There was once a monk who drove a Ferrari. Then came a ‘fakir’, a ‘chaiwala’ who wears Maybach sunglasses worth Rs 1.4 lakh. The politics of fashion in India, and any debate on it, have undergone a drastic change ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. Jawaharlal Nehru’s achkans or ‘Nehru jacket’ as they are known, Indira Gandhi’s simplistic yet ethereal sarees, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s timeless dhotis, and Jayalalithaa’s iconic chiffon and cotton sarees have all been widely discussed.
But there’s something about Modi’s sartorial choices that makes people defend him when he wears fashionable and expensive clothes and accessories.
Anybody else in his place would be lambasted, just like Rahul Gandhi was for his Burberry jacket.
I’m no fashion expert so I will keep to the political side of it. It’s not ‘what’ Narendra Modi wears; it’s ‘why’ Narendra Modi chooses to dress the way he does that seems more subliminally political in its intent.
Appropriating iconic clothes
Narendra Modi is a fashionable man, but the story of the swanky clothes he wears doesn’t end there. The man was born for the camera. And he is unapologetic about it. From pictures outside a forest in saffron robes to sashaying down the courtyard of Kedarnath with a tiger print stole thrown over his shoulder while it drags on the floor just like the supermodels do it on a ramp, Narendra Modi has made many political statements through his power dressing.
The way Modi chooses to present himself speaks a lot about the attitude he developed around his personality soon after his first tryst with controversy over his clothes. His custom-made “Narendra Damodardas Modi” pinstriped suit had many grumbling over the indulgence of our prime minister, who came to power by influencing people to buy into his past identity of a “chaiwala”. Reports said that the suit was worth Rs 10 lakh.
The negative publicity against that suit didn’t deter Modi from dressing in full regalia thereafter. He’s seen donning thought-out outfits every time he makes a public appearance. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal claimed during an interaction in Goa in 2016 that Narendra Modi “never repeats his clothes” and one simply has to google his name and look at the images tab for proof. I actually googled. His statement reminded me of Jayalalithaa who was known for apparently never repeating a saree and owned 10,500 of them.
And then there was PM Modi’s much-hyped visit to Kedarnath, which saw him wearing two different sets of outfits the same day. A saffron robe for the cave where he meditated on clean white sheets. Another was a ‘jobba’, which is very Tagore-esque, with a saffron waist belt inspired by Swami Vivekananda. Both Tagore and Vivekananda are from West Bengal, which incidentally was set to vote the very next day, in its last phase in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
This also brings us to how Modi has appropriated many iconic clothing items. For example, the ‘Nehru jacket’, which is now being called the ‘Modi jacket’. Or the image of a frail bapu wrapped in khadi cloth has now been replaced by a Narendra Modi in crisp khaki kurta spinning a charkha. Modi through his clothes has juxtaposed himself with legends of India’s political history even as he criticises them endlessly. His BJP has removed Gandhi’s image from most advertising campaigns and only keeps the glasses as a representation of the Mahatma.
Keeping it real
The viewing of the recent solar eclipse, for which Modi wore Maybach sunglasses, sealed his image as an “aspirational” dresser. Who doesn’t want to dress well and look good? Narendra Modi is ensuring that India’s youngsters see him like that. And they did. Many of his ardent fans defended him sporting expensive sunglasses.
Modi also seems to be making controversial choices for bigger political ends — an image that he knows will most likely be picked by international media to establish himself as a leader who dresses contemporary and modern. In fact, Modi, through his official handle on Twitter, replied to a Twitter user asking the person to enjoy making memes of his images. Narendra Modi is definitely owning his controversies.
This is in sharp contrast to how politicians in India were imagined to dress a certain way up until recently. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been criticised endlessly for his Burberry quilted jacket, which he repeats every winter and has now ditched it for ugly red Kejriwal-style sweaters.
Politicians were traditionally meant to be simple and austere to represent being in the service of society. But we all know that politicians, especially in India, are anything but simple and unostentatious. And Modi has shattered this veneer for which many people like him even more. He is keeping it real. He is unabashed about his “expensive” taste in fashion, which obviously makes him look good. What works to his advantage is his total disassociation from his family, which would otherwise make his indulgence seem “corrupt”, much like how he accuses the “Gandhi” family.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.