Image Management

November 7, 2006

This is something I wrote last year; I never published it.

Image management: style before substance

By Rajeev Srinivasan

I saw a recent news photograph of an India-Pakistan meeting. It reminded me of other photos I have seen: an Indian diplomat and a Pakistani diplomat – a study in contrasts. The Pakistani, tall, fit, clean-shaven, dapper, in a well-cut suit, well-coiffed, looking younger than his age, at ease; the Indian, short, pot-bellied, with facial hair, in a shapeless Nehru jacket, with an indifferent haircut, looking old and unfit, avuncular, ill-at-ease.

This is a metaphor for the way the Pakistanis manage their image. Apart from the bushy-bearded and wild-eyed religious fanatics, Pakistanis generally attempt to be telegenic, and dress in a way that signals to watching audiences around the world: “people like us (PLU)”! The Indian, on the other hand, manages to look alien and out of place, some kind of curiosity, clearly not PLU. This is part of the reason Indians come away bested in negotiations: the other side starts off in adversarial fashion, because they cannot relate.

The funny thing of course is that the Pakistanis, underneath their Armani suits, are raving religious fundamentalists running a rogue, failing, nuclear proliferator state; the Indians, basically decent people trying to be nice guys all around. But the casual observer wouldn’t think so to just look at them. And perception becomes reality soon enough, as viewers make up their minds in about three seconds.

Diplomats and senior leaders everywhere dress in a sort of uniform. Well-cut and form-fitting dark suit, no facial hair, blow-dried hair, no glasses, fit-and-trim-looking, youngish, alert, smiling, often thin-lipped and sharp-featured. Think of George Bush, Bill Clinton, Junichiro Koizumi (okay, he has a wild but photogenic mane), the French and German presidents, the head of the EU, assorted Chinese strongmen, everyone who is anyone and who appears on TV.

I am tempted to call it the James Rubin Look, after the boyish White House spokesperson of the Clinton years, or the Tony Blair Look. The Look is a convenient shorthand for ‘here’s someone we can do business with’, PLU. It is an internationalist look, of someone comfortable bestriding the world stage.

Indian diplomats and ministers are far from the Look. They could attempt to look younger and more polished and more fit: a little yoga, maybe? We need Shakespeare’s ‘lean and hungry’, dangerous men, not comfortably padded ones: think Charles de Gaulle vs. Boris Yeltsin, to mix timeframes wildly. India also needs younger diplomats and ministers, not old men locked into some antediluvian idea of how the world was in their distant youth. Not mere callow, untested youth, though: experienced, youngish, fit people in their 50’s.

Why on earth can’t these people at least get contact lenses, lose a few pounds and attempt to look alert? In these days of the sound bite, they stand out negatively. Their entire demeanor screams: “rustic”. And their penchant for ‘national dress’ immediately marks them as “Third World”.

I hasten to add I have nothing against national dress; I think P Chidambaram looks quite composed in his spotless white mundu and shirt, Southern-ishtyle, only he should dump his horn-rimmed glasses. Chidambaram establishes himself as PLU despite the sartorial statement. You can wear your ethnic costume all you want where it matters: dress up as a Maratha or Naga warrior when the occasion warrants in India, but sport the Look when outside. It’s like the former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto: impeccable in suits, but occasionally he’d wear his samurai costume back home, and wield a wicked-looking sword, to the delight of the locals.

I don’t have a problem with a dhoti and kurta and sleeveless vest, Northern-ishtyle, either. Nor do I have anything against a little studied scruffiness. George Fernandes specialized in this, and the anarchist glint in his eye went quite well with his creased kurta and rumpled hair. It made everyone uneasy, because they figured, with some reason, that George might do something irrational any minute; and irrationality as a tactic is fruitful: just ask the dapper and Gucci-clad General Musharraf.

The sari is elegant, and I have noticed Pakistan’s Maleeha Lodhi look fetching in some sort of salwar-kameez thing.

But not the Nehru jacket.

Who on earth anointed the Nehru jacket India’s ‘national dress’? There are at least two hundred types of ethnic menswear in India, and the Nehru jacket is only worn, so far as I know, by a few North-Indian Muslims. To promote this to ‘national dress’ is quite a stretch. Besides, the Nehru jacket is an utter disaster for short, paunchy, balding men with skinny legs: it makes them look like bulbous, pear-shaped creatures with chicken legs and tiny heads, who badly need a cummerbund to hold them together. Most Indian diplomats and ministers are, alas, short, paunchy, balding men with skinny legs.

