“Power and Pageantry in Modi’s India” by Simona Vittorini
We live not according to reason but fashion – Seneca.
In a recent piece, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor aptly called Modi ‘a master communicator at work’ coming up with new slogans, sound-bites, photo ops in quite an unparalleled way. Prime Minister Modi certainly showed his communication skills when US President Barak Obama visited India as chief guest to India’s Republic Day Parade last January.
The visit (a highly anticipated and media-crazed event for which Delhi was scrubbed like never before) turned out to be a highly choreographed affair accompanied by the sight and sound of Moditva.
Long ago, Machiavelli observed that “men in general make judgements more by appearances that by reality, for sight alone belongs to anyone but understanding to few”. Machiavelli was perhaps rather ungenerous to his fellow human beings, but he did got a point right: perceptions do matter a great deal in politics. Symbols-laden images speak louder than words, sending subtle (or not so-subtle) messages powerfully across.
Modi knows this very well. Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta called the Indian Prime Minister a brand made for the media. And true to form, Modi kicked off the celebrations for Republic day in spectacular style right from the set go. The visit begun with a number of bold fashion statements. Modi’s penchant for clothes is legendary. He pays great attention to his attire and chooses his clothes carefully aided by his long-time and trusted taylor Bipin Chauhan of Blue Jade. This time around, when India’s PM welcomed the first couple on the tarmac of Palam Air Force airport (breaking standard protocol) on Sunday 25 January, the Indian media was quick to notice how Modi had out-fashioned Michelle Obama and the US president himself. By wearing that bright orange paisley scarf the Indian Prime Minister stood out among a sea of grey suits on dull and windy Delhi morning.
Then, there was the suit, that suit. The bandh-gala suit that he wore in the afternoon caught everybody’s attention and became immediately the talk of the town. What looked like a standard navy-blue pin-stripe suit, at close inspection, it turned out to be something quite different. The hand-stitched golden stripes were not stripes at all, but letters that spelled out Modi’s name in full – over and over again. The suit certainly, didn’t go unnoticed. By the end of the evening, after Modi had changed already three times, Obama referred to him as a style-icon. The crowds and the media erupted in rapturous applause.
This was not the first time that Modi’s style statements met with the favours of the public. During the recent Lok Sabha campaigns the short-sleeves, colourful long tunic that he was seen wearing all the time attracted even international attention. He was quickly labelled a fashion icon by the NYT and soon enough these so-called Modi kurtas were seeing flying off the shelves across the country.
But maybe this time around he went a little too far with that extravagant suit. Modi is certainly not the first world leader to be wearing a similar number: the deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was spotted wearing one, as well as former Argentine president Carlos Menem – Modi is not exactly in the best company here. Could it be that Modi perhaps committed a fashion faux pas that day? The claim that the fabric had been woven to order in London and tailored in India for 1,000,000 rupees – around £10,000 quickly The suit showed not quite his praised sense of style. On the contrary, it crudely displayed a touch of narcissistic self-obsession that was quickly met not with praise but with a barrage of mockery on the twitter-sphere.
And if showing off some ‘despot swag’ was not enough, the whole event had Modi written all over it. The publicly displayed afternoon chai per charcha ceremony held in the gardens of Hyderabad House (mostly for the benefit of the domestic press) was hugely symbolical and self-referential, hinting not-so subtly at Modi’s humble beginning as a chai-wallah: there it was, a poor, lower-caste tea-seller, serving tea to the world’s most powerful man. The press lapped it all up enthusiastically.
The Sunday evening banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan that followed this spectacular re-enactment of Modi’s life story, was again self-referential. This time around it was Modi’s beliefs and sets of values as well his Gujarati identity that were on display. The menu was Hindutva-tinted. Among the national favourites, it included a Nadru Ke Goolar a spicy kebab made with lotus stems, a Gujarati Khadi, and for dessert Gajar Ka Halwa, a sweet-carrot dessert. Now, the lotus is not just India’s national flower but also the symbol of the BJP; the buttermilk-infused tangy Gujarati Khadi was a nod to the Prime Minister’s home state and the rich-saffron-tinted Gajar Ka Halwa was reminder of the colour dear to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.
