Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s beard and broadly speaking, his appearances have caught increasing public attention during the pandemic. It can be argued that Modi’s “beardom” represents a hidden political craft which acts as a political instrumentality.
In the spring of 1972, Stewart Alsop had penned an article for The Atlantic titled, “Nixon and the square majority: is the Fox a Lion?”. The author characterizes Richard Nixon as “idiosyncratic” and a “square president”. He elaborates further by noting, “When Nixon was approached by a Presidential aide, he was seen being seated in an armchair, nibbling on his eyeglasses and scribbling notes… Had his legs stretched out in front of him on a big, silk-covered footstall and underneath has his feet on a bath towel.” He describes Nixon as an “inward looking man who grew up believing strongly in the middle-class values of his boyhood in California.” Alsop decodes the political and cultural significance of “towel” as a symbol of “certain instinctive cautiousness and a carefulness which lacked spontaneity.” In effect, he was attributing Nixon’s personal preference of placing “bath towel” underneath to the “square” or the American middle-class. The “towel” therefore played a role of powerful political surrogate among his core constituency which Nixon cam to call “silent majority”.
In this context, I’d introduce W. H. Morris Jones’s insights into the idioms of Indian political experience which he establishes in his seminal work “The Government and Politics of India”. I believe, his insights are pertinent in understanding the cultural politics of personal appearances. There are two elements: one, his critique of “Westernisation” of Indian political experience and it’s consequences on State-society. He argues, “So long as the alien rule prevails, the impact of Westernisation on the political system is well-nigh complete whereas the impact on society is partial and uneven.” This leads him to derive the three idioms of Indian politics: one, the language of modern Western politics, two, the language of traditional politics and three, the language of saintly politics. American political scientist Marcus Franda, in his analysis of an “austere” Bengali politician, Atulya Ghosh, characterises this language of saintly politics as “politics of renunciation of power”.
Although Morris Jones’s insights were reflecting the contexts of Indian freedom movement leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Vinobha Bhave, Historian Ramachandra Guha uses it to analyse the personality driven politics of Mannath Padmanabhan in the context of “Vimochana Samaram”. The movement led by Mannath drew allusions to Mahabharata’s Dharm Yudh and his appearances to that of Bhishm Pitamah.
In the contemporary era of personalised politics, Prime Minister Modi’s beard, his appearances and his masterful communicating ability represents dual political idioms: politics of tradition (or culture) and sainthood. Prime Minister’s “masterstroke” is often pitted against the cultural elites who are accused of speaking the language of Western ideals. These elites are often derided as “Lutyens, Khan Market gang and Macaulayputras” etc. There was a time following independence where Anglicized elites who occupied highest positions of power were met with disdain, so much so, that when Pandit Nehru delivered a crafted English speech with erudition, a parliamentarian is said to have mocked saying Nehru was a “minor poet who has lost his vocation”.
For instance, Modi in his second address to the country during the early days of the pandemic, made references to Tyaag, Tapasya, Atma Sakshatkar, Andhakar par Prakash etc. These terms occupy the traditional cultural space of vernacular Indian households. A friend of mine came to evocatively describe Modi’s communication skills as that of “a blend of Sanskrit and Hindi, the phrasing of which is woven with cultural references only to be likened to a magician’s charm”.
Modi’s beard represents a saintly allusion to governance devoid of “amoral” quest for power solely aimed at amelioration of the disadvantaged. Modi’s appearances exhibit a powerful cultural-political symbolism which largely drives his vernacular constituency. It in essence drive his political legitimacy among the electorate. The ascendant populism combined with personalisation of politics actualises the population into “a” or “the” leader who embodies the will and the unity of the collective majority. This personalised politics can be translated into what the English common law refers to as “Queen can do no wrong” or in our case “Modi can do no harm”.