How would R.K. Laxman have commented in a cartoon on the excitement over Narendra Modi‘s exclusive, pin-striped suit on the eve of Republic Day that drew more attention than the nearly 4,000-word joint statement on the visit? He could have drawn Modi clad in the same fabric saying something like, stop wasting time looking for any fine print. Read my lips instead because, as my American buddies would say, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
I had asked in a National Interest not long ago (Pracharak Modi: True To His Mask; http://bit.ly/1COQrbk) if you had ever seen a leader who resembles his mask as much as Modi does. The idea was not to pun on the old BJP controversy where Govindacharya had dismissed Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a mere mask (“mukhauta”) thinly concealing the reality of the BJP. It was, instead, to make the point that unlike Vajpayee, Modi represented the true face of the BJP/RSS and did not pretend to be something else. With Modi, we had said, the man you see is the man you get. There is no pretence or hypocrisy.
So it is, and it will continue to be with his love for what he sees as good clothes, as his own fashion statement and style. Pinstripes woven into the fabric in his own name may sound like an excess, even exaggerated vanity or narcissism. You are entitled to the fashion writer’s criticism of his choice and style. But it is silly to be surprised. He has already set a pattern changing more outfits in a day, particularly on a special occasion or at a summit meeting, than stars in a Tamil film song. He has flaunted a customised choice of colours, even so bright as to be unknown in our understated political tradition, to suit the occasion. Remember his neon red waist-coat in Bangalore to celebrate the successful Mangalyaan launch with ISRO scientists. On the Japan visit, the whisper on the sidelines was that he changed more outfits in one day than our ambassador there changed saris in the entire trip. But then the ambassador is merely a staid civil servant and should remain so.
Modi sees himself as a mass leader, a brand made for media, from TV to Twitter, from selfies to Facebook. He sees no issue wrapping it in livery that, in his view, enhances the brand. Could it just be that in his view the pin-stripes only underline Brand Modi? Or may be, as we say elsewhere in this issue (Writings on the Wall) there is a Pucca Punjabi inside this Gujju body? I got it, I flaunt it, and if you have a problem, go see a shrink, stop psychoanalysing me.
That, in short, is also my objection to the chatter on Modi’s allegedly crude, vain, narcissistic style. We know our politicians are never poor, but we want them to look like becharas. And however cynical and selfish they may be in their politics, however much they may put away in mythical Swiss accounts or, more likely, in IOU hundis with real estate buddies, we prefer to see them dressed in crumpled khadi, if not sack-cloth and ashes. My point, therefore, is not an endorsement of Modi’s style, but that we are silly in being judgemental about it, indulging in drawing-room/cocktail circuit pop psychology. Not when so many of us in the same, selfstyled (pun intended) upper crust go around dressed in stupid pastel trousers, little black dresses that stretch to the precarious limit going down our bell-bottoms and thunder thighs, and those awful, awful Louis Vuitton bags and accessories. So bad and so expensive that the more apt way to spell and pronounce Vuitton should be an unprintable Indianism starting with C which you need film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj’s cheek to unleash.
Let’s take that argument forward. Each one of us, let’s list our top five political personalities for poor taste in dressing and lifestyle. I suspect there will be quite a bit of unanimity there. Mayawati with her pearls and purses, Ambedkar with his often poorly fitted suits, Balasaheb with his white wine and now Modi with his neon waistcoats and custom-woven pin-stripes. Then list those with good style: Vadundhara Raje with her silks and jewellery, late Jyoti Basu with his love for the revolution and single malts, Arun Jaitley with his cashmeres and Patek Philippe watches, late Rajiv Gandhi with his Gucci shoes, Mont Blanc pens and exotic holidays, Kamal Nath with a jar of Harrods cookies while clad in pure khadi on Chhindwara’s campaign trail, even Anna Hazare recuperating at one of our most expensive corporate fat farms in Bangalore as if fasting was not good enough to detox and lose weight for a Gandhian, and Lohiaite George Fernandes whose Lamy pens were seen as a style statement. There is a twin hypocrisy here. The moment somebody rises in politics, we want them to be in modest political garb, never mind the Lanvin undies inside or Harrods cookies in the car. And second, we draw judgement based on where somebody came from. A Nehru or Gandhi, born in riches, dump their old style and luxuries, adopt khadi and become icons of humility. But what about someone with utterly humble beginnings, who has now tasted success and thinks he can afford to live it up a bit? That outrages us, yeh kahan se aa gaya (where did he come from)?
It is tempting to invoke actor Dilip Kumar‘s comic portrayal of a “westernised” rustic in the old film Sagina where he dances to “Sala main to saab ban gaya… yeh suit mera dekho, yeh boot mera dekho, jaise chhora koyi London ka”. We tend to respond the same snooty way looking at anybody pretending to live beyond his “original” station. Again, to hark back to that Dilip Kumar song, we are happy if langoti-walas stay that way and happier if suit-walas dump them for langotis.
This is not a changing but a changed India. Gandhi, Nehru, Patel were all born with riches sufficient to take them overseas for studies a hundred years ago. They sought their political style statement in discarding what they had inherited. The current Lok Sabha, Modi included, is filled with leaders of a completely different upbringing. They bring nothing by way of their entitlement and now, having tasted success, have less hesitation flaunting it. Maybe their progeny will still impress us by giving up the apparent riches.
I am the least qualified person to comment on somebody’s sartorial preferences. But what I admire about Modi is his lack of hypocrisy. I can illustrate what I mean. Look at the young, supposedly new generation hot-shots of the Congress. Many of them maintain two lifestyles, one until 10 pm in khadi kurtas and the second after 10 pm in tight black silk tees, sometimes even on sexy Ducatis and Harley Davidsons. I recall going to see George Fernandes once and seeing him artfully crumple his ironed pajamas. How could the humble, socialist trade unionist be seen wearing anything orderly? Of course, he had no issues with an IAS aide kneeling down on the floor of an Mi-17 helicopter to slip the snow shoes onto his feet and do the laces as we approached Siachen for a recording.
Chances are we will not see such hypocrisy from Modi, whatever our view on his style or taste. In any case, we did not elect him for his humility. We loved his 56-inch-chest swagger, selfprojection of his Gujarat success, his exaggerated delivery. As I said earlier, the most important thing about Modi is that the man you see is the man you get. Intellectually, politically, ideologically and philosophically, he is in an argument with Jawaharlal Nehru. Now, check out this test. Go to an outlet in your city of Fabindia or Khadi Bhavan where our liberal community had gone for decades to buy our handloom kurtas and “Jawahar” jackets. Hang around long enough and you will overhear some customer asking for a “Modi” jacket. It is the same jacket. At least sartorially, Modi is winning his argument with Nehru.