PM Modi’s Cabinet Cupboard

PM Modi’s Cabinet Cupboard

There is no mistaking the allegiance to a certain politics that Narendra Modi’s cabinet conveys with its dress code. The PM’s raja-rishi look included 

Early last week when prime minister Narendra Modi reshuffled the decks of his Council of Ministers, inducting 36 new faces and showing the door to 12 sitting ministers, an old-fashioned group photo was sent out to the Indian and global media covering the ruling party’s biggest expansion so far.

This photo is not just a potential poster to get framed and mounted in the new parliamentary building under construction as part of the government’s Central Vista Redevelopment Project. But it is a postcard for those who must “read” the restyling of the power corridors of New Delhi beyond its architecture. Look at the banner atop this story. Barring one exception, every single minister has a desi sartorial style. What we see among male cabinet members is a posse of kurta pyjamas, accessorised either with an angavastram around the neck, or a sleeveless bandi. The latter was once the Nehru jacket; now it is also coined as the Modi jacket. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is seldom ever without a Modi jacket over his crisp whites. Now new inductee but seasoned politician Jyotiraditya Scindia, formerly a Congressman, wears a bandi too. Plus a smart, pocket square. As does Minister of State Finance Anurag Thakur. Many clone the look.


Photo: Press Information Bureau

Union Minister for Civil Aviation, Jyotiraditya M. Scindia meeting the Speaker, Lok Sabha, Shri Om Birla, in New Delhi on July 13, 2021.

While President Ram Nath Kovind (not a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) is in a sharp bandhgala suit, buttoned right up to his chin, his wife is in a double Ikat Patola sari. Old and familiar Venkaiah Naidu, the vice president wears his white shirt and veshti set, as always, whereas Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road, Transport and Highways wears his kurtas without a layer or a drape. Union Minister of Finance, Nirmala Sitharaman, the only power lady seated in the front row wears, well, what else, but a sari.

No Sui Dhaga for Piyush Goyal?

All the other female ministers in this photo or elsewhere who are part of the BJP wear saris. That is their unfailing formal dress code. The former Minister of Textiles Smriti Zubin Irani, in fact, went on to wear some of the country’s choicest handloom drapes as she ripened in her post and seemed to love her job. She also came to know a great deal about some of the most innovative fabric experiments by Indian designers but never did she exchange her sari-blouse avatar for any other garment made from homespun textiles.


Photo: Press Information Bureau

Smriti Irani, the Union Minister for Women & Child Development delivering a keynote address at a webinar in New Delhi in December 2020.

Given the bias the country’s media carries (carried?) about women in power, we do not expect our new Minister of Textiles, Piyush Goyal to be caricatured with a sewing machine as Irani was when she was handed the exact same charge. Hers was seen as a demotion though nobody has sounded such a knell for the new minister. No sui-dhaga meme for Mr Goyal. One reason may be that our humour and satire is more elastic for women ministers; the other perhaps is a growing absence of comments on how Modi looks and what his cabinet wears.

Why though must it be a subject we don’t engage with enough when the country’s most eminent public intellectuals, columnists, political and business experts analyse, dissect and comment on political decision-making. As they do on the economy, its depressions, the enormous lack of preparedness and mismanagement of health infrastructure during the second wave of COVID-19 or of the vaccine rollout.


Photo: Press Information Bureau

Union minister for textiles Piyush Goyal, Union minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani and Minister of State for textiles Darshana Vikram Jardosh in New Delhi on July 13.

Dress and Debate

Dress, by an unspoken code, is largely left out of the politics of dissection. Even though members of the BJP and the ruling party’s cabinet insists through its chosen dress code that it is “bharatiya” (Indian) and “janata” (plebeian).

Yet it is easier for those interested in growing grey naturally to talk about actor Helen Mirren embracing her grey hair at Cannes than about Nirmala Sitharaman’s decision to do so. Not a single do or dye piece came up even as the gentle lady with restraint and elegance patiently allowed her coloured roots to show, grow and fade into silver while getting press photographed every day last year.


Photo: Press Information Bureau

Union minister for finance and corporate affairs Nirmala Sitharaman hosted a high tea session for the women members of the Union Council of Ministers in New Delhi.

