Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Arvind Kejriwal is the only politician in India to wear shirts and trousers

Arvind Kejriwal is the only major politician in India to sport Western wear in public. What does this tell us about his politics?

A couple of days back, Arvind Kejriwal released a video titled “Samvaad - Arvind Kejriwal's message for all Indians”. Not having enough money to advertise on mass media (a fact that Kejriwal mentions in the video himself to gain sympathy) the Aam Aadmi Party is depending heavily on social media to make its case and this video is part of that.  The message delivered is standard and Kejriwal dishes out much of what the AAP has espoused since it started, mainly an end to top-down democracy and the cleansing of politics, especially with respect to corruption and criminalisation. What I found particularly interesting, though, is the way Kejriwal had dressed up it. He was sitting on a chair, had a neat side-parting, rimless glasses and a copstach moustache. Close ups of his face tell us that his moochh is turning grey and his chin sports an untidy, day-old stubble. He is dressed in a striped, pastel-coloured, formal button-up shirt with crumpled grey dress trousers. Notably, his shirt is untucked. He isn’t wearing shoes or, for that matter, any footwear, adding to the informal-yet-sincere tone of the message.

Amongst major politicians in the country (and yes, he is a “major” politician now), Kejriwal’s style of dressing is fairly unique. In politics, where symbolism is crucial, it might be instructive to see why this is so.

Most other politicians, in public, wear what the rural populace in their area does. Thus, Mamata sports a sari (suitably cheap and crumpled to suit her populism) and most male politicians in Tamil Nadu wear a veshti paired up with a shirt. Mulayam Singh Yadav, from the heartland, wears what could be called the national dress of India: the dhoti-kurta. The leaders of India’s two biggest parties, though, differ in this respect from their regional counterparts: they both wear kurta-pajamas.  The kurta pajama is, in terms of sheer numbers, not really a very popular combination across rural or, for that matter, even urban India. It does, though, have a certain pan-country appeal which suits the agenda of the Big Two.

This insistence on indigenous apparel is fairly unique to India, even controlling for size. China is a larger country (although we’re doing our best to close the gap) but its politicians prefer plain old suits. In fact, at summits like the G-20, you’ll find that our prime minster is the only one not wearing a Western suit.

In India, maybe more than most other countries, clothing has always carried a significant amount of political symbolism. When modern politics first started out in the country, though, the Anglicised “microscopic minority” that practised it, stuck to Western clothing. Two major Indian politicians at the turn of the 19th century, Dadabhai Naoroji and Pherozeshah Mehta both have impressive statues in Bombay which have them dressed in trousers, button-up shirt and an overcoat (fairly unsuitable wear for a city as humid as Bombay, it might be noted). Ditto with Motilal Nehru, most pictures showing him in a three-piece suit as would befit one of Allahabad’s most successful lawyers.

The sartorial stuffiness of Indian politics was thrown out almost completely, though, with the induction of one Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi, as a lawyer in South Africa had naturally worn Western clothing. On his return to India in 1915, though, he adopted in full measure the dress of the Indian kisan. Pictures from his first mass movement, the Champaran Satyagraha show him dressed in a dhoti-kurta. Later, he would dress “down” even further, moving about mostly bare-chested or with a shawl draped around his shoulders, in the common manner of the country.

There was a method, of course, to this abrupt change. Gandhi wanted to, for the first time in India, make politics mass-based. This included the use of vernaculars (Pradesh Congress Committees would use the region’s language), recruiting large numbers by reducing membership fees (to a piddling 2 annas) and the use of religious symbolism (mostly Hindu but also Muslim) in order to speak to the masses in tropes they would grasp easily. Gandhi was, of course, far from being a peasant and was an upper-caste, foreign-educated lawyer. The clothing was, therefore, part of his political symbolism to reach out to the Indian masses; assure them that he was one of them.

Gandhi’s influence, like in so much else, was pervasive in the matter of clothing. So much so that the Gandhian “look” became a sort of uniform for the Indian politician. Today, of course, this get-up might have lost much of the meaning it had when it was first bought in almost a hundred years back. In fact, unintendedly, the impact might even be an adverse one: wearing a white khadi kurta, once a sign of swadeshi, is one of the key constituents in how most urbanites stereotype a “corrupt neta” today.

This uniformity in political attire might be one of the primary reasons as to why Kejriwal has broken with the tradition of Gandhian dressing and taken to Western clothes instead. As a person whose primary branding is that of an “anti-politician”, this is an obvious way to differentiate himself from the competition. If every other neta is wearing dhotis or pajamas, he dons trousers. If everyone else wears bandhgalas or kurtas, he sports a button-up shirt. So sharply does he stick out, that his clothing actually came in for special comment on the occasion of Republic Day with the media clicking their tongues at this “casual dressing”.

While being different obviously has its advantages for an outsider like Kejriwal, this symbolism goes even further, speaking directly to Kejriwal’s core support base. As Srinivasan Ramani shows in this well-argued piece in the EPW, there are two characteristics of the AAP support base. One, is that it is mostly urban: the AAP did much better in the core parts of Delhi city as compared to the more semi-urban area in the north-west of the state. The other is that, overwhelmingly, its support base is drawn from the poor, mainly jhuggies and slums populated by people working in the informal sector (migrant labour, domestic help, auto drivers etc.).

This makes the AAP unique because it is the only major party which does not have a primarily rural support base. Of course, the urban poor do not wear dhotis, kurtas, veshtis or mundus. They wear trousers and shirts (often untucked). With his sartorial symbolism, Kejriwal, like Gandhi a century before him, is seeking to connect directly with his supporters.

And while the word “symbolism” might have a slightly disparaging, even “fake” ring to it, in mass politics that’s not really the case. Communicating your message to millions of people is a terribly difficult task and symbolism plays a crucial and legitimate part in that.

In grasping this, Kejriwal seems to have shown remarkable talent as is apparent given his success in the Delhi elections. That said, his performance in the Lok Sabha elections, in terms of seats, might be far less impressive, given his fragmented urban support base and the massive electorates for each parliamentary constituency. The real story, though, would lie in the vote share he manages to garner. According to the CNN-IBN-CSDS opinion poll, AAP’s national vote share would hit 4% in the 2014 elections. A number that, when compared to the 2009 election results, would put it at an impressive fifth place.

After the euphoria of the Delhi win, a number of commentators had stepped in and calmed things down by (correctly) pointing out that the AAP’s performance, while impressive, was not unprecedented: parties like the Telugu Desam Party and the Asom Gana Parishad had managed similar electoral debuts in their states. If these predicted vote shares are accurate though, the AAP’s debut in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections would be unprecedented.

Of course, opinion poll predications are fairly unpredictable things themselves. But at this stage, broadly speaking, Kejriwal’s rise, does seem rather impressive, a small part of the credit of which could maybe be attributed to his sense of fashion. To twist the old tagline of a textile brand just a bit: there are many things which make the complete politician. Clothes are just one of them.

First published on NewsYaps

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