well, don’t you sometimes long for someone to come along and shake things up a little. After all, we ordinary folk don’t restrict ourselves to Indian clothes all the time. So, why should our politicians – who allegedly represent us – be any different?