Has the “Modi kurta” overshadowed the “Gandhi cap” or “Nehru jacket”? Even if so, does it mean that fashion has become a politicized field?
In 2014, Narendra Modi stormed into New Delhi – and he stormed in style. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gained a majority in the lower house of India’s Parliament for the first time in history; over the next few years it has grown to be the biggest party in India. It is the first time in decades that the Hindu nationalists of the BJP had a leader as charismatic as Modi. He has thus inevitably emerged as a polarizing figure — hated by some, loved by others, but almost universally fascinating as a master of public relations. It is not always easy to find a text that would consider his policies in a balanced way.
The number of internet articles on India’s current prime minister is astounding. Authors will often point out less-important, “fun facts” about the leader. In his previous role as chief minister of Gujarat, he used to take two hours a day to answer citizens’ e-mails. He appeared before a crowd on screen as a 3D image even before Queen Elizabeth tried it. He is India’s most-followed person on Twitter (and the third-most followed politician globally). He has a 56-inch chest (which he has boasted about publicly). He says “brothers and sisters” and “friends” in record numbers during a single public speech. A bar in Delhi once offered cheaper beers every time the prime minister said “friends” during a speech.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
One common topic for discussion is Modi’s love of stylish dressing. His style has become so recognizable that people have begun referring to the “Modi kurta.” (A kurta is traditional dress worn by men in northern India; Modi’s version is famous for its shorter sleeves). Modi has also hit the headlines by wearing a kurta with his own name imprinted in stripes many times over in neat columns.
With so much happening and so much being written about a single person, it is perhaps inevitable that, flooded with facts and fun facts, we might over-interpret Modi’s and his government’s actions.
Recently, Asgar Qadri penned an article for the New York Times that took Modi’s fashion statements to be a nationalist statement. The article’s title makes this clear: “In India, Fashion Has Become a Nationalist Cause.” Qadri writes:
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party formed a national government in 2014, the Indian fashion industry has been pressed to aggressively promote traditional attire and bypass Western styles. The effort aligns with the party’s broader political program: to project multi-faith India, a country of more than 1.3 billion, as a Hindu nation… Mr. Modi has made traditional dress a priority and, as many in the country want to please him, the fashion industry has followed along.
I decode this emerging dress code in a different way.
There is no denying that Modi and most of his colleagues in the BJP are Hindu nationalists and that this ideology is an important facet of Indian politics. I am personally against this ideology and I have criticized it on a number of occasions. Yet, even an anti-nationalist position does not justify searching for Hindu nationalism’s influences and faults in areas where they are not in evidence. I am, for instance, of opinion that Hindu nationalism is exercising a profound influence on Indian society (and plays a destructive role in areas like education) but at the same time I do not see it substantially influencing Indian foreign policy. Similarly, I do not think the current government in New Delhi has a wide and deep fashion strategy.
Politics Suits Him But Suits Do Not Politicize Him
Qadri writes that Modi “has made traditional dress a priority.” I disagree and think he’s read a bit too deeply into what Modi wears.
First, priority is not the same as exclusive choice. Narendra Modi does have a deep and visible taste for Western clothes as well. He has been seen in stylish Western suits on a number of official occasions. He has even been seen sporting a T-shirt and trousers when playing golf or wearing curious attire destined to be used at an African safari while inspecting riverbank works. He has also reportedly been often spotted wearing Bvlgari glasses and a Movado watch, complete with a Mont Blanc pen sticking out from his pocket. Not really a Hindu nationalist posture, is it? Modi just likes to be stylish – you may love it or hate it, but it doesn’t have to make his garment an ideological statement.
Second, personal priority does not have to be identical to national priority. Qadri claims that this effort of promoting traditional attire and bypassing Western styles “aligns with the party’s broader political program: to project multi-faith India … as a Hindu nation.” Here the problem is that Modi’s favorite kurta is historically a Muslim traditional dress. It has, of course, become popular also among north India’s non-Muslims over the centuries. Some may not consider the modern kurta “Muslim” dress; it is just Indian. It is true that the Hindu nationalists often label elements of Indian tradition and life as “Muslim” or “Hindu” and they do it in ways that are often divisive. They could have done the same with the kurta, digging out its Muslim origins and promoting other clothes (such as dhoti) as more “Hindu.” Yet, in this case they are not doing it and neither is Modi.
Qadri is also of the opinion that the saris worn by Textile Minister Smriti Irani “have become popular fashion statements.” It is not for me to judge if they did, but what is nationalist about this? If wearing stylish kurtas and saris – or any kurtas and saris – is a nationalistic statement, then the Indian population is made up of hundreds of millions of Hindu nationalists. By the sari count only, the BJP should have won all elections in its history. Smriti Irani is not the only Indian politician to wear saris and the dress does not seem to be in any way confined to the parliamentary benches of the Hindu right. When Sonia Gandhi, an Italian, the widow of Rajeev Gandhi, and the leader of the Indian National Congress, BJP’s biggest rival, took to donning Indian attire (including saris), she was certainly tapping into Indian national sentiments. But national is not equal to nationalist, nor is Indian nationalism to be identified only with Hindu nationalism. Sonia Gandhi and Smriti Irani both wear saris, though they represent the two biggest political rivals on the Indian stage.
Do Not Rob the Robes of Others
W.H. Morris-Jones once referred to three idioms in Indian politics: the “saintly idiom,” the “modern idiom,” and the “traditional idiom.” When it comes to dress, this would mean that the politicians following the saintly idiom wrap themselves up in scant robes, which would often resemble the rags of the holy men and holy women. The politicians of the modern idiom take to Western fashion while those building on the traditional idiom would wear Indian traditional clothes (such as kurtas). It is a useful categorization, but, as most of this kind, it is also an extreme generalization. In terms of clothes, as we have seen, Modi would mostly project the traditional idiom but with a strong hint of the modern idiom as well.
