The rules of dress diplomacy should apply to Mr Modi too

  • Karan Thapar
  • Updated: Apr 20, 2015 11:43 IST

What has Mr Modi got against ties? Is it okay for the prime minister to dress ‘inappropriately’? And is this a suitable subject for public comment? These are the three questions I wish to tackle this Sunday morning.

Let me, however, begin by acknowledging I’m treading on controversial territory. There are many people, not all Modi supporters, who believe that criticism of how a man dresses is an unwarranted intrusion into his privacy or an unjustified comment about his personality. I believe that’s true of ordinary individuals but not of celebrities, who seek to be known and recognised, or heads of government and state, who are identified with the country. For celebrities it’s the penalty of their fame. For political leaders it’s an inevitable consequence of their claim to represent the nation.

So back to my three questions. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to the first but Mr Modi’s aversion to ties should be obvious. He prefers open neck shirts or even polo neck jumpers under his jacket. This is how he was often dressed in France and Germany. Indeed, there were occasions when every other man had a tie on — including the French foreign minister, who was accompanying him — whilst Mr Modi deliberately did not.

Now Mr Modi, the individual, has a right to dress as he wants. But do we have a right to expect something more from Mr Modi, the prime minister? To put it differently, it may be acceptable for an individual to be oddly or inappropriately attired but is it improper — even discourteous to his hosts — for the Indian prime minister to be wrongly dressed?

Before I come to the answer, two further facts need to be remembered. First, the occasions when Mr Modi was seen without a tie — at the Hanover Fair and the Airbus Factory in Toulouse — were public not private visits. They were part of his official itinerary. This means he was there not in his individual capacity but as prime minister of India.

Second, it’s international convention and practice to dress formally on such occasions. All over the world that means a suit and tie. The Indian equivalent is our bandhgala. To defy that dress code suggests either ignorance of or indifference to a convention that is universally considered suitable. It could also imply a certain disdain for your hosts, who have meticulously observed the code.

Mr Modi’s open neck shirts speak of a casualness and informality that is charming at a Sunday brunch or an afternoon stroll in the country but improper — even impolite — when flaunted by a prime minister for whom others have made elaborate arrangements, including the enforcement of strict protocol. This is why it’s inappropriate.

And, finally, to my third question: is this a suitable subject for public comment? Or am I wrong to criticise Mr Modi’s choice of clothes and style? Frankly, that depends on what you expect of your prime minister and how important he is to the image of the country.

If the prime minister is the first representative of India then how he’s dressed and what impact that makes affects the county. That’s why even her opponents were proud of Indira Gandhi’s sartorial style when she was abroad. It made us feel good.

On the other hand if the prime minister doesn’t matter then his sartorial idiosyncrasies are of no consequence. He can be as eccentric as he wants.

For me, however, Mr Modi matters a lot.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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