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T N Ninan: Melding in - but with whom?

T N Ninan  |  New Delhi 

T N Ninan

Clothes make the man, wrote Shakespeare, whereas Henry Higgins believed that it was your English accent that told everyone where you came from. Higgins had a point: people from Tamil Nadu and Punjab will never speak the Queen's language in the same way, any more than those from West Bengal and neighbouring Bihar will - unless they've been "conventised". But even if you can't change the way you speak, you can certainly change your persona by adopting a different style of dress. Which is perhaps why most people who turn somewhat late in life to politics, after having earned their spurs in other fields, feel it necessary to change the way they dress - as though they have to be born again in a new avatar in order to become, not the successful professional but the people's tribune.

Manmohan Singh set the trend in recent times when he became finance minister in 1991. Out went the civil servant's "bush shirt"; we now had him in native kurta-pyjama, to which a Nehru jacket was added when it got cold. Only the bandh-gala jacket continued unchanged as formal wear. Was this a crow trying to be a peacock, as Aesop might have had it? More likely, Dr Singh simply felt obliged to fit in sartorially with others in the Treasury benches. Whatever the reason, others have followed in Dr Singh's footsteps. Naveen Patnaik went native as soon as he gave up being a socialite in the company of people like Jacqueline Onassis, and adopted what looks like the long version of the Fabindia kurta. And Amit Mitra, who as the secretary-general of a business lobby group was to be found in western suits, switched to the Bengali bhadralok's attire as soon as he became a leading light of the Trinamool Congress. Nor did Shashi Tharoor have his current sartorial style when he campaigned to become the secretary-general of the United Nations, though in both avatars his hair had the habit of falling onto his forehead.

Now Nandan Nilekani, who did not change attire when he went from boss of Infosys to creator of Aadhaar, has apparently thrown out his old wardrobe as soon as he decided that he wanted to toss his hat into the political ring. Arvind Kejriwal is different. He wore a bush shirt before, and does so now, just as Kanshi Ram did before him. It is not that these last two gentlemen are different from the others because they have (or had) to appeal to an urban audience, whereas the others have rural voters; Mr Nilekani is contesting Bangalore South, Mr Mitra's constituency is on the outskirts of Kolkata, and Mr Tharoor's is the Kerala capital.

The trend of shedding one sartorial identity and consciously adopting another was of course set by none other than Gandhi. When he adopted the loin cloth as a trademark, most Indians did not have a shirt on their back - so he was identifying himself with the "last man". Today, it should be obvious that the majority of men in urban and semi-urban India, and often in large villages, have switched to wearing trousers and bush shirt (or T-shirt). So our newbie politicians are not seeking sartorial identification with the voter.

What, then, could be their reason? I suspect that - like Manmohan Singh - they are merely seeking identification with one another, to fit in so that you are not an outsider in politics. In the process, though, they are also marking themselves out as a privileged sub-caste-like lawyers in black coats and doctors in white ones. The difference with Gandhi is that he changed his clothes to identify with the aam aadmi, not to fit in with other politicians; if alive today, he might have chosen the bush shirt and trousers.

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First Published: Fri, March 14 2014. 22:50 IST