Samajwadi Party’s launch of perfumes an innovative example of political branding

MUMBAI: The Samajwadi Party’s launch of four perfumes to mark four years in power is an innovative example of political branding. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said each scent is associated with a particular region of Uttar Pradesh — the incense and marigolds with Varanasi’s ghats, the jasmine with the old Nawabi Lucknow, the roses with the Taj Mahal in Agra and the kewra of Kannauj, extracted by its attar makers .

Samajwadi Sugandh, as the limited edition perfumes are called, is certainly unusual but not unique. Perfumes have been used to make political points at least from the time of Cleopatra who expressed her intentions to Mark Anthony by going to meet him, in the words of Shakespeare, on a boat with sails “so perfumed that/the winds were lovesick with them…”

More recently a perfume called Leaders Number One, inspired by Vladimir Putin, was launched in Moscow. Vladislav Rekunov, the creator, described it as “warm, textured and rounded… delicate, but at the same time very firm”. Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper quoted a perfumer describing it as smelling of pines and fir-cones, but also musk and, oddly, mung-beans. The 100 ml black and platinum bottle has a profile of Putin and sells for a whopping 6,000 rubles (Rs 5,800).

Perfumers need to sell their creations just like any other manufacturer of not strictly essential consumer products, so it isn’t surprising that they seize on popular personalities and themes.

Nature’s Garden, an American supplier of fragrances for candle and soap, has a line of political scents in Republican, Democratic and Independent versions. A Canadian perfumer called The 7 Virtues, which virtuously touts how it sources ingredients at fair prices from farmers around the world, launched a perfume called Middle East Peace — the real thing may never happen, but at least we can wear the perfume.

Yet as Alain Corbin noted in The Foul and the Fragrant, his pioneering book on the role of odours in history, there were times like the French Revolution when perfumes really did have political meaning: “Under the Terror, choices of odours revealed political allegiance; perfume, given a new name, became a rallying sign.”

One reactionary faction was known as the Muscadins, from the costly musk scent they wore. Napoleon is said to have poured a bottle of cologne over himself every day, and was particularly stimulated by the animal-like perfumes – musk, ambergris, civet – that his wife Josephine wore. Politicians can use perfumes to make political points. Margaret Thatcher’s support of all things British meant that she eschewed the creations of famous French perfumers like Guerlain and Chanel, in favour of old British firms like Penhaligon’s and Floris (for the film The Iron Lady, the designers got the same scent for Meryl Streep to wear, an example of detailing that wouldn’t be apparent on the screen, but perhaps helped Streep achieve her Oscar-winning depiction of Thatcher).

Thatcher’s great ally, President Ronald Reagan, kept to his sunny, old-school masculine image with a clean-smelling cologne called Royal Briar. The more modern Bill Clinton reportedly preferred a fragrance called Gendarme, described on an online perfume discussion site as citrusy and floral, though also a bit soapy. John F Kennedy is said to have used a perfume called America One 31, first launched in 1931, and also used by one of the President’s favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway.

All these Presidents were just users of perfumes, but if Donald Trump becomes President, he would be the first President to have not just one, but three fragrances to sell. Trump’s perfumes are called Donald Trump The Fragrance (launched in 2004), Success by Trump (2012) and most recently Empire by Trump (2015). Online reviews are mixed, but many users say they expected just a cheap celebrity scent, but found it was a bit more than that. For really uninhibited and knowledgeable use of perfumes though one has to go not to Europe or the USA, but the Middle East and specifically the Arabian peninsula.

Perfumes are much used by both Arab men and women as a deeply traditional practice that goes back to the centuries before oil wealth transformed the region. Aromatic resins like frankincense and myrrh were among the few products of commercial value produced there then (which is why they were both offered to the Christ child).

One name for Southern Arabia (current Yemen) is the Coast of Incense and the cities of the peninsula, like Mecca, were long known for their trade in incense and aromatic spices. What Islam did was to take this Arab use of incense and make it a favoured social part of the religion across the world, with certain scents becoming particularly popular. One of them is oudh, a scent much used in Mecca and throughout the Gulf region and which pilgrims on Hajj take back with them across the world. This is a practice that has ramifications in Indian politics.

Oudh is derived from a family of trees known as Aquilaria which is native to Northeast India, though variants are found through Southeast Asia. If Aquilaria trees are damaged in some way they produce a protective resin that permeates the wood, and which contains the essential oil of oudh. Collecting it means cutting the trees, but Aquilaria takes time to grow again and even then there is no guarantee that it will develop the oudh resin. As a result it is hard to grow commercially, and the trade relied on collecting it from the wild.

Over time this has severely depleted the stocks of oudh, but rarity, combined with Arab oil-driven prosperity, have inflated the cost of oudh. One of the big beneficiaries of this has been the Ajmal family which, coming from the town of Hojai in eastern Assam, had built a dominating position in the oudh wood trade. The business was created by Ajmal Ali, who moved from Assam to Mumbai and then Dubai, and it is now controlled by his sons.

Three of the Ajmal sons, Amiruddin, Fakhruddin and Nazir are based in the UAE, running the perfume business there. Of the two still in India, Sirajuddin controls the charitable trusts that have built a considerable profile for the Ajmals in Assam. But it is Badruddin Ajmal who is best known for building the Assam United Democratic Front into a potent political force in the Northeast and as a representative for the Muslim community across India. Badruddin Ajmal is usually described as a ‘perfume baron’, but it might be more accurate to say that he is the politician that oudh has built. And from this perspective, the launch of Samajwadi Sugandh makes more sense.

It allows Akhilesh Yadav to promote his state (and party) in an innovative way. It supports the local ittar industry in Kannauj, a constituency represented by Yadav’s wife Dimple in Lok Sabha now.