Dressing up our ministers

The apparel oft proclaims the man,” Polonius told his son in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is a piece of advice that many of our political leaders and government officials should take seriously. Why are so many of them so badly attired? After all, every prime minister, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi (maybe with an exception or two), has set such high standards of impeccable dressing.

There used to be this apocryphal story in Prime Minister Modi’s early days in office that one of his ministerial colleagues received a call from the PM’s office just before the minister boarded a flight for an official tour abroad that he ought to have been better attired than wear jeans and T-shirt. It was touted as proof of the PM having eyes and ears everywhere. After looking at so many of his ministerial colleagues, I am now convinced that story was hogwash.

How else can one explain the fact that while the PM continues to be well-dressed in public, many of his ministers have no dress sense at all. Surprisingly, the award for the ‘worst attired’ ministers goes to three west Indians—Suresh Prabhu, Nitin Gadkari and the former defence minister Manohar Parrikar. Prabhu even got sworn in as minister, in 2014, wearing a sweater.

Illustration: Bhaskaran

Formal and neat attire does not mean western clothes. Nehru created an amalgam of a western jacket and an Indian sherwani in the so-called ‘Nehru jacket’—the bandhgala with full sleeves—as Indian formal wear. Modi cut off the sleeves and created the ‘Modi jacket’ which, too, looks distinguished when fully buttoned up and the shirt inside has pressed sleeves.

Gadkari does sport a Modi jacket, but more often than not both his shirt and jacket are left unbuttoned at the top. Prabhu recently met the South Korean minister for trade (Kim Hyun-chong) at his official residence wearing what looked like a kurta and a pyjama, with slippers. Parrikar, as defence minister, was a caricature. Standing amidst crisply attired generals and admirals, and with visiting defence ministers in their suits, Parrikar in his blue half-sleeve shirt looked like he was always waiting to run to a Goan beach.

I am not suggesting that only bandghalas and suits make one look well-attired. One of the best-dressed ministers in Modi’s cabinet is home minister Rajnath Singh, who dons a dhoti with elegance. Former prime ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee looked dignified in their dhoti and achkan or kurta.

From actor-turned politician N.T. Rama Rao to communist leader Jyoti Basu, we have had many examples of being well-attired. West Bengal’s former finance minister, the late Ashok Mitra, famously called himself ‘a communist, not a gentleman’. But, in his white dhoti and kurta he would pass off for a gentleman anywhere in India, except the Tollygunge Club!

Women ministers, from Indira Gandhi to Nirmala Sitharaman, have always dressed impeccably in their well-draped saris. In fact, most women in public life do dress well, with Indira Gandhi having set the standard. Though one must add that bizarre nylon saris are not my idea of elegance.

If ministers are badly attired, government officials are not far behind. While diplomats of the foreign service have a dress code, most officers of the administrative service are increasingly shabbily dressed. The worst apparel invention in recent times was the so-called ‘safari suit’. Most officials responding to an official invitation that says ‘lounge suit or national dress’ turn up at events wearing just about anything and explaining it away as their idea of a ‘national dress’. The time has come to define what exactly ‘national dress’ and formal wear are in India.

Baru is an economist and a writer.

He was adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.