Is Modi’s Sartorial Flash No Longer a Smash?

It seems that the prime minister is done with his statement clothing after the humiliating debacle in the Karnataka polls.

Is that a demi-god flying into Ankola from a Yakshagana folk play? Is that a Mysuru maharaja in ‘peta’ (turban) leading the Jambu Savari (traditional procession) of the Mysuru Dasara  happening unusually early in summer? Is that Bajrangbali himself emerging out of a volcano of marigolds on the streets of Bengaluru?

No, it was Super Campaigner Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a dozen avatars of gods, sages, and other folksy local icons, as he blitzed through Karnataka extolling their virtues as he vowed to finish off the evil asura (demon), his main rival, the Congress Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and the party. 

It is another matter that the results shockingly revealed to the prime minister and his beleaguered party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that the people were left unimpressed and booted them out with a forceful mandate at the polls.

Is Prime Minister Modi’s sartorial flash and dash as a mesmerising mirror to his charisma and magnetism finally fading? In the just concluded polls, his  dress code was really more often pragmatic and reasonable – manifesting a business-like and no-nonsense likeness – even if it came through his desperately seeking snob status for the Modi jacket or waistcoat, a bespoke design sometimes in a V-neck and other times with a Mandarin collar (god forbid, not called a Nehru jacket even though the sameness is so apparent). The jackets come in pinstripes or block colours, worn over the regimented Modi kurta of textured cotton and silks, in half or long sleeves.

From Ankola to Mysuru, Bellary to Badami, Moodabidri to Homnabad, and a dozen other constituencies, including the excessive and extortionate pageant in Bengaluru, Modi swung from spiritual and folk regalia to a sombre slogger.

Perhaps Prime Minister Modi can win the global sweepstakes in dress-jockeying with his unabashed and nonchalant sartorial swings which he has proclaimed to be his own insignia and brand. 

Ever since 2014 when he rode to power, both the domestic and international media have been agog about his style file and his god-given and divine (as he has himself declared) colour choices for his kurtas, jackets, angavastrams and gamchas. There’s even a multi-coloured Modi gamcha on Amazon Fashion, lush carpet-embroidered pashmina shawls, and of course the Modi jacket-kurta.

But after the first thrilling years of flamboyance and parade, the prime minister now seems to swing from Friday dressing to ascetic piety, from tapasvi to karyakarta (activist). Sometimes he is in Army fatigues,  then in saffron robes, bespoke bandhgalas to Naga warrior gear; puffer jackets to safari gilet; from hailing himself as Hindu Hriday Samrat (conqueror of Hindu hearts) to Vikas Purush to Vishwaguru.

The question is – does Modi want to be raja and rajati (king and that which shines), rishi and tapasvi (saint and ascetic), or all?

Barely a month after his stylistic vanity leap into the jungles of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka – the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had released a stagy picture of Modi striding the plains of Bandipur dressed in sharp safari gear of khaki pants, a camouflage tee (a safari no-no), a khaki gilet poised on his arm, black shoes, and a sombrero-style hat fashionably tilted to give that subtle lift to his look–he plunged right back into his ornamented election campaign masquerade.

Modi kicked off his poll campaign with Kolar, Channapatna and Belur. And while he was adorned with silks over his Modi jacket and feted with a decorative turban and a humongous garland– his speech left voters unimpressed despite the grandeur of the Modi spectacle because the BJP spectacularly lost in Kolar.

Prime Minister Narendraa Modi at a rally in Shimoga, Karnataka. Photo: @narendramodi

Similarly, in Channapatna, Modi attacked Janata Dal Secular (JDS) saying the state was the party’s ATM but the voters chose JDS over the BJP. He won the BJP in Belur, but minus the regalia and splendorous gear.  In fact, the BJP lost 12 seats where Modi campaigned and won only a dismal five, the Congress scooped 13 seats and the JDS got five. 

In the campaign’s last lap, after Modi’s mega flower tsunami roadshow in Bengaluru, he addressed rallies in Badami and Haveri constituencies–the BJP lost both. In Chitradurga, even as a disentranced Modi beat the local drums with leaders on stage, draped with a saffron scarf, the BJP still lost. In Hospet and Sindhanur, despite the Modi pomp and fanfare, the BJP lost.  

Now, it’s well known that power dressing and stylistic sartorial fashion go a long way for leaders to create a distinct image and vision. Modi has dumped the 70s and 80s socialist George Fernandes’ crumpled kurta-pyjama gear, and that of his predecessor, the learned doctor Manmohan Singh and his unmistakable workhouse blue turban and kurta-pyjama. Instead what we have is a showy, self-confessed fashionista. His tailor Bipin Chauhan from Ahmedabad had admitted that Modi told him that he cannot compromise on three things – his eyes, voice and clothes. And if there’s one enduring and persistent badge of the Modi cult, it is his dress code.

Modi is obsessive about his love for clothes but it has now tipped over into building a personality cult that floats an idealised and divine image of himself – of man and god. If he was kitted out in godly gear in Ankola, or launched the war cry of Jai Bajrangbali in three poll rallies, in Bailhongal, Mulki and in Ankola – alas, the BJP lost Ankola (in Karwar), lost Bailonghal in Belagavi district where Modi was feted on stage with a plume of feathers and a turban-fan; but retained the Moodabidri constituency in which Mulki is a town. It must be noted that Modi specifically chose Mulki for it was here that the temple committee banned Muslim traders from setting up shop at the temple fair.   

In typical Modi Hindu Hriday Samrat botch-up, he tried to equate the Bajrang Dal, a Hindutva militant outfit, with the Hindu sacred chant of Jai Bajrangbali. Prime Minister Modi lost despite his Samrat gear and chant. The cloying Election Commission (EC) has studiously ignored that he even goaded the public to chant Jai Bajrangbali at the ballot when it is unlawful to use religious symbols at an election.

Perhaps the Modi-flop-show in Karnataka can be attributed to the imposition of north-Indian aggressive Hindutva push and thrust on the south which is aggressively proud of its distinctive culture? 

The Hindutva mob could not have been more off the mark when the Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) swore to chant the hanuman chalisa all over the state in retaliation. It sank without a trace because the 40 couplets are in Awadhi, one of the dialects of Hindi spoken in Uttar Pradesh. Meanwhile, the BJP lost its deposit in 31 constituencies.

Is Modi’s sartorial flash no longer a smash with voters anymore? Will we soon see the end of Prime Minister Modi’s fashion parade? It seems that the prime minister has already flung his costumes after the humiliating debacle in Karnataka polls, and would now rather spin a new weave of being a eco-fashionista. Nothing like earth-sustainability to notch up a few favourable points.

Going from saffron to a Green Modi, the PM seems determined to up his eco-stakes – first, at the last Budget session in Parliament two months ago, he wore a sandalwood-shade Sadri jacket made from recycled PET bottles. Two days ago, Modi wore it again (double points for repeating clothes as it fuels slow fashion) at the G-7 meet in Japan. However, it’s not RSS shakha khaki to eco-raddi that ups the fashion stakes for the prime minister, for nothing sticks better than the politics of eternity, or eternal memorialising, that Modi knows so well.

Barely days after the results, a nonchalant PM dressed in surprisingly sober kurta-churidar strode into New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art to ponder and meditate on specially commissioned artworks by the country’s top artists and curators, who had an adulatory and flattering exhibition called Jana Shakti, to commemorate the 100th episode of Mann Ki Baat.

It’s a new spin.