Amitabh Bachchan once wondered how controversies hounded him and how even growing a beard would land him in a newspaper editorial. That was two decades ago. His current and past political patrons — Narendra Modi and the Gandhis (read: their progeny) — must be equally dismayed as social media goes abuzz about their image makeovers during the pandemic.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s elongated beard and the hanging moustache slightly twirling at the ends have drawn interesting comments on Twitter — some exhorting him to grow it longer like Bhishma of the Mahabharata and others seeing in it a glimpse of Chhatrapati Shivaji. “Life is like a moustache. It can be wonderful and terrible, but it always tickles,” said American author Nora Roberts. Modi’s thickening moustache and beard are tickling the imagination of many.
Rahul Gandhi’s clean-shaven look in his interview with Bangladeshi Nobel laureate and economist Muhammad Yunus last Friday drew the attention of Twitterati to his new haircut, with some wondering if it was an old video or his ‘re-packaged launch’.
It’s not just Indians who may be accused of being so ridiculously obsessed with what some puritans might find banal—the facial hair of our leaders. Americans too were fussing over a bearded Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who decided to abandon his clean-shaven look after dropping out of the Democratic presidential race last December.
Similarly, Canadians are gushing over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new salt-and-pepper look. A professor of philosophy wrote in The Globe and Mail: “Was Mr. Trudeau trying to look older and more distinguished? Or was he, per contra, trying to look younger and more hip?” Well, Rahul Gandhi is perhaps better placed to answer these questions. The professor went on to ruminate, pointing out how beards have a long history in civilisation, and have been considered a mark of manliness and strength. “Beard hair is a function of testosterone, after all.”
Let’s, therefore, do some hair-splitting on the new looks of Modi and Gandhi. To start with, they draw a sharp contrast—one looking wise, saintly, albeit detached from the temporal world and the other full of verve, curiosity and innocence to the point of naivety. Their looks today are, in fact, the most defining and differentiating element of their politics.
Modi’s and Gandhi’s makeovers mirror their convictions
We don’t know when Modi started growing a beard. Going by old images available in public domain, we first noticed him, as then Gujarat BJP organising secretary, with a thick black moustache and beard on L.K. Advani’s Ram Rath in 1990. Over the years, it turned into salt-and-pepper and then full grey.
Many may find fault with the way Modi, as then Gujarat chief minister, handled the 2002 post-Godhra riots, but nobody can accuse him of wavering from his ideological and political conviction, which has been as steadfast as his moustache and beard. So much so that it has become a statement of style — and of politics, some would say. As many as 18 men with beards made it to Modi’s 58-member Council of Ministers in May 2019.
In contrast, Rahul Gandhi has been rather shifty about his appearances — and his convictions and messaging. If you were to believe Congress insiders, his decision to grow stubbles or shave them clean is guided by his political engagements and objectives on a particular day. He would don a Che Guevara look if he needed to send the message of a revolutionary fighting against the System — say, while visiting the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha in 2010 as the ‘soldier’ of the tribals to stall Vedanta’s mining project or when junking Manmohan Singh Cabinet’s draft ordinance as ‘complete nonsense’ at the Press Club of India in 2013. Only Che didn’t have the thicket under the chin that Gandhi has and the Argentinian revolutionary had a more pronounced and elongated moustache. But the idea is to look dishevelled, unorganised and as casual as a leader fighting against the System must, supposedly.
When Gandhi needs to project himself as Modi’s potential challenger who must play aspirational politics and appeal to the middle class, he chooses to look dapper without those rebellious stubbles — say, while addressing members of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in Delhi in 2013 or students at Chennai’s Stella Maris College in 2019 or doing hug-and-wink politics in Parliament.
In Rahul Gandhi’s playbook, these looks and images should win the trust of different sections of the society — the haves and the have-nots — with supposedly conflicting interests. But he has only ended up making all of them confused about what he stands for.
Were these makeovers temporary or permanent?
In Rahul Gandhi’s case, you are likely to see him more often in stubbles, because he has to be a permanent rebel with (or without) a cause. At the meeting for Congress Rajya Sabha members last week, he set Rajeev Satav, his loyalist so far, upon party veterans. Satav wanted them to introspect how they, as part of Manmohan Singh government, were responsible for the Congress’ defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election before they talk about the drubbing in the 2019 election. Sonia Gandhi, who still trusts veteran leaders, was the party president in 2014 while Rahul Gandhi was the president in 2019.
Incidentally, Satav, as Youth Congress president, was instrumental in failing Gandhi’s democratisation experiment before the latter secured him a safe Lok Sabha seat, Hingoli, to contest in 2014 after hard bargaining with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In 2019, Satav, like K.C. Venugopal, another Gandhi aide, refused to contest the election. The Congress ended up losing both seats — in Maharashtra and Kerala — held by these two Gandhi lieutenants. Both of them were rewarded with Rajya Sabha berths.
With generals like Satavs and Venugopals leading Gandhi’s war with party veterans, the former-and-would-be Congress president is in for a long haul. Only after he is done with the ‘system’ within his party that Gandhi can focus on fighting the main battle — with Modi. That’s why you are likely to see a bearded Gandhi more often than not in future.
As for PM Modi, the hanging moustache and beard give him the look of a sanyasi, who wouldn’t think of wasting his time grooming himself when 130 crore Indians are confronted with multiple crises. With his government looking ineffectual in dealing with multi-pronged challenges concerning national security, the economy and the pandemic, the image of a benevolent sanyasi is quite effective. It will also add to his aura when he performs the bhoomi pujan at the Ayodhya Ram Mandir site on 5 August.
I won’t be surprised if Sambit Patra tells me tomorrow about a vow by PM Modi that we don’t know about.
Views are personal.