But the key point is this: Morris-Jones wrote about these idioms and dress back in the 1950s. Claiming that Modi has brought fashion in politics to a new level ignores this earlier history.
Mahatma Gandhi’s famous autobiography described how returned from Westernization to his Indian roots. This included shunning the Savile Row suits and donning simple Indian robes. In time, Gandhi made a strong message out of it, one that tapped into both national and traditional feelings. Even before Gandhi emerged as a key leader on the Indian political scene, Western clothes were publicly burned during the swadeshi movement that had started in 1905. Gandhi took the fight further. Wrapping himself in the saintly idiom, he made it a point not only to wear clothes made of khadi (simple, handspun textile, usually cotton) but also to make them himself. At times many leaders of the Indian National Congress followed suit (or, to be more precise, they did not follow suit – they shunned suits to don khadi). The khadi message worked on a few levels: it put traditional against modern, Indian against Western, simple and cheap against elaborate and expensive, handspun against industrially produced.
Thus, if there was a time in Indian politics when fashion was at the center of ideological struggle, it was during the swadeshi movement and in the late colonial period, when Gandhi promoted khadi as a part of the national struggle. Since then, of course, wearing various clothing mattered for various people in many different contexts. I do not claim that it did not matter if a politician sported a European suit, a khadi dhoti or a kurta with rich embroidery. To the contrary – it did matter, and it mattered even more due to India’s colonial past and the part played by attire in the national movement.
And it is precisely for this reason that I do not see anything special about Modi’s stylish garb. It is a part of a long tradition and the Indian prime minister has tried his best to refer to it. He even had a picture of himself taken while spinning the khadi, in a posture much resembling that of Gandhi. But he is neither the first nor the last Indian politician to style himself after Gandhi in a given context. Only when Modi one day publicly burns a Western suit (instead of occasionally wearing one) will I be willing to admit that he took the issue of garments from a fashion level to a nationalist level. I assume it will never happen and if it does, this alone may still count as Indian, not Hindu, nationalism. Giving Modi any special credit in this regard is like robbing the robes of others.
The Garment Government?
Qadri’s argument is that this fashion nationalism is not only Modi’s personal choice and personal policy but an official strategy of the Indian government. Here I may be ignorant of some crucial data, but I do not see any sweeping changes in New Delhi’s focus on textiles or clothes.
Qadri is aware of the earlier history, writing that “India’s leaders have always made political use of traditional clothing, from Mohandas K. Gandhi’s adoption of the dhoti to Jawaharlal Nehru’s jacket. But active state intervention and patronage of the fashion industry have never before reached this scale.”
However, I fail to see this new scale. Considering state intervention, let us the take the example of khadi. Since, as mentioned above, khadi was a symbol of the national movement, the first governments of the independent Republic of India made protecting khadi its official policy. Khadi was made a national industry and it was promoted by government-owned shops (aptly called Khadi) for decades.
Other elements of older, pre-Modi official attire policy can also be spotted. For instance, the hostesses of Air India, the national airlines, had to wear saris while working. If a sari is one of the benchmarks of nationalism, this could have been considered – along with a later change. It has been recently decided that the Air India female flight attendants do not have to wear the sari anymore. They can now choose between a “yellow sari with a red border,” a “yellow kurta with black trousers,” and “long black jacket with trousers.” This change was announced in 2015, under the Modi government.
Qadri also writes that “Mr. Modi’s effort to restore Indian-ness in Indian fashion began with his Make in India campaign, announced just months after he took office.” As far as I know, Make in India is primarily about attracting FDI into Indian industry. In the “textiles and garments sector” the official government policy is that “100% FDI is allowed under the automatic route in the textile sector; investment is subject to all applicable regulations and laws.” (I quote from the Make in India website, which the author hyperlinks himself).
Does opening the textile industry’s doors to 100 percent foreign direct investment imply that the government is infusing nationalism into the clothing industry? Just how does it compare to making the handspun cotton clothes industry a national industry by the first government of independent India? By the way: the most ideological section of Modi’s own Hindu nationalist milieu (the BJP party and the RSS organization) would actually prefer the government protect the Indian industry against foreign companies. These people, often called the swadeshi faction, seem to generally support Narendra Modi as their man, but they also often criticize his free-market policies. Thus, actually a reverse would be true: had Modi protected the textile and garments industry from FDI, it could have been interpreted as a nationalist measure.
Finally, Qadri puts a particular emphasis on the issue of saris from Banaras/Varanasi. “During his campaign, Mr. Modi had promised to revive the tradition of the Banarasi sari and to help its weavers, a significant percentage of the constituency’s electorate,” he writes. Qadri also points out that Varanasi was where Modi contested from (one of the two constituencies, that is) and that most of the city’s weavers are poor Muslims. The article also claims that the demand on luxurious saris has gone up in recent times but this has mainly benefitted the merchants, and not the weavers.
Once again, I am failing to connect some of the dots in the same way. Since it has been admitted that Varanasi was a contesting ground for Modi, does it make the poll promise to the weavers a part of Hindu nationalist agenda, or was it a natural move for any politician contesting an election in the city? And what to make of the fact that most of the weavers are Muslims? It is possible that I am unaware of the government’s successful campaign to promote the sari – particularly of the Banarasi variety – and of the rising demand for luxurious saris. I can assume that all of this has happened but it does not necessarily make the entire policy a purely Hindu nationalist one.