Public memory isn’t short. Optics matter. Ayodhya is defined by a parenthesis of imagery: the exulting youth atop the black dome of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi performing the bhoomi pujan on August 5. One symbolizes the defeat of Ravan and the second the return of Ram Rajya. The way Modi looks defines important landmarks in his life.
With his long white hair, drooping moustache and flowing beard, the prime minister was the image of a sage of yore at the yagna kund performing acts of purification. At Ayodhya, he projected the purification of Hindu history polluted by Islamic conquests, colonial rule and the intellectual unbeliever’s truculence to accept the message. Modi the king finally transitioned into the philosopher king of Modi Rajya.
Plato was the first great thinker to outline the nature of the philosopher-king. He rules with wisdom. He is intelligent and reliable. He lives a simple life. Modi’s optics show him as a man with a vision: the far seeing eyes and finger on his chin portray a philosopher in repose contemplating the future. The venerable white beard and hair project him as a wise, dependable man. Strolling with Netanyahu on a beach immersed in conversation projected intimacy as well as the loneliness of responsibility.
A photograph of a 14-year-old Narendra Modi dressed in a 19th century chieftain’s costume in a school play is an early version of the current Modi, though the student’s moustache and beard are black. Modi knew even then what he wanted to look like when he grew up. His sense of destiny that drives him is the trope of his iconography.
The unforgettable visual of Modi in padmasana, draped in saffron and eyes closed in deep meditation as his gruelling poll campaign came to an end pictured a karma yogi: ‘I’ve done my duty, the result I leave it to god.’ The image is reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius, the first philosopher king whose tome Meditations extols service and duty and how to find Nature a source of equanimity. There’s nothing haphazard about Modi; he has thought everything through with deliberate clarity. It’s the secret of his charisma.
Every successful leader who became an icon knows the power of indelible optics. Mahatma Gandhi’s round glasses and loincloth. The rose in Jawaharlal Nehru’s jacket’s buttonhole. The white streak in Indira Gandhi’s coiffure. Rajiv Gandhi’s cross shoulder shawl. Mao’s tunic. Churchill’s bowler hat and cigar. Stalin’s mustache. History allots the leader’s name to the period and possession of the times. With a look to suit every occasion and period—camouflage jacket and aviators at the border, colourful turban on a podium, black bandhgala at the White House—India’s prime minister owns the times. In the Age of Modi, the look changes but the man is permanent, omniscient and omnipotent. His binary, Rahul Gandhi, needs a shave.