There is a story about a super-rich Sultan shopping at a famous New York store. Being a hedonistic sophisticate, he went on a buying spree that lasted the whole day. When the time came to pay the bill, the shopping clerk asked him for identification. Being a Sultan, he had none. “Kings don’t carry IDs,” he explained loftily. The store manager had to be summoned because the bill was for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Someone called 911 and the cops arrived. Finally, a bulb popped in the brain of one of the Sultan’s bodyguards. He took out his wallet, extracted a wad of local currency notes, all of which had the ruler’s image printed on them. The store staff was flummoxed, embarrassed and horrified by the diplomatic incident they had created. There was a discreet and apologetic call from the White House. Rulers are known to lose face occasionally.
Sovereigns love their looks so much that their faces are inscribed on money. The Greeks put the faces of their gods and goddesses on their coins until their kings decided to replace the gods with their own visages—a narcissistic failing among rulers who identify themselves with the gods. Some Roman emperors whose only achievements were to have lasted long enough on the throne to put their heads on coins are called coin emperors. In India, the Kushan kings put their mugs on coins for the first time, a practice zealously adopted by successive rulers.
Though history and modernity transmuted the nature of power, the fountainhead did not change. Power, which was assumed as the divine right of kings then, is now a commodity to be purchased from people using promises of prosperity, protection from enemies and assurances of identity. The power of the advertisement is the greatest persuasive force in the world—it milks the visual impact of style over substance. From Modi to Trump, from the masked Phantom of the Opera on Broadway to the dazzling cinema posters dominating the Indian skyline, win or lose, the face is the message.
After allegations that the prime minister was MIA during the Covid-19 crisis, his face is now everywhere, just like Amitabh Bachchan’s is on any imaginable product. The BJP is pitching this photo gig nationally as a charm offensive—on ration bags, sarkari schemes’ ads as well as vaccination certificates much to the reported merriment of immigration officers abroad. The Supreme Leader stares at you in bus shelter displays, LED panels, on autorickshaws, in stadiums, at airport kiosks and government communications. The BJP has a cameo, Modi is the real show. But there is a catch. The mood of today isn’t the mood of yesterday—it is dark, violent and insecure.
The Modi of today is not the Modi of yesterday either. His face, deep with gravitas, looks like a totem to be worshipped. Where has the Modi of 2014 gone? The ever-smiling man with a well-trimmed beard and a twinkle in his eye, always ready to crack a joke or a one-liner, mischievously poking Rahul Gandhi in the ribs, the leader with the dashing scarves and trendy jackets—the man India fell in love with? The national atmosphere is sombre, with stratospheric prices of fuel, cooking gas, vegetables and other essential items making life painful.
Our factories are running out of coal. Spoilt political sons are mowing down protestors. The agencies are on a raiding and arresting spree. China is staying put on Indian territory. After the Taliban’s return, terrorists are killing our soldiers in Kashmir. The ubiquitous Modi posters create a sense of unreality, that all is well. Irrespective of compliant news TV anchors, bad news does spread. Bad news kills votes. A cynic would say that democracy is a store where the only currency is ballot paper.