Narendra Modi, the brand

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on September 06, 2019

Head-to-toe: Kedarnath saw Narendra Modi in many outfits: He wore a grey overcoat with an orange kamarbandh, a Himachali cap, and a tiger print shawl draped on his shoulders   -  PTI

For PM Modi, an image is not just about what he does or says, but also about what he wears — jackets, turbans, robes, stoles, coats and caps

Infrastructure, as the subject of a long talk, can be a bit of a yawn. But not when you know the right buttons to press — as Prime Minister Narendra Modi clearly did. He was in Paris late last month, and holding forth on the growing socio-economic engagement between India and France. And what fuelled it, he said, was infrastructure, or infra. But, Modi went on to clarify, he was talking about a special kind of infra: ‘In’ stood for India, and ‘fra’ for France. His audience — the Indian diaspora — responded with loud cheers.

Those who have been keenly watching Modi build his brand point out that his image is being shaped not just by words, but by gestures. At a recent G7 summit, Modi slapped the US President Donald Trump’s hands jovially — and the gesture promptly launched a thousand memes on the Internet. “There is no denying the fact that Modi has the acumen to understand the pulse of the people,” says communications and brand strategist Sushil Pandit, who has handled campaigns for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The PM’s foreign visits are a much-discussed topic in India, and the messaging can neatly be divided into the newsworthy and entertainment sections. In the first 100 days of Modi’s second tenure, it has become more evident than ever that as his political stature receives more legitimacy, so does his ability to wield soft power with pop culture, memes, WhatsApp forwards and so on. “Modi is popular as a son-of-the-soil figure,” says Pandit.

Clearly, for Modi, an image is not just about what he does or says, but also about what he dons. He is suited-booted on occasion, but steers clear of outfits that have his name written in pinstripes — a social solecism that he committed in his first tenure. He is in his modified Nehru jacket, now known as the Modi jacket in government outlets, and gaily-printed safas or turbans. Many of his crisp and colourful kurtas have been created by Ahmedabad-based Jitendra and Bipin Chauhan.

He painstakingly dresses to suit an occasion or a place — in athleisure while strolling down the jungles of the Jim Corbett National Park, throwing on a jacket over a t-shirt with ski goggles and a red muffler while in Siachen, in fatigues by the border, and wearing casual sweat pants with an Axomiya gamosa draped around his neck while exercising on the lush green lawns of his official residence.

“He makes it a point to try on regional wear from the places he’s visiting as his audience relates to the grand gestures,” says stylist Poorva (who goes by one name). “While he continues to wear his kurta pajama, he loves his Movado watch and Bvlgari glasses, and other big brands.”

He even put on a monk’s robes in Kedarnath, in the Himalayas, and the visual that showed him with his eyes shut, seemingly deep in contemplation, was quite a statement before the 2019 polls. A row of pegs for hanging clothes on the bare walls of the Spartan cave did evoke some derision, but not enough to take away from the image of a Prime Minister who refers to himself as a fakir. “Desh ke koti, koti nagrikon ne is fakir ki jholi bhar di (Crores of Indians have filled this fakir’s bag with blessings),” he told BJP workers soon after the party’s victory in the 2019 elections.

The PM takes care to wear party symbols and colours while representing the BJP. He has been criticised in the past for wearing every other headgear except for a Muslim one, but his supporters would rather talk about his perfectly coordinated pocket squares — white with a white ensemble, multicoloured or maroon with a grey suit and so on.

What is clear is that Modi, unlike most of his predecessors, takes his attire seriously. After Indira Gandhi, whose saris were carefully sourced from different parts of India, it is Modi’s outfits that have triggered widespread discussions.

Rumours that he changes clothes four times a day have been doing the rounds ever since he became a PM in 2014. International Yoga Day had him donning a white t-shirt and matching pants and during a visit to Kyrgyzstan last month, he was seen in a kalpak, a traditional hard hat, and chapan, a ribbed woollen coat worn by the locals. His saffron, woven Banarasi stole was reserved for prayers in Varanasi. Kedarnath saw him in many outfits: Apart from the orange robes, he was in a grey overcoat with an orange kamarbandh, a Himachali cap, and a tiger print shawl draped on his shoulders.

No one denies the marketing of his personality, curated second-by-second for public consumption by his communication team. “Unlike other parties, where higher leadership is known to be indecisive, the BJP works like a well-oiled machine with its consistent messaging,” says Parakram Kakkar, a former member of the Indian Political Action Committee, a consultancy group that worked with Modi in 2014. “You have to give it to the BJP for being disciplined about their public presence, social media or otherwise, whether it was about effectively projecting their campaign days ahead of the elections or using Modi’s persona to popularise the party.”

Modi, he adds, has an “instinct” that helps him gauge public sentiment, and he is “unabashed” in personally using every opportunity to push the image. “But isn’t that what a competitive democracy is about,” Kakkar asks.

The jury is still out on that.

Published on September 06, 2019

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