Looking good and looking distinctive is important for these public figures

Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to score on sartorial style and diversity. Perhaps a load of kurtas and dhotis, narrow-ankle pyjamas and trademark waistcoats, have made their way to the national capital. Compared to his predecessor in 7 Race Course Road, with his seemingly hastily stitched galabandhs, the difference is indeed marked.

Does elegant dressing matter in politics? Yes, it does. In politics as in business, the adage of dress making up half the man stands modified to make up “most of the man.” Just see the examples of yesterday and today — after leaving out Mahatma Gandhi, who was an exception to the rule. His political heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, was simply aristocratic in his churidars and achkans, with a carmine red rose in the third buttonhole and the Gandhi cap placed gracefully overlooking a forehead that exuded learning. The chiselled nose added to the looks. The effect of this ensemble on audiences was magical. Heads of state, Prime Ministers and dignitaries, and above all the masses, simply swayed before him. The lowly kabuli sandals, the common man’s footwear, scaled new heights on his feet.

There were others like Morarji Desai who wore the Gandhi cap with panache. Even the stern look on his face was not enough to distract one from admiring the perfect geometry of his headgear.

And what of Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Dr. Radhakrishnan? With them, scholastic attainments acquired a new dimension ensconced in the exquisite, traditional male Indian attire of the nine-yard dhoti with its ornate folds, the long coat, the Gandhi cap and the imperious white turban. And who could match Indira Gandhi’s subtle dress sense and casual elegance? On wintry days in Delhi, socialites tried to throw their shawls back on to their shoulders as she did without effort, but met with not more than moderate success. It required the talent of Suchitra Sen to replicate the action faultlessly on the screen.

The diplomatic potential of the waistcoat, which somehow sticks to politicians even in the torrid Indian summer, was exploited to the hilt by L.K. Advani. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister, a certain Jamal Karzai, on a visit to New Delhi, was so taken in by Mr. Advani’s smart waistcoats in pleasing shades that he couldn’t help throwing adoring looks at the senior statesman. Mr. Advani had a pair stitched by his master tailor in Karol Bagh and had them despatched to Mr. Karzai in Kabul. Maybe it is time for New Delhi to resort to some waistcoat diplomacy.

Two other impeccably dressed men on the Indian political scene were I.K. Gujral and Vasant Sathe. They were charmers who could win over anyone and everyone, even those who differed with them strongly in politics. Dress and pleasant manners played no small part in their political success. The reticent mandarin, P.N. Haksar, who was Principal Secretary to Mrs. Gandhi, unwittingly became a men’s fashion icon when his customary full-sleeved shirt caught the imagination of New Delhi’s gentry. Students of men’s couture were divided on the point whether the Haksar shirt, as it came to be known in tailoring circles, and the Kaunda shirt, named after the first President of Zambia, were really the same or different sub-taxa of the gents’ shirt.

The current crop of India’s young politicos is keen to cultivate signature styles in dress, ethnic or western, but decidedly trendy. Shashi Tharoor, Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia are among the top dozen trail-blazers.

What about statesmen abroad? One of the things Barack Obama did on a priority basis upon assuming the presidential office for the first time was to pay a visit to his clothier in Chicago to order six pairs of suits, three in dark blue and three in dark grey. If executive effectiveness is to be measured by smart dressing, U.S. Presidents acquit themselves creditably. With good tailoring and with expensive barbering, as John Kenneth Galbraith put it, American Presidents ‘literally glow.’

Sartorially, British politicians seem to have gained a lot of ground in the last three decades. Tony Blair always looked smart in his well-cut clothes and talked his way out of criticism of his role in Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. Prime Minister David Cameron was voted the best-dressed among the Top 10 leaders in the world by Vanity Fair last year. Gordon Brown was, of course, an exception.

Chinese and Japanese statesmen, though minimalists in their dress styles, fare better than their Russian counterparts. Lack of classy tailoring was so serious a matter in the former USSR that Mikhail Gorbachev sent his measurements to Italy to get a pair of suits stitched. Look at photographs from his political heyday to appreciate how his jackets looked a cut above the rest.

But all said and done, a politician cannot go very far merely on the appeal of his external accoutrements. Ask Silvio Berlusconi.


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