Nothing casual about it - Dress politics, from Rahul's shirt to Sushma's green day

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By RASHEED KIDWAI AND RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
  • Published 12.10.09
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Rahul Gandhi in a shirt

Oct. 11: When Rahul Gandhi stepped into Kerala’s campuses in jeans and shirt this week, he was sending out a signal to the youth that politics is not the sole province of serious-minded elders.

Rahul, 39, who has been coaxing young professionals and budding doctors, engineers and managers to view politics as a career option, was in Kerala to recruit members for the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India.

“The kurta-pyjama symbolises the established political culture whereas the youth tend to be anti-establishment,” a Congress leader said, claiming Rahul had received feedback that the young view politics as a drab profession that leaves little room for privacy or time for hobbies.

According to senior Congress leaders, the idea of dressing up casually in jeans and shirt is Rahul’s way of telling GeNext that if they join him in nation building, they will not have to compromise their appearance or style nor give up on fun.

Sources close to the Nehru-Gandhis said Rahul preferred casual clothes anyway, getting into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt or kurta at the first opportunity, especially in the evenings. On formal occasions such as attending Parliament or at public meetings or foreign visits, he wears the kurta-pyjama. During his China visit, though, he wore formal suits.

Sushma in a green sari on September 30, which was a Wednesday; Modi at a khadi store in Ahmedabad

Politicians have for long been known to use their attire to send out a message to their audience. However, those trying to read some meaning into the strange coincidence, day after day, between the colour of S.S. Ahluwalia’s turban and Sushma Swaraj’s sari would be on the wrong track.

The message, if any, is for the gods.

Both BJP leaders apparently believe in a system, similar to Vaastu and numerology, that advocates a particular colour on a particular day of the week for good luck, such as saffron on Tuesdays, green on Wednesdays and blue on Thursdays.

Sometimes, a political message and convenience may go hand in hand in the choice of one’s dress.

Sonia Gandhi, who has almost single-handedly resurrected the sari as a fashion statement among politicians, pulling out rare weaves and prints from the graveyard they were consigned to in an era of flashy synthetics, picks her saris to suit the occasion.

Whether it’s an expensive Maheshwari or Chanderi or a homespun Bagru, the statement is that India lives in its villages and in the homes of its weavers and printers.

When she hits the campaign trail, she switches to the Bagru and Sangeneri printed saris of Rajasthan that withstand the travails of travel without getting crushed, despite being made of pure cotton without a single synthetic strand.

While Sonia’s style has several copycats in the Congress, from Sheila Dikshit, Jayanthi Natarajan and Renuka Chowdhury to the activists of the Mahila Morcha, she has found an ardent imitator in the Opposition camp too. Someone who has crossed swords with her politically and personally: Sushma.

Over the years, Sushma’s sindoor ---- her signature mark that filled her parting and spilled onto her forehead --- has become shorter and her wardrobe more Sonia-ish. She has discarded the prosaic cottons for the more exotic Bomkais and Sambalpuris of Orissa and wispy Dhakais. Like Sonia, when she’s out on the field, she switches to the comfortable Rajasthani saris.

However, whenever Sushma thinks it appropriate to connect to a saas-bahu constituency as during Teej or Karva Chauth, she pulls out her bridal finery, complete with the mang tikka, and looks as if she has just stepped out of the sets of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

The BJP has its share of style pioneers. Think kurtas with half sleeves and Narendra Modi comes to mind. Unlike the flowing and sometimes ill-fitting Fab India products, Modi’s custom-made, Chinese-collared, single-pocket kurtas in cream, saffron and rust come from a Gujarat retail chain called Jade Blue. He has jackets to go with them and wears churidars with the right number of folds on the ankle.

Anyone in Gujarat who wants to flaunt his loyalty to Modi now wears the half-sleeved “Modi kurta”.

Three years ago, when Modi returned from Switzerland sporting a woollen cap, several people including corporate honchos approached Vipin Chouhan, who owns the Jade Blue brand, asking him where the caps were available.

Then there are those like Prakash Javdekar who decided it was time to junk the white kurta-pyjama as their TV appearances became more frequent, and have virtually bought every coloured and printed kurta from Fab India’s shelves.