Once a year I get dragged along to the Delhi Fashion Week because I’m needed to chaperone my teenage fashionista daughter and her like-minded friends. I live far from the fashion world both physically and mentally, so this event is a stretch for me. And yet it is intriguing experiencing at close quarters, and for a very limited time, a different world: one of artistic designers dressed in black, models wearing 5-inch heels, hordes of press, and crowds of beautiful people – all intensely discussing the shade and texture and fabric and cut of clothes.But this April, another event was happening at the same time, which seemed initially in direct contrast. On our way to the fashion show at the huge exhibition complex at the Pragati Maidan, we passed by the stately arch of India Gate where crowds had gathered to show their support for social activist Anna Hazare who was fasting to protest government corruption. I wondered if I should be standing there, showing my support for a worthy cause, instead of going to a frivolous fashion show. But on second thought, the two events have a lot in common.
This is not the first time for either. In one form or another, the Delhi Fashion Week has been an event for the past decade. Beginning as Lakme India Fashion Week, it has seen changes in organizers and sponsors, but its purpose has remained the same. An anti-corruption bill has been stalled in Parliament for several decades, and anti-corruption protests have been held sporadically over the years. More recently, in November 2010 several leading veterans of the movement wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to set up an investigative and prosecuting agency to look into corruption cases. And on January 31st, the anniversary of Gandhi’s death, protests were held in several major cities, again demanding the setup of an anti-corruption agency.Both movements have been gathering momentum and have now reached a critical mass in terms of participation and media attention. In both, crowds gather, particularly towards the evenings after regular school and work are done. There is an atmosphere of bonhomie, with snack carts, entertainers, and press milling around. In both, there is a feeling of unity, of us versus them – whether the them are the fashion illiterate or the government corrupt. And in both, there is fasting. At the end of both events, it’s not clear what exactly has been accomplished but those involved feel it was the best ever, even if they do say so themselves.
Both events revolve around particular personalities. Fashion Week has its reigning kings and queens, like Tarun Tahiliani and Ritu Kumar, and one selected young designer they highlight, this time Sabyasachi Mukherjee. Similarly, the anti-corruption protest has veteran leaders like Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh, and Arvind Kejriwal, and this time one photogenic member has been placed in the spotlight: the aged and Gandhian activist Anna Hazare. Crowds at Fashion Week include not only those who came to see, but those who came to be seen. Crowds at the protest include common people, school children, and ironically even politicians and government officials. It’s no surprise that fashion shows get their share of celebrities, but Anna Hazare’s fast also drew support from a number of Bollywood actors, like Aamir Khan and Shekhar Kapur.While the Fashion Week had obvious photo ops, the protest also provided its own: a lovely child doing an aarti (a worship usually reserved for a god) for Anna Hazare and another little girl holding up to him the glass of lemon juice with which he finally broke his fast.
An agreement has been reached to set up a joint committee to draft the anti-corruption bill. Interestingly, there is already some discussion over the appointed members of the committee, given that it seems to exclude several of the long-standing activists but include a father-son team and several politicians. Sounds like a peace commission that includes the Taliban, but perhaps it is the good Taliban and necessary for sustainable results.Most importantly, both events are representative of a progressing and unstoppable India. The myriad of Indian clothing styles has always played an important cultural role, during special events like weddings and festivals as well as in everyday life. However, in the past, fashion has been largely dictated by tradition, in accordance with the wearer’s age, sex, economic status, marital status, religion, and community. Now, with changes in attitude and greater affluence, fashion is a choice.
Similarly corruption has been woven into the fabric of our country, impacting all strata of society and every aspect of life, from businesses seeking government approvals for expansion to wannabe pilots aspiring for flight training certificates to parents struggling to get kindergarten admission for their children. The worst affected are often the poor, who have little option or recourse but to pay bribes for basics like birth certificates to death certificates. Corruption was almost an accepted way of life in the past, but now, with greater education, exposure, and information, people are asking why. Having reached a tipping point in the middle-class public mind, both the fashion and the anti-corruption movements are now coming into the spotlight.There are however three disturbing differences between the movements. Firstly, while the objectives and strategies of fashion week may be crass, they are certainly clear. The objectives of the anti-corruption protests seem grandiose and vague, and the strategy naive. How exactly does one root out a stage IV cancer that has spread to all parts of the body simply by setting up yet another agency, even if it is the joint effort of government and civil society?
Secondly, we Indians have a habit of raising the good to God, even at the cost of sacrificing the original principle. While that may cause frustration and stunt creativity in the fashion arena, in the public governance arena it can be downright dangerous. Anyone criticising Mohandas Gandhi – or rather the Mahatma – does so at his own peril, and the same is quickly becoming true of Anna Hazare. Anyone questioning or disagreeing with him is labelled unpatriotic. A recent op-ed by WSJ’s South Asia bureau chief Paul Beckett pondering the efficacy of hunger strikes as a form of protest received a hail of brickbats. ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us’.Thirdly, while the fashion industry can call it a successful ‘week’ even after just five euphoric days, despite the crowds and high feel-good factor, the anti-corruption protest cannot declare victory after a similar time frame. The veteran protesters are no doubt more wary, but many people are of the opinion that they’ve taught the government officials a lesson and scared them into righting their ways.
As April ends, we can perhaps look back on both events with a bit more calmness and clarity. I’m still not a convert to the fashion brigade and will probably forget about the styles I saw by next month. However, I sincerely hope that the desperately needed anti-corruption movement has a solid plan, promotes no gods but good leaders, and is more than a passing fad.