• Saturday, Mar 06, 2021
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OP-ED: Modi: The sage king?

India vaccination Modi
FILE PHOTO: A woman walks past a painting of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a day before the inauguration of the COVID-19 vaccination drive on a street in Mumbai, India, January 15, 2021 Reuters

How the Indian PM is re-building his image

Over the past year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s snow-white hair and beard have grown remarkably long. So long, in fact, that both the media and the public have taken notice, quite conveniently putting aside some of the more pressing issues at hand. When the country is in the middle of a pandemic, the economy shows no signs of recovery, and angry farmers have been protesting in the capital for months, why do political commentators spend their time musing over the PM's new coiffure?

The significance of the appearance and image of politicians has always been strong in India. It dates back at least to the radical transformation of the neatly dressed lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into the Mahatma (the Great Soul) -- the “half naked Indian Fakir,” as Churchill called him -- draped only in a homespun khadi loincloth, walking stick in hand. In post-colonial India, many politicians such as Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee have gone to great lengths to style themselves as aam aadmi (common people). Clearly, looks matter.

The many images of Modi

However, Narendra Modi has gone through several image makeovers over a relatively short span of time. From 2007 onwards, he cultivated a carefully crafted image as the efficient and competent CEO of Gujarat, an image that continued into the campaign for the 2014 national election, where he promised to be the embodiment of a New India, an economic powerhouse based on development. On the campaign trail however, he was quick to transform himself into a humble chaiwallah (roadside tea-seller), as a way of critiquing the dynasticism and elitism of his political opponents. 

Once elected, he returned to his CEO image, famously donning an expensive suit where the pinstripes consisted of miniature embroideries of his own name. 

While Modi spent much of his time abroad, negotiating trade deals in summits, by 2018 it was clear that India’s economic growth had stalled. With a national election just around the corner, terrorist attacks in Kashmir and border skirmishes with Pakistan allowed Modi to stage another makeover, emerging as India’s self-proclaimed chowkidar, its watchman or gatekeeper. 

While the chowkidar image won him a second term in the 2019 national election, the image has been severely dented since. Not only has the economy continued to plummet -- indeed, as critics laconically note, the only sign of growth in India today is in the prime ministerial beard -- there has also been growing insecurity at the borders with both Pakistan and China, and a deadly attack on Indian troops by Chinese forces in Ladakh in 2020 dealt a severe blow to
this image.

Then, the Covid-19 pandemic made matters worse. The virus has caused more than 153,000 deaths, placing India at the second highest national death count in the world at the time of writing. Photos and videos of millions of poor labour migrants leaving big cities on foot to reach their distant home villages with no government assistance travelled the world, and undermined Modi’s image as the protector of the people. 

This was most tragically evident in how close to 1,000 migrants died before they could reach their homes. It is against this backdrop that we must understand Modi’s latest image makeover.

A crisis beard?

When he performed the inaugural ceremony at the new Ram temple in Ayodhya in August 2020, it was evident that not only had Modi’s hair and beard grown -- they were “no longer trim and pointed but very bushy,” as one observer put it. When a solemn Modi, surrounded by priests chanting Sanskrit shlokas, laid the foundation stone of a Hindu temple in the place where a Muslim mosque was violently demolished in 1992, his new and saintly look was perfectly tailored to the occasion. It did not take long for his followers and detractors alike to come up with interpretations of the change. 

He was compared with Santa Claus, Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, Mughal Emperor Babar, and, most recently, with poet Rabindranath Tagore. 

A more serious approach, however, would start from the cultural meaning of a beard and long hair. One interpretation is that Modi’s new look is a cultural representation of a coping mechanism. Christopher Oldstone-Moore, the author of the 2015 book Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, introduces the term “crisis beard.” Here, growing a beard defines the moment when a man forgoes shaving during a crisis to show those around him that he is fully engaged in resolving it. 

This works, according to Oldstone-Moore, because beards are typically associated with toughness and natural strength. We might thus see Modi’s beard as a “Covid beard” that speaks to the need for enduring the struggle and challenging the pandemic. As a corollary, the beard may also resonate with the millions of working-class Indians, many of whom were also seen growing the “crisis” or “stress beard.” 

This connection is also reflected in Modi’s insistence of using a gaamcha, a thin, colorful cotton towel as a face-cover during public appearances on TV, instead of a proper N95/surgical face mask. The gaamcha is commonly used as a face cover across rural India to protect from the dust and sun. In this reading, Modi’s long beard and hair represent the mental strength and toughness of an alpha male leader who faces the crisis of an ongoing pandemic on behalf of the 1.3 billion citizens of the country, while staying a simple and humble Indian, a chaiwallah. 

Logically, then, the beard will go when the crisis is over. 

A political masterplan for 2024?

And yet so far, while the infection and death rates have fallen, the beard has not. It continues to grow. The alpha male explanation is therefore not the only plausible interpretation. More recently, suggestions have been made to compare Modi’s looks with that of sages and monks. In this context, it is worthwhile recalling the “three idioms” of Indian political culture identified by Welsh political scientist Morris-Jones in the 1960s: The traditional, the modern (exemplified by Nehru), and the saintly (exemplified by Gandhi). 

The saintly idiom is manifest in the language, style, and appearance of persons who claim or are ascribed authority on the basis of their deep religious knowledge and conviction, and who are objects of the reverence and respect that many Indians (Hindus) have for holy persons. It is this model of authority that Modi now seems to emulate. 

One may recall Modi’s visit to Kedarnath (an important Hindu pilgrimage site) and his televised meditation inside one of the caves in May 2019, just before the national election and long before the pandemic struck. While Modi’s change of style and image is thus highly strategic, so too is the timing. While the next national election in 2024 is still far off, Modi is known to think ahead. 

Given the havoc that Covid-19 has wreaked on the Indian economy, a major economic recovery is not on the cards. And, despite the rhetoric and grandstanding, the Indian army is unlikely to make much headway against Chinese incursions. This will make it exceedingly difficult for Modi to contest the election as a successful CEO, or a decisive and determined gatekeeper. 

Indeed, any claim in that direction will be soon shot down by the opposition. In this context, the most plausible explanation behind the growing hair and beard (and the dress to go with) is that Modi is building an image of a Rajarshi, a sage king. 

In fact, in August 2020, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor expressed his disapproval and described Modi’s political imagery as Rishiraj, or “a holy man who is also the king.” Within the Indian/Hindu philosophical tradition, the political imagery of Rajarshi/Rishiraj would allow Modi’s significant failures to be seen as insignificant bumps on the road towards salvation -- the establishment of Ram Rajya, the ultimate society. 

Considering the steadily increasing hold of Hindutva hegemony, the Ram temple nearing completion (again emphasized in the recent Republic Day parade where the Uttar Pradesh government led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of the BJP showcased a chariot with sage Valmiki and a Ram temple replica), and the West Bengal state election around the corner, the sage king may well emerge victorious in the near future.

Niladri Chatterjee: Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of Oslo. Guro Samuelsen: Postdoctoral Researcher, Norwegian School of Religion, Theology and Society. Kenneth Bo Nielsen: Associate Professor, University of Oslo. Arild Engelsen Ruud: Professor, University of Oslo.

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