Okay, so it isn’t just me. A few months ago, as the political scene in Pakistan hotted up, Indian TV channels all began telecasting ‘exclusive’ interviews with a man who was described as Nawaz Sharif. I am not an expert on Pakistan but, even to my untutored eye, there was something odd about this Sharif.
It was the hair. The Sharif who had welcomed AB Vajpayee to Lahore had a head like a billiard ball. So distinctive was his baldness that Pakistani papers claimed that Nawaz and his brother Shahbaz were affectionately called ‘Do Ganje’ by their friends in the Punjab.
But this new Sharif had hair — quite a lot of it. Gone was the smooth billiard ball. Instead, there was a slightly unruly mop of black steel wool and in each interview, Nawaz would self-consciously brush it back with his hand.
Could it be, I wondered, that the former prime minister of Pakistan had splashed out on a hair transplant? Was it possible that even as his aides penned agonised statements about the need to restore democracy to their troubled homeland, the great man was lying supine on some operating table as highly-paid surgeons restored hair to his troubled head?
Yup. That is pretty much what seems to have happened. I was relieved last week to read in the papers that not only had Nawaz returned Samson-like to the plains of the Punjab with a new head of hair, but his brother had also arrived with a follicly-upgraded scalp. Pakistanis, the report said, recognised that the loving nickname of ‘Do Ganje’ may no longer be appropriate.
The new improved and hairy Nawaz Sharif got me thinking: could it happen here? Can we think of a single Indian Prime Minister, past, present or future even, who would consider a hair transplant? Would any of our top politicians agree to a little reconstructive plastic surgery? A hefty dose of hair dye, perhaps?
Nawaz’s happy hirsuteness is startling but he’s not the first Pakistani Prime Minister to go under the knife. Benazir Bhutto was widely reported to have had a nose job before she married Asif Zardari. (Just look at old photos and you’ll see the old nose.) Even Imran Khan, who looks like a Greek god (though these days his godliness has been diluted by exhaustion), is rumoured to have had new hair put in. And stories about other Pakistani politicians have done the rounds: at the very least, Pervez Musharraf dyes his hair, while the others smear henna into their beards.
Why, I wondered, were things so different here in India? Indian politicians seem to enjoy growing old and bald. Pandit Nehru had very little hair and we didn’t even notice. Morarji Desai used to crop his hair so short that he might as well have been bald. Narasimha Rao and IK Gujral were happy ganjas. When VP Singh resigned as defence minister and prepared to campaign for the prime ministership, he actually shaved his head so that no hair remained.
Nor are they particularly vain. AB Vajpayee was a very good-looking man in his youth but was content to grow old gracefully. People may make fun of the hair on Lalu Yadav’s ears but he laughs along with them and makes jokes about the ‘Sadhana-cut’ that is his hairstyle. Jayalalitha was gorgeous when she was young but when she became a serious politician, she stopped caring about her looks. In the days when George Fernandes was a sex symbol (the 1970s mainly), his appeal lay in the fact that he couldn’t be bothered about his appearance.
Moreover, Indians have agreed with the politicians that looks do not matter. Would LK Advani’s chances of becoming the next Prime Minister improve if he had a hair transplant? Would we have taken Shahnawaz Hussain more seriously if he had bulked up at the gym first? Would Pranab Mukherjee have got Manmohan Singh’s job if he had worn elevator shoes? Would Arun Nehru have clung on to power if he had consulted Shikha Sharma before it was too late?
Of course not. None of this would have made the slightest difference. We are not a nation that is obsessed with appearances.
It’s different in the West. There, looks do matter. Americans have not elected a bald man President since 1956. (Gerald Ford, who was bald, was an accidental President who eventually lost the election.) In Britain, William Hague and Neil Kinnock, both complete baldies, failed to lead their parties to victory.
Western politicians usually wear make-up. There was a fuss when it was revealed how much Tony Blair spent on cosmetics (for himself, not for Cherie) as Prime Minister. Many British politicians carry little sticks of Touch Éclat to disguise the bags under their eyes before they go on TV.
Image consultants work on political wardrobes. Hillary Clinton has been told to dress more feminine and hairstylists have been asked to give her a softer look. (This, after critics said that the reason men were not voting for her was because she reminded them of their first wives.) Scores of consultants struggled to make the dreadful Margaret Thatcher look vaguely human. John Major was told not to wear grey after research showed that he was perceived as a bland, boring, grey man. The fatter Bill Clinton got in the White House (too much junk food), the harder Donna Karan had to work at keeping him looking slim in her suits.
At election after election, looks have been shown to matter. As far back as 1960, Richard Nixon lost a TV debate to John F Kennedy not because his arguments were worse (the transcript shows they were evenly matched) but because his face looked unshaven (what they called ‘five o’ clock shadow’) under TV lights. In contrast, JFK looked cool and assured.
When news TV came to India, I wondered if something similar would happen to us. So far at least, it has not. Partly this is because the TV-viewing classes either do not vote or cannot swing elections even when they do. But it is also because
Indians seem largely immune to the appeal of the TV talking head.
Most of the politicians who appear regularly on news channels tend to be unelected party functionaries or Rajya Sabha-types. Few major politicians bother to turn up at TV studios (unlike America where presidential candidates will appear on Jay Leno or Larry King shows) and it does them no harm at all. The ones that crop up again and again on debate programmes have little to show for it. Neither does TV help them win elections nor do their parties take them more seriously.
And even then, there’s no evidence that viewers prefer the good lookers to the uglies. Rajiv Pratap Rudy will not necessarily fare better than, say, Praveen Togadia just because he’s personable and charismatic. It’s still content that matters over looks. (And fortunately for Rudy, he does okay on that score.)
The broad distinctions seem clear enough. Indian politicians do not need to worry about how they look because voters don’t care. In the West, however, voters do care and so looks often matter more than substance.
But that still leaves us with the Pakistan conundrum. Are Pakistani voters more look-ist than Indians? Do they respect Musharraf more because he dyes his hair? Was there a connection between Benazir’s nose job and her election as Prime Minister — which followed soon after? Has Sharif gained more votes along with more hair?
As far as I can tell — and I’m willing to be corrected on this — Pakistan’s voters are not very different from India’s: long-suffering and eager for change. They really don’t give a monkey’s about Sharif’s transplant. And they don’t care whether Imran’s hair is his own.
So why do Pakistani politicians love plastic surgery? It clearly makes no difference to their political prospects.
One answer seems to be that while Indian democracy, for all its faults, emerges from the grassroots and deals with issues of substance, Pakistan’s spasmodic attempts at democracy are dominated by a tiny elite of wealthy feudal barons who have systematically robbed their country blind. The plastic surgery has nothing to do with the voters. It has to do with the vanity of a ruling elite, eager to splash out money on London residences and new heads of hair. In a shallow democracy, appearance is everything and the superficial takes precedence over the substantial.
So don’t grudge Nawaz Sharif his hair transplant. Just treat it as a metaphor of Pakistani democracy.