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Modi: The man who wants his mask to look perfect 

If you wrote a novel about this, it would not seem credible. A chief minister denied a visa to visit the US for 10 years because he allegedly violated religious freedom by not stopping communal riots in 2005, becomes Prime Minister and is quickly welcomed. The US president goes out of his way personally to escort him in Washington, and reschedules his diary , including the date of his annual State of the Union address, to visit the politician’s country .After that, he writes a piece in Time magazine eulogizing his new Indian friend.This series of events tracks the amazing image transformation that Narendra Modi has achieved in his first prime ministerial year after an election campaign that was impressive, arrogant and of course successful, as he trumpeted around the country that he, and he alone, could get India moving again and meet the frustrated aspirations of the young.

The image has changed, but the character remains the same, or does it? Will the chief minister at the time of Godhra‘s horror, and the portrayer of presidential supremacy in the general election, morph into a national leader and world statesman who doesn’t just play drums in Japan, sit on a swing with the Chinese president in Gujarat and make rock star performances in front of thousands of adulating overseas Indians around the world? Will he then make a difference to world affairs, establishing India as a significant voice, and bring home not just dreams of billions of dollars wrapped in official statements but actual investments that really happen?
President Obama, who welcomed Modi to Washington last September and came to India earlier this year, told him at a Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet in January: “We know about the Prime Minister’s legendary work ethic.He was explaining to me today how he only needed three hours’ sleep, which made me feel bad. I thought I was doing okay with five.“ He wrote in a Time magazine profile last month that Modi “transcends the ancient and the modern -a devotee of yoga who connects with Indian citizens on Twitter and imagines a digital India“.

I don’t follow all of Obama’s speeches and comments, but surely he cannot have showered any other world leader with such praise. Nor has Modi been so lauded, not even by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, who was desperate to host him in London before last week’s general election, and is expected to do so in September. Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, spoke fondly about “Narendra and I“ when Modi visited his country last November, and said he had “never seen any leader as rapturously received in Australia as Prime Minister Modi.“

And it’s not just praise from world leaders. Peter Hapak, the portrait photographer who shot the recent Time cover on Modi, had a full hour with him, which was much longer than the ten minutes he usually had. “He was giving me a lot, which is what also defines a good portrait,“ said Hapak.

That wasn’t Modi being kind of course -he knows the value of getting personal image-making right. Lance Price, the British journalist who interviewed him for a recent book, `The Modi Effect’, tells how Modi sat for two hours before Gujarat’s 2007 assembly elections for photographic and modelling work on a facial mask, having got the idea from caricature masks used earlier by Hillary Clinton. Modi said he didn’t want a caricature but “a real replica of Narendra Modi“, and even demanded changes in the way his eyes looked. “People should know my face,“ said Modi. “If they don’t know my face, how can they know about me? And if they don’t know me how would they know that I work for them?“ His image has suffered in the past year because of some of the Sangh Parivar’s Hindu nationalist excesses, plus election defeats in Delhi and elsewhere, and a feeling that he is not driving the changes that voters a year ago expected.

He has been working on that, not just on his current trip to China, but also in Bengal last weekend, wooing Mamata Banerjee who is reported to have softened and said: “Kaam pyaar mobabbat se hota hain, badnaami se nahin (Work happens through love and affection, not mudslinging).“

Love is not a word often used for Modi. His autocratic style is said to have upset fellow ministers, MPs of his own party , and bureaucrats.He seems to frighten more than inspire. I found him charming when, as I have written before in these columns, I first met him on a Big Fight television show in 2001 -charming but tough, impassioned, and with leadership ability . People are still waiting for his promise of leadership of change to become a reality .

John Elliott is a British journalist based in India and author of IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality

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