S. Asia struts on UN catwalk

Blue turbans. Dark suits. Cropped beards. Each is designed to send important signals.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As India's new prime minister, Manmohan Singh steps up to the podium this week to give his maiden speech at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, there will be policy wonks watching every word to determine the man's vision for regional and international politics.

But Sunaina Suneja, a fashion designer in New Delhi, won't be hanging on Mr. Singh's every word. Instead, she will be looking at his clothes.

"Here in India, he usually wears khadi - homespun cotton clothes - he's an honest, simple person," says Ms. Suneja, herself a designer of khadi fashions, and owner of Raj Creations in New Delhi. "He's no nonsense, what you see is what you get."

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Clothes and politics have always gone hand in hand in South Asia. Mahatma Gandhi wore a homespun loincloth as a form of protest against British imported goods. Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, wore tailored Savile Row suits to send an opposite message: We are a nation you can do business with.

Today is no different. From Mr. Singh's turban to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's fatigues to the cropped beard on Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai, they all send a clear signal to their citizens - and to the world - about their politics and their priorities. The key is to watch.

To be sure, there will be important issues discussed at the UN General Assembly. On Monday President Bush defended his war in Iraq. African nations have spoken passionately about the looming humanitarian crisis in Sudan's Darfur region. And Russia's main item is the struggle with Chechen rebels.

In South Asia, however, this year's issues have a distinctly retro look. India's prime minister spoke of India's growing economic and strategic importance - India has nuclear weapons - and he asked, yet again, to be included in the ultimate power club, the UN Security Council. Pakistan's president was expected to use his address Wednesday to raise the territorial dispute over Kashmir, and talk of Pakistan's importance in tracking down terrorists. As for Mr. Karzai, his message is a simple plea to not forget Afghanistan's needs.

Small wonder, then, that the mind wanders toward fashion.

Among Indian fashionistas, there was some real concern about Singh. Would he wear the same outfit he has worn during his first 120-some days in power - blue turban, rumpled white tunic, white baggy pants? Okay, the blue turban has to stay. Singh is, after all, a member of the Sikh faith, which requires turbans for its men. But the kurta pajamas - they had to go.

Austin Powers at the UN

Anupama Dayal, a designer in Delhi, breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Singh wearing a gray achkan suit for his meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, en route to New York. The achkan - made famous by Jawaharlal Nehru, and more recently, Austin Powers's nemesis Dr. Evil - is a mixture of an Eastern closed collar and a snug Western cut. The look is crisp and professional, but uncompromising.

"You have to remember, we have a very long history of shabby-looking leaders, so almost anything would be acceptable," laughs Ms. Dayal, who owns Anupamaa Fashions in New Delhi. "But with Manmohan Singh, we have all seen his work, what he's done for the country on economic reforms, so we forgive him his shabbiness."

In a way, that shabbiness is a form of reassurance. Many Indians consider their politicians to be impossibly corrupt, so many politicians overcompensate with the "everyman" look. Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, for instance, was a devotee of the dhoti, a simple cotton garment that was somewhere between a skirt and a loincloth, favored by Hindu farmers and shopkeepers of the Indian north.

Musharraf's uniform

By contrast, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is also the nation's top Army general, follows in the Jinnah school of Western business clothes - at least when he goes on foreign trips.

Again, these sartorial decisions matter. First, by wearing Western suits abroad, Musharraf is signaling to the West that he is a moderate Muslim, a ready Western ally in the fight against extremism.

Second, by wearing uniforms at home, Musharraf indicates that he has no intention of giving up military power in order to hold onto his civilian position.

This week, Musharraf gave a strong indication to The New York Times that he will break a campaign promise to step down from his military position. Quitting now, he argued, might undermine the country's all-important fight against Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants.

Clothes make the nation

The greatest clotheshorse of them all, of course, is the man with the least power but the most flair: Hamid Karzai.

As interim president of an interim government, with a tiny army of his own and personal guards provided by a US-based security firm, President Karzai cuts a more dashing figure abroad than he does at home.

Wearing a piece of clothing from each of the major ethnic groups, Mr. Karzai is a one-man demographic fashion show.

The gray karakul cap, made from the skin of a newborn karakul lamb, reflects the traditions of the ethnic Tajik north. The blue-green cloak, called a chopan, comes from the Uzbek minority of Mazar-e Sharif. The band-collared shirt shows respect to Shiites, who don't wear ties. And the clipped beard is a nod to his own Pashtun majority, who would never trust a man without a beard. But the beard isn't too long - that would worry the rest of the country.

"Hamid Karzai is the best dressed man in the world today," says Dayal, echoing a similar statement by New York fashion designer Tom Ford a few years back. "He has a natural sense of style, he knows how to connect with the ethnic groups and he fuses that together very well."

"The problem is that we [Indians] never have a leader who is under 70 years old," laughs Dayal. "If only for once we had a young charismatic leader, we'll all want to dress him up."

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