Arvind Kejriwal has his trademark muffler and Narendra Modi his Modi kurta (now a registered brand). The Trinamul leader’s badge of honour is wrapped round his ankles.
Men in sneakers rule Bengal today. You glance at an important-looking man’s feet, and if he is sporting trendy trainers while the rest of his person is swaddled in the traditional kurta-pyjamas, chances are he is your local MLA from the Trinamul Congress.
This is paribartan as “ground” reality. For the CPM leader still favours chappals or shoes and will not be caught with his feet in an international brand.
The Congress has a foot in every camp, though. Rajiv Gandhi may have been the first Indian Prime Minister to marry sneakers with kurta-pyjamas, turning them as much into symbols of modernity as the technology he was trying to usher in, but some of his party’s leaders now wear chappals, some sneakers, some even high heels.
It’s the men from the party born of the Congress who have followed staunchly in Rajiv’s footsteps. As a young organisation, Trinamul is not constrained by sartorial tradition and finds it easy to just adopt something.
The A-list of sneakered Trinamul leaders is long: IT minister Partha Chatterjee; transport minister Madan Mitra; party national president Mukul Roy; housing and youth affairs minister Arup Biswas; fisheries minister Chandranath Singh; MP Dinesh Trivedi; the mayors of Calcutta, Durgapur and Asansol: Sovan Chatterjee, Apurba Mukherjee and Tapas Banerjee; Birbhum district chief Anubrata Mondal.
Partha Chatterjee claims to have launched the tradition and attributes it to his aversion to drabness and love of colour.
“I first wore sneakers with a kurta and pyjamas in 2001 when I was an MLA. Now I see many following me,” he said.
“I never liked chappals and, since my college days, wore colourful clothes. I prefer green cotton kurtas and white pyjamas with Reebok or Adidas sneakers. They are very comfortable too.”
The practice has trickled down to the lower party rungs, where these sports shoes are not just about style and comfort and may be seen as a sign of arrival.
Debabrata Tudu took to wearing trainers a year ago when he became Burdwan zilla parishad head. He is condescending of those who do not need sneakers.
“We from the Trinamul have to roam the villages, walk everywhere. Amader mathe-ghate ghurte hoi. We can’t sit at party offices and chat the whole day,” he said.
Parvez Ali Khondakar, a Trinamul youth leader in Durgapur town, simply decided to follow his party seniors’ example.
“I used to wear shoes when I was a private bank executive but when I joined politics, I began to wear sneakers with kurta-pyjamas to party programmes like our senior leaders,” he said.
Trinamul Yuva president and poll candidate Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, says he wears either sandals or sneakers with his kurta-pyjamas. Some women Trinamul leaders wear sneakers with their saris.
To political opponents, all this is further reflection of Trinamul’s lack of “culture”.
“As a party, Trinamul is an upstart. They have neither history nor culture, which is why they can depart from tradition so easily,” said a CPM leader. “They are philistines, which is why they can do something as absurd as wear sneakers with kurta-pyjamas.”
To buttress their point, CPM supporters cite their past and present stalwarts’ choice of traditional footwear with their traditional clothes: Jyoti Basu wore pumps; Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Biman Basu wear chappals.
Debasish Chowdhury, a Congress leader from Durgapur, too finds the Trinamul’s trademark attire an offence against good taste.
“I wear sneakers only with trousers or jeans; I always wear sandals with kurta-pyjamas. Everybody has their own style but I think sneakers look odd with pyjamas,” he said.
Subrata Seet, a retired schoolteacher in Durgapur, said that whenever he saw a politician get off a car wearing trainers with his kurta-pyjamas, he identified him as a Trinamul leader.
“I wouldn’t have noticed it earlier, but with the number of Trinamul leaders increasing in my locality since the party’s rise to power, the trend is now unmistakable. The attire looks odd ---- but different from others’,” Seet smiled.
Many Trinamul leaders claimed to own multiple pairs of sneakers. Minister Madan Mitra, who has an eye for colourful kurtas, said his health made sneakers mandatory for him. He has been wearing these soft-soled shoes for more than 25 years.
“I have a health problem caused by excessive smoking. I have around 10-15 pairs and keep changing them for the right combination with my clothes,” Mitra said.
Minister Arup Biswas has to “run around” a lot ---- “at least 13 hours every day”.
“Be it city roads or villages, sneakers are the best option,” he said, admitting to possessing three pairs.
Agriculture minister Malay Ghatak said he had been wearing sneakers with his kurta-pyjamas on his doctor’s orders since fracturing his right ankle in 2011.
One exception stands out, though. Mamata Banerjee may consider Rajiv Gandhi her elder brother but she has stuck to Hawaii chappals.
Additional reporting by Arnab Ganguly in Calcutta