PM Modi’s suit with “Narendra Damodardas Modi” woven into its pinstripes has generated some interest, to put it mildly. I am sure the PM understands that politicians need to project their image well. One might even say that in this day and age of social media, politicians need to have a rockstar persona. They need to be physically fit, look good, and even have facials. Bill Clinton’s famous hair cut at the LA airport was defended on similar grounds (http://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/21/us/haircut-grounded-clinton-while-the-price-took-off.html)
There is some work suggesting good looking CEOs create tangible benefits for their companies. Apparently stock prices are correlated with the looks and appearance of CEOs: Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer is sometime cited in this context. The paper by Halford and Shu, “Beauty is Wealth: CEO Appearance and Shareholder Value”, finds a statistically significant correlation between “facial attractiveness index” and the stock prices of S&P 500 companies:
“[A]ttractive” bosses receive better total compensation and can improve share prices on their first day by creating a good first impression. The research also suggested that they perform better on the negotiating table, and are more likely to land good deals. Regular media appearances can also improve shares if the chief executive is attractive, the study found. “CEO attractiveness may also affect shareholder value through the visibility channel, in which media attention may affect a firm’s investor base and stock prices” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/10549340/Study-finds-beautiful-CEOs-boost-stock-prices.html).
So, why can’t this not hold for politicians? After all, film stars have done quite well in politics (MGR, NTR, Jayalalitha, etc)? Would we rather have a drab, unimpressive PM (Manmohan sigh) or a dynamic, elegant and suave PM (Modi)?
I am all in favor of leaders being well dressed, groomed, scented, etc. Facials are fine as well. After all, symbolic politics is important. I liked the headgear the PM sported on August 15 and again on January 26. But I do I hope politics is not reduced to a fashion parade. If we can take politicians to task for sending government planes to collect their shoes from Bombay, I suppose the PM Modi needs to be held to the same standard.
PM’s flamboyant style creates dissonance in the mind of his well wishers. PM Modi seeks to project an image of a common man and highlight his humble background. There was outrage, and rightly so, when Mani Shankar Aiyar made the “chaiwallah” remark. Wearing an very expensive suit – which by some estimate would cost over $25,000, makes one wonder what he truly is.
Moreover, the focus on creating a celebrity image suggests that the PM has a strong narcissistic streak. So, next time an important person visits India or the PM travels abroad, would one expect PM to reveal a James Bond persona, “nimbu pani please, shaken but not stirred.”
Of course, PM Modi can draw solace from Clinton’s damage control response. As the New York Times Reported:
“In light of Mr. Clinton’s haircut by a stylist to Hollywood stars, Mr. Stephanopoulos was asked whether his boss was still the President of the common man. “Absolutely,” he answered. “And if you look at his economic package, it’s a package that’s designed to turn this around and to really get some real benefits to middle-class Americans. And that’s what’s important” (http://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/21/us/haircut-grounded-clinton-while-the-price-took-off.html)
There are plenty of examples of narcissist politicians overplaying their cards. By most account, Nitish Kumar was a successful CM of Bihar primarily because he was so different from Lalu Yadav. Yet, Nitish began to think himself to be invincible. He took on the BJP during the Lock Sabha elections and lost. For his political survival, he has formed an alliance with Lalu Yadav — yes, Lalu Yadav. This is a tragedy not only for him but for Bihar as well. All because of his ego got the better of him.
Citizens elected the BJP on the platform of good governance and development. Has the BJP delivered on its promises? After making a song and dance about bringing black money back in 100 days, what are the results? The global decline in oil prices has given PM Modi a temporary reprieve. But this good luck may not last forever.
The days of “simple living and high thinking” are probably over. I do not want the PM to look unimpressive or shabby. But there is fine line between being well dressed and being flamboyant. This line should not be crossed, especially for a person who proclaims his humble background. Crossing this line leads to the erosion of the leader’s moral capital. It confuses people about the priorities of the leader. As I see it, with the pinstriped suit episode, this line has been crossed.