Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves dramatics. This isn’t a jibe at him. He did tell a journalist once that his favourite subject in school was dramatics. This might explain a lot about him but that’s a discussion for another day. For now, let’s talk about Narendra Modi’s new look. And what goes into the making of a character with a new ‘avatar’.
Style isn’t that easy to achieve. You have to work on it, it demands discipline and time. The latter is a crucial factor, especially for those now in their 70s. For Modi, it took nearly six months — all through the lockdown. Modi wasn’t alone. Many of us, too, fancied our ‘enforced’ looks. But as soon as the lockdown was eased, we rushed to the barber’s shop. But not Modi. He continued to work on it. He has, as they say, ‘maintained it’.
Janta’s poor guesswork on PM’s looks
With the PM sporting long hair and a long beard, speculations are rife — some say he is practising social distancing, and that’s why he will not have a barber around. Those who believe in this theory are ignorant souls, or simply don’t understand the quotient of style and Modi’s politics. Have you ever observed how well kempt our PM’s beard is? If a barber isn’t grooming it, who else is? Unless he’s grooming it himself. And if that’s the case, then our PM is not only an expert on cloud cover, wind energy, cashless economy, history and catchy acronyms, but also understands hair styling. With hair styling, timing is very crucial. You have to let it grow first, then manage that fine cut, just when it begins to spoil your ‘image’.
Many say that Modi wants to project the image of an ascetic by donning the look of a ‘fakir’. This, too, is not the real reason. We are familiar with our PM going out of his way to be known as a ‘fakir’, but his choice of clothes, sunglasses, cars and now planes is anything but fakir-like. In fact, in an interview he gave to ‘veteran journalist’ Akshay Kumar, he had said that being poor perhaps gave him an inferiority complex, which is why he would make sure that he’s always clean and wearing ironed clothes. So, his penchant for focussing on his look is an old habit.
Those who got it right
There are also those who say Modi is going for the ascetic image because he is trying to project himself as the saintly nation-head who finally helped pave the way for the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya — a ‘true Ram bhakt’ who brought ‘Ram Rajya’ back to India.
Modi did look the part during the Ram Mandir bhoomi pujan, making sure he was the most important person at the event. Constitutionally, yes, the prime minister was the most important person present, but in the company of saints, you can’t ‘look’ out of sync. Because no one from the Ram Mandir movement who were ‘instrumental’ in the demolition of the Babri Masjid were invited, Modi made sure that he looked like a grand old leader who not only governs India but, now, was most likely its ideological-philosophical head who was going to lead the nation towards ‘dharma’ (faith) and ‘moksha’ (nirvana).
And that’s really where I think Modi is going with his tresses-and-beard look. Timed perfectly with the pandemic, the PM is going in for a huge image makeover, not of the country. This makeover goes beyond one event. Going by the ‘look’ of it, he is setting himself up for something big — to turn himself into a demigod, much like Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, who have actually shaped the vision of this nation. Gurudev’s beard, however, will give a tough fight to anyone. Some also compare Modi’s looks to that of Shivaji Maharaj.
Learning from Gurudev and Mahatma
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s ‘looks’, too, had a part to play in turning him from ‘Gandhi’ to ‘Mahatma’. The persona of a man clad in khadi dhoti with a walking stick, and living a simple life at an ashram moved people and made them see him as a saint. If Gandhi had done the same things for India’s independence in a white kurta pyjama, achkan or a suit, he would, at best, be seen as a politician. In fact, Nehru, another stalwart in India’s freedom struggle, is also seen as a rich man’s son who looked the part of an entitled man. By trying to be a ‘mahatma’, Modi is signalling that he is above elections, petty politics and accountability.
What holds true for Gandhi is also true for Rabindranath Tagore. The poet-philosopher who donned long hair and a jubba (traditional long tunic), is etched in people’s memory also because of his looks, which he had artistically crafted, taking his own persona and work to an ethereal space, one that awed people. Many have said that Modi tried to copy Tagore’s look by wearing a jubba and cummerbund during his visit to Kedarnath in 2019, right before West Bengal went to polls in the Lok Sabha election.
Much like the two men who dominate the iconography of India today — be it on currency, coins or stamps — Modi is slowly and steadily crafting his own persona to match himself up with the greatest political and philosophical icons of India because he wants to turn himself into a figure of history. He wants to establish his political tenure in India as a watershed moment. And he wants to look the part.
This ‘look’ will go a long way in helping Modi establish himself as an overarching political figure in India’s post-Independence history — a political figure who combines religion, philosophy and politics, much like the erstwhile kings. If achieved, it’s a very powerful position to be in. If there were to be any Constitutional changes in the way India is governed and an all-encompassing post is created, Modi would fit well into this. Who knows, we might just see him on currency notes too.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.