Narendra Modi has a political image as a bold man of action, willing to take tough, disruptive decisions in his quest to modernise India and deliver prosperity. His sartorial style has complemented this personal brand.
Unlike other Indian male politicians, who typically wear austere uniforms of white, hand-spun cotton recalling the independence struggle, Modi developed a distinctive attire of well-fitting kurtas, often with half-sleeves, paired with sleeveless jackets in bright colours or catchy patterns.
His well-trimmed beard completed the look, accentuating the masculinity essential to his popular appeal. “It was the well-dressed corporate honcho — minus the suit,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of a 2013 Modi biography.
But Modi’s appearance has changed dramatically during the pandemic. The tightly-clipped facial hair has turned into the long scraggly beard of a Hindu ascetic. His once short hair is nearly shoulder length. Gone are the brilliant colours, swapped for white, beige and subdued earth tones, except when he dons the saffron of Hindu holy men.
Political analysts believe what probably began as a typical “lockdown beard” is now part of an effort by Modi to reinvent himself politically as a spiritual guru — instead of the ultimate temporal authority — amid the devastation of India’s Covid crisis.
“Modi the leader has become Modi the sage,” says Mukhopadhyay. “He wants to project that he is the one person with capacity to steer India through something completely unprecedented.”
A close political associate of the premier told me Modi is “incorporating the saintly idiom” of Indian politics into his persona to comfort the population at a time of “great uncertainty”.
But Christophe Jaffrelot, a scholar at the King’s India Institute in London, believes Modi’s new Hindu holy-man style is intended to help him evade responsibility for his handling of the pandemic and for tough economic times ahead.
“It is a way to emancipate himself — to be the sage, who is above politics and policies,” he said. “He is not accountable any more. It’s a way to signal he is the ruler, but not the man in charge of government. It’s very easy to be seen as ‘not accountable’ when you are seen as not making decisions.”
Mukhopadhyay concurs that Modi’s transformation gives him “an element of divinity in the minds of voters, and insulates him from political criticism”.
While Modi may look as though he is renouncing worldly concerns, his aura is unlikely to fade in the eyes of his devoted Hindu supporters. In India’s ancient myths, and in historic Hindu kingdoms, the rulers’ spiritual advisers wielded as much clout as kings themselves.
Modi’s approval ratings are currently at 64 per cent, among the highest of major global leaders. “By looking like a guru, he doesn’t necessarily appear as non-powerful,” said Jaffrelot. “In Hindu tradition, the most powerful man is the man who gives advice.”
Modi’s changed focus from material progress to spiritual elevation is also manifest in his monthly radio addresses to the nation. These have shifted from talking up government development programmes to advice on coping with hard times.
“It’s a discourse on wellbeing, not a discourse on welfare,” said Jaffrelot. “The government cannot redeem the promises he made. Better to say, ‘I’m not playing that game. I’m not trying to develop India any more.’ He’s telling people how to behave, how to be a good person, how to be happy — and how to be proud of one’s identity.”
Modi’s adoption of the guise of the renunciate — the last of the four stages of Hindus’ human lifecycle — has drawn plenty of notice in India. Jaffrelot believes the transformation is probably irreversible, and will come with a greater focus on cultural issues and the pursuit of a Hindu nationalist agenda in upcoming elections.
But Hindus also have a deep tradition of vowing not to cut their hair until certain wishes are fulfilled, then offering it to the gods in gratitude. So Modi may still have further surprises up his sleeve.
“One day, he might start speaking on television and say that he will sacrifice his hair,” said Mukhopadhyay. “He has a tremendous dramatic style. We don’t know where the script is going to go.”