But it was at the Republic Day pageant the next day where brand-Modi was more clearly on display. Again, bold sartorial statement opened the day. Arriving on Rajpat, Modi wore an elaborate tie & dye Gujarati bandhini turban in red, green and orange with white dots. Like the previous day on the tarmac of Palam airport, the colourful turban stood out on a very wet and grey Delhi morning. But more interestingly through one single sartorial statement, Modi became the personification of patriotic pride and unity in diversity. It is not a case that he wore a similar turban on Independence day last August.
Moreover, at this year’s parade, the basic syntax of nationhood on display was modified to make space for Modi’s pet projects. Beside showcasing unity in diversity and India’s military might in a Soviet style parade as per norm, the nation displayed at the Republic Day parade displayed prominently all the marks of Moditva.
Nari Shakti (women’s power) was this year’s theme. The day before, in a truly sensational move, Wing Commander Puja Thakur lead Barak Obama for the inspection of the Guard of Honour at Raj Bhavan, becoming the first woman to do so. At the Republic Day Parade, the marching contingents of all-women officers of the three services were one of the highlights of the day. The parade’s theme was further shored up by the tableau of the Ministry of Women Welfare and Child Development representing the government’s ambitious ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign, (save the girl child, teach the girl child) launched by the Prime Minister only a couple of days earlier. It was on Modi’s insistence that the nari shakti theme was chosen. This was obviously a huge PR campaign for the Prime Minister. Since 2012 when a young woman was brutally raped in the streets of Delhi, India has received a lot bad publicity on the ways in which it treats its women. As a communication master, Modi is aware that this has dented considerably India’s reputation abroad and its soft-power and knows very well that these impressions must to be corrected quickly by sending powerful counter-messages.
Another one of Modi’s highly publicised campaign, Swaatch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) was prominently displayed at the parade. Its logo (Mahatma Gandhi’s spectacles) was printed on a corner of the Republic Day Programme booklet and ornate the large floral reconstruction of the Sarnath Capital on Rajpat, while school children (all girls) performed a Swatch Banaye Bharat dance, making an appeal to people to keep the country clean. The successful Mars orbit mission – Mangalyaan – was the theme of another dance performed by another group of school children.
Other pet projects found pride of place among the tableaux that rolled down on Rajpat. To celebrate the United Nation recognition of June 21 as International Yoga Day (which came after Modi’s call for its adoption at his United Nation General Assembly address on September 2014), the Ministry of Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) had a float representing the Yoga system which depicted Yoga acharyas (masters of yoga) and the the Unani and Ayurveda systems of medicine.
Then, there was a ‘Jan Dhan Yojna’ tableau which displayed Modi’s signature scheme for comprehensive financial inclusion, and a ‘Clean Ganga’ one symbolic of Modi’s promise to clean the Ganga and reminiscent of his aarti in Varanasi. A replica of bullet train was mounted on the Railway tableau to showcase the ambitious high speed train project, and the float of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion paraded the Make in India logo of a prowling lion made of cogs striding along the depiction of a smart city, symbolised manufacturing, strength and national pride. And among the states tableaux, the float from the state of Gujarat proudly and prominently displayed a prototype of the planned Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s Statue of Unity along with the ambitious irrigation scheme Sardar Sarovar Yojana towering over the motto Ek Bharat, Shresht Bharat.
In the past, several governments have tried to use Republic day celebrations to present their achievements by supplementing or modifying the official national imagery displayed on Republic Day but very few have gone to this extent to refashion the entire event in their own image.
Last April, the Indian electorate voted for Modi en masse, enthusiastically embracing his message of change, good governance and development. Since then, more than six months have passed during which the people of India have been dazzled by the spectacular theatricals of the style of governance of this larger-than-life leader. The Republic Day celebrations are the latest example of this. But there has been very little in terms of parivartan in any area of governance. Populist leaders (even hi-tech ones like Modi) live on borrowed time. If Modi will not be able to deliver on the promised acche din and give ‘bread’ soon, then the circuses will not be enough anymore to keep the masses entertained and occupied.