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Reuters/Adnan Abidi
The many faces of the man.
MODI-FYING POLITICS

A look back at Narendra Modi 1.0 as he readies for a second term

It’s round two for Narendra Modi in India.

His Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) win in the 2019 general election comes despite apprehensions over a bunch of social and economic issues that wracked his first tenure. These include rising Hindu nationalist bigotry, insipid economic performance, and some dramatic policy decisions that fell flat on their face.

Now that the world’s largest democratic exercise is done and dusted, Modi gets another chance to bring the promised, but as yet elusive, achche din (good days) he promised five years ago.

The man himself has, meanwhile, built up a certain aura around him. From his sartorial choices and frequent travels, to his interactions with celebrities and the media, there is rarely anything about the Indian prime minister that is not dissected.

The fashion statement

If nothing else, Modi is a fashionista in his own right.

Dubbed India’s most stylish contemporary politician early on, he worked hard to maintain that impression. The short-sleeved, knee-length, pastel coloured kurtas became his signature style. The Modi kurta was often paired with what resembles the “Nehru jacket,” a piece of clothing commonly associated with India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. As with most things Modi, even this sparked a national debate.

In the meantime, the Hindutva strongman had his way with other attire, too.

A suit once worn by him was later auctioned and made its way into the Guinness World Records as the most expensive clothing sold at auction. The Rs10 lakh ($14,350) outfit, covered in pinstripes saying “Modi” and monogrammed with his full name in gold, was auctioned for Rs4.3 crore. 

His dresses were also sometimes complemented by resplendent headgear, making him, literally, a man of many hats.

The world traveller

Modi’s been an inveterate traveller for long.

Leaving his Gujarat home early in life, he not only traversed the country but also went beyond its shores. Even after becoming prime minister, his enthusiasm didn’t wane.

Within the first six months of taking office, he had spent almost 30 days abroad—a record for any Indian prime minister. Between May 2014 and now, he made over 90 official visits abroad, spending more than Rs2,000 crore.

Prime minister's office
Narendra Modi’s travels.

Modi’s interest has mostly focused on the West, with the US being his most-visited country. This marked quite the turnaround for the man who was ostracised by the American government—his visa was denied in 2005—over accusations of his inability to stop the 2002 Gujarat riots targeting Muslims.

While his “bromance” with former US president Barack Obama was much talked about, it is Donald Trump with whom he is more often compared, particularly given their similar ideological moorings—hardline nationalism.

He has also focused his energies on the Indian diaspora in the US and on wooing new-age celebrity business leaders like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai.

Looking east, the prime minister also warmed up to China and even visited Mongolia, a country rarely on the Indian foreign policy radar till then.

The cumulative benefits of his many foreign trips, though, remain a mixed bag.

The Bollywood magnet

Modi has assiduously wooed India’s moviedom. From hobnobbing with the biggest Bollywood celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar to cultivating close ties with popular regional stars such as Rajinikanth in Tamil Nadu and Suresh Gopi in Kerala, he has identified and worked on cinema as an opportunity to widen his reach and popularity.

His affinity for the movie industry may have spilled over into policymaking, too. His government’s budget for financial year 2020 saw the entertainment industry being granted a “single-window clearance” for swift and hassle-free permission for shoot locations—a facility available only to foreigners until then.

Following the success of the January 2019 release of Uri, a Bollywood movie based on the surgical strike India carried out inside Pakistan in 2016, the prime minister was seen using the catchy line “how’s the josh?” (How’s the spirit?) from the movie.

During election season, he called upon Bachchan and actor Shahrukh Khan, besides producer-director Karan Johar, to help spread voter awareness.

When Modi’s not borrowing Bollywood movie lines, he had films like The Accidental Prime Minister and PM Narendra Modi allegedly promoting him or his party’s political line, especially in the months leading up to the 2019 elections. The latter film, along with some others and a web series on Modi, were put on hold by the Election Commission of India till the elections were over.

The icing on the cake was Modi’s interview by Bollywood star Akshay Kumar at his official residence in New Delhi, in which he discussed the lighter side of being a prime minister, including his taste for mangoes. Experts say this was a bid to throw the soft light on the Indian prime minister ahead of polls.

The press evader

The interview with Kumar particularly riled Modi’s critics for evading critical issues that ought to have been raised. All the more so since the prime minister has never addressed a press conference during his entire five-year tenure.

At the one press meet he finally attended last week, he refused to take questions, passing them on to BJP chief Amit Shah instead.

Yet, he has regularly given one-on-one interviews to sections of the media, many of which were ridiculed by critics as being scripted. In April 2015, the French newspaper Le Monde said it had refused to run an interview with Modi after he sought the questions in advance.

Given these conditions, the prime minister’s media appearances have remained limited to television channels that are seen friendly to the government, or through one-way communication on programmes like the monthly Mann ki Baat monologue on the state-run All India Radio and social media. Interestingly, a sponsored television feed, NaMo TV, suddenly appeared in the runup to the elections, exclusively dedicated to promoting him—some say in violation of several regulations. The feed has allegedly disappeared from television screens just after the elections.

Modi, the gaffe-prone

Perhaps it is in Modi’s best interest to steer clear of hard questions, given the sneers he has evoked in the past.

Most recently, he was taunted for his remarks that he had pushed the Indian Air Force to continue the Balakot airstrikes despite the cloud cover on the planned day as he realised that India’s fighter jets won’t be caught on the Pakistani radar due to the overcast. Unsurprisingly, the comments sparked a troll fest on the internet.

 

And this wasn’t a one-off incident. In the past, the Indian prime minister has denied climate change.

Climate has not changed, we have changed. Our habits have changed. Our habits have got spoiled.

There’s more:

We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s  head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.

Now, as Modi embarks on his second five-year term, will there be an overhaul of the image he carefully projects for public consumption or will it be more of the same?

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.