Rahul's beard of self-discovery
Beards in politics are mainly subcontinental affairs. American, British, European and Australian leaders are largely clean-shaven, except for the few Sikh politicians and wannabe Khalistanis in Canada
Hair today, gone tomorrow is an apt metaphor for the newly bearded Rahul Gandhi’s speed-walk through Bharat. In politics, optics is opulence. Big words. Big thoughts. Big beards. As Mr Gandhi’s political steps grow in Fitbit numbers, also growing is his beard: part-Karl Marx (Lefties are still divided on the historical significance), part-Rishikesh spiritual chic. He has made a clever hirsute statement because grey hair is traditionally associated with wisdom, patience and sage counsel.
Mr Gandhi in a makeover mood no doubt wishes to project all these with his boisterous beard. Gone is the clean-shaven man-about-town, whose easy smile and delightful dimples contributed to the chocolate boy "Pappu" tag. His face, now gaunt with travel, is hidden by a bushy salt-and-pepper growth, which gives its owner the distinct look of a glowering Rajput on the warpath. That many of our splendid warriors, in spite of all their bravery and sati, lost most significant battles against invaders is just a footnote; not to be mentioned here.
Beards in politics are mainly subcontinental affairs. American, British, European and Australian leaders are largely clean-shaven, except for the few Sikh politicians and wannabe Khalistanis in Canada. Don’t underestimate hair power: Justin Trudeau did pose with a stubbly jawline, but when he couldn't get a sparring partner for a charity boxing match, the Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau was roped in by their mutual hairdresser. Beards make a powerful statement: many social psychologists say the clean-shaven look invites confidence and approachability, signalling that the owners have nothing to hide.
Beauty lies in the eye of the beardholder and raises some hairy questions. Is facial hair sexy? A new Australian academic study suggests that women find a bearded man more attractive, but only if most other men around are clean-shaven. Is that why pink-cheeked Jairam Ramesh is always around Mr Gandhi? The study also found that if beards become common then clean-shaven men make the girls go weak in the knees.
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The supercool all-rounder American website FiveThirtyEight declared, 'Beards Are Less Attractive When They're Everywhere'. No wonder, the civilised world has an aversion to terrorists. See, in Pakistan, wildly growing beards are mostly reserved by Islamist preachers and terrorists like Hafiz Saeed or Syed Salahudin. Barbers are, of course, an extinct species in Afghanistan while bearded Taliban nutcases whip women wanting to study 'un-Islamic' stuff in college.
As we get to Iran and the Gulf countries, there is ample evidence of barbers at work; one can almost hear the click of scissors and the gentle susurration of combs passing through Arab beards over the noise of gushing oil that drowns the voices of women demanding their rights to let their hair down.
Is the bewhiskered Mr Gandhi walking up to beard the lion in his cave? Narendra Modi's perfectly trimmed white beard, matching his immaculately groomed silver mane, is his signature look. In tapasic mode in the Kedarnath cave after a gruelling election campaign, Modi's spiritual chi evoked the philosopher king and karmayogi of Indian cultural memory, which teems with sages and royals sporting flowing beards.
Modi did falter once in West Bengal when the Rabindranath Tagore vibe didn't quite carry the election. (A copycat aside is that 18 of his 58 ministers wear beards, which has not won them any special marks with their tough taskmaster.) Now that Mr Gandhi's crinose campaign is approaching a hairpin curve, the battle of the beards is bound to escalate. Many elections are coming this year, and a beard is always convenient to hide your feelings. Especially of disappointment.
(Ravi Shankar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)