Piyush Goyal, on the other hand, is known to everyone interested in the politics of skill to be a doer. A fast decision maker, a man of purpose, a modern CEO of sorts with his agility and experience in industry and business. Yet, I would love to see a caricature of our new Minister of Textiles sitting at a pit loom in Banaras/Varanasi (well, Kanchipuram would be great too) and reordering the business of textiles!

I am only arguing for my right to write on the rites of the ruling party’s dress choices. Other little fritters too supposedly treated as flippant even when the people wearing these woes (like Gadkari’s overstated kurtas) or wows make decisions on our taxes, healthcare, petrol prices and freedom of speech and expression. Who free or imprison us. Who empower or impoverish us. To discuss Arunachal Pradesh lawyer and politician, the current Minister of Law and Justice, Kiren Rijiju’s love for fitness, his well-chosen trouser-shirt ensembles, the textile rich bandis with slim borders he wears is as much a part of our jobs as fashion hacks as is it for legal journalists to track how he keeps up with the Supreme Court’s questioning of outdated laws and penal codes.


Photo: Press Information Bureau

Kiren Rijiju, the new Minister of Law and Justice.

Noticeably, what a bunch of our minsters and political leaders wear ubiquitously, especially those from the ruling party are angavastrams and a variety of gamchhas. They follow the leader hook, line and blinker.

The Masks of Modi

Those who wrote against what was being spun around (in mass markets) as the “Modi gamcha” had very good reasons to do so. Their arguments came from the need for textile correctness, provenance, pattern, fabric, authenticity and credit to the region of origin. While the PM’s Twitter profile picture got the red and white handwoven scarf a lot of global-local attention, it went from being identified sometimes as the Assamese gamusa to the Manipuri ‘Meitei Lengyan’ leading to a rightfully heated discussion among those who care. Like it or not, Modi has stamped cotton gamchas from across the Northeast by cleverly converting them into Covid masks. Style is as much about communication and marketing as it is about content. You and I, are free of course to sour puss about which gamchha it is and why the credit matters in crafts.

Ever since his public ascendance to mainstream politics and his victory as the only political leader to win with a thumping, never before majority, Modi has expressed himself as much with his clothes as with his politics. The length of his kurtas and of their sleeves, the colours of his jackets, their textures, and the suit monogrammed with his initials that he wore during former US President Barack Obama’s visit, the colourful pagdis from Gujarat he sports on Republic and Independence Days every year. And now his unmasking of the utility and aesthetic of the red and white gamcha as a COVID-19 cover.


Photo: Press Information Bureau

Narendra Modi speaking through a video conference on July 14 World Youth Day.

That brings us to the mask Narendra Modi, the man wears now. Which is his face. Inscrutable behind his long white beard. If you are watching intently or casually, you also notice the PM has lost some weight. Some will say he looks better framed, more a yogic body than before. The “chhapan-inch ki chhati” has been shred a bit. However, as he stares out of television news, political posters across the country, on his social media accounts, in newspaper advertisements that reprint his face on everything from Ayodha’s makeover to Uttar Pradesh’s progress; from soil conservation to conversations with students on missing exams, even a Mann Ki Baat on stopping animal torture, what is not seen are his once visible and animated expressions.

Modi’s long white beard, which in the 2020 lockdown stood for the world’s suspended meetings with barbers, is now a symbol. Trimmed and groomed to make him resemble both a rishi (savant) as well as a raja (king). A bit slimmer than before, but also more aloof, his short sleeved kurtas replaced by grimmer, longer sleeved ones. Earlier as he delivered his political sermons, you saw the hustle and bustle of an ordinary man who has risen through the ranks. His once close cropped beard allowed his face to be read. Now he is Bhishma Pitamah, the celibate king from Mahabharata, known as much for the oaths he took as the throne he obsessed over. Grey hair, grey beard, yoga-toned, but distanced from the janata that gave him a reason to make and shape his bharatiya persona.

Banner: President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the entire cabinet in New Delhi on July 13, 2021. Credit: Press Information Bureau.