The politics of fashion


August 29, 2011

Pakistani FM slams paparazzi style coverage of her first major diplomatic assignment

Is politics in the Indian sub-continent undergoing a paradigm shift in form and texture? At least the way Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s recent India trip ended up being some sort of an endorsement event for coveted luxury brands, gobbling the prime media slots, point towards such a possibility.

Irked by the intrusive journalistic glare on her trendy outlook, the suave lady heading the Pakistani foreign office has slammed the paparazzi style coverage of her first major diplomatic assignment across the eastern frontier. Perhaps the embarrassing allegation of her glitzy appearance being quite out of sync with the ground reality in the country she represents to the outer world has taken a toll on her composure.

“The ‘over focus’ on her and her expensive possession has distracted serious comment on the real achievements of the meeting,” says eminent Pakistani author and political scientist Professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais.

However, to Hina Rabbani’s detractors, the priceless Roberto Cavalli shade, Hermes Birkin bag, Jimmy Choo heels or the elegant pearl necklace is a bit of an oxymoron, given the economic and political mess that Pakistan finds itself in.

But then this seemingly brand conscious politician has successfully captured the Indian public imagination, even in the cynical appreciation of her style statement. Indeed, the young and dynamic lady already touted as the Sarah Palin of South Asia represents the minority amid an overwhelming political orthodoxy thronging this part of the globe. In fact no other Pakistani political personality in recent times has attracted such positive media coverage irrespective of the controversy it has generated.

According to Professor Rais, Islamabad has tactfully packaged her discernible personal qualities to project a soft and modern image to a sceptical world. Moreover, an otherwise lacklustre Cabinet has latched on to Hina Rabbani’s exceptional qualities including impressive communication skill and a pleasing appearance that appears to have swayed even the toughest of international interlocutors. Despite the socialite chit chat over her grandeur having hijacked the basic purpose of the Indo-Pak bilateral summit and the focus of her trip being usurped in the process, South Asia remains a witness to the gradual alteration in its brand of politics.

The new generation of South Asian leadership is at long last learning to negotiate public scrutiny of their persona and encash them politically. As Professor Rais points out, the press is always looking for something to attract the readers and viewers; the narratives in the media thus play a crucial role in defining the image of a country.

Incidentally, public figures representing all age groups and pluralistic cultures are scripting their fashion statements in a unique way. Gone are those days when the political class would be seen in public wearing crumpled and jaded clothes to bolster the image of a mass mobiliser.

Today, politicians prefer variable dress codes often hiring reputed fashion designers for the purpose of designing and selecting their wardrobe, brushing aside the ethical issue of a mass representative flaunting expensive brands in a region known for its abject poverty. But whether such an image makeover or style statement eventually leaves a substantial impression on the tumultuous Indo-Pakistan bilateral relationship is a big question.

Reinvigorating the peace process ultimately requires a flexible attitude from the political and military establishment at both ends of the divide. Though the ministers might have agreed to continue talking, setting aside some fundamental differences, there seems to be little headway apart from the token measures to beef up trade between the divided state of Kashmir.

Islamabad’s decision to grant the most favoured nation status to India will open up new vistas for normalising trade relations between the two neighbours. The win-win scenario envisaged by Hina Rabbani can be achieved by giving a fresh lease of life to the confidence building measures of promoting greater political, social, cultural, sporting and economic interaction between the two communities.

Moving towards integrating Indian and Pakistani administered Kashmir by making the border irrelevant; institutionalising a joint anti-terror mechanism to effectively tackle the scourge of extremism and initiating urgent steps to protect mutual strategic interest in the Afghan front can usher a new dawn in South Asia that the charismatic Pakistani Foreign Minister visualised.

Hopefully, this woman politician representing a patently patriarchal political system will bring fresh ideas for lifting the sub-continent from moroseness.

Seema Sengupta is a journalist based in Kolkata, India