So the entire gestalt of the Indian politician or diplomat is simply wrong and sends out a poor message. And we wonder why they are not taken seriously. Our representatives stand out, they look ill-at-ease, they don’t belong. Peter Sellers in the derisive ‘The Party’ would nod in agreement.

Why am I belaboring the point that image matters? Because it does, increasingly, in today’s attention-deficit world. Consider what happened in the Nixon-Kennedy TV debate: the youthful, fresh-faced Kennedy, who had previously stood no chance of winning, trounced the beady-eyed and shifty-looking, sweating, five-o’clock-shadowed Nixon, and went on to win the election.

Or the suave Binyamin Netanyahu when he was Israeli ambassador to the US. As an articulate American-born person, he was able to charm the TV networks and convey a positive image of his country.

Of India’s spokespeople in the recent past, I cannot think of a single person in the current dispensation who comes across well, other than perhaps P Chidambaram. Arun Shourie was good, with his World Bank and newspaper-editor panache. Going back years, V K Krishna Menon – even though his leftist ideas were utterly disastrous – had an electric presence: tall, ‘lean and hungry’, with saturnine and withering intelligence, hawk-nose, and sharp suits. Arundhati Ghose at the UN came across as tough as nails. Hardly anyone else was memorable; clearly they need an image makeover.

The ‘national dress’ image was fine when India was running around with NAM types. Who are the people who wear ‘national costumes’? Mostly leaders of small African states in colorful dashikis, not global powers. India has changed a lot in the recent past and the Nehru jacket types are passé in the wake of the BRIC report, globalization and so forth. Those stuck in the old ways are way behind the times.

American ‘South Asia’ maven Stephen Cohen provided a telling example of this. He said recently that India aspires to be among the ‘top four or five nations in the world’. Wrong, Stephen: that’s what your Nehru-jacket friends think. The younger, dynamic middle class of India, supremely confident, are gunning for Number One. Not one in a crowd of five, but the biggest economic, technological and military power in the world, competing directly with the US and China. Savvy, nationalist Indians, some of them former expatriates, aspire for the top slot.

Image is crucial. Consider another example. The horrific photographs from New Orleans were so powerful that the Americans lost a decade’s worth of propaganda value – a lot of the good work done by SPAN magazine, CARE, the Peace Corps was undone. Suddenly, America looked vulnerable, naked. It was like the precipitous decline of the Soviet Union. The strain of running two wars and a gigantic trade deficit was, all at once, palpable; America appeared in terminal decline. The great city of New Orleans looked no better – in fact, worse and more dangerous – than heart-breaking refugee camps in some drought- and famine-ridden Third World nation to which generous Americans rush aid.

I am sure America’s enemies, in particular the Al Qaeda and the Chinese, exulted on seeing these images. ‘Imperial overstretch’, they must have said to themselves, ‘Easy pickings.’

Americans saw these pictures too, of course, and it was a shock to their self-image, already battered by 9/11 and Iraq and economic woes. So much so that that Katrina may have dealt a death-blow to Republican dreams of retaining the White House. Suddenly, a Hillary Clinton Presidency does not seem all that far-fetched, and to some extent the Bush Presidency appears lame-duck even though they have three more years to go. And all because of a little incompetence and a couple of little wars.

The Bush administration is going to have their backs to the wall. This is another reason why they will absolutely not be able to bulldoze the India-US nuclear agreement through Congress even if they wanted to, which I don’t think they do. India is definitely barking up the wrong tree on this one. The Americans, having forced an Indian climbdown on the Iran vote, are now asking for more, like Oliver Twist: they want the fast-breeder program shut down, all nuclear facilities under the IAEA, or else they won’t play ball. This is a slippery slope, and the sooner India extricates itself the better.

Indians badly need to improve their image in a world where first impressions count and snap judgments are made in the first few seconds of contact. Today the first impression they leave is not at all advantageous to the national interest. They need to come across like the leaders of a major power, and if that means putting on an internationalist uniform and the Look, they should just do it.

Comments welcome at my blog at http://rajeev2004.blogspot.com

1500 words, October 6, 2005

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9 Responses to “Image Management”


  1. Hi Rajeev,

    Have been following your rediff articles and the blogs for quite some time. Am impressed by the way you manage to hit the nail on the head most, if not all, of the times.

    Thought of passing to you the following link I saw in Rediff 2day:

    http://www.rediff.com/news/2003/mar/06bihar.htm

    Its abt some caste issues among Muslims in Bihar. Caught my attention as we have been told all along that the Caste System exists only among Hindus. Of Course, a non-trivial number of unsuspect Muslims, as well as the psec mafia, will blame it on Hinduism having “polluted” Islam (sic)!!! Was wondering if it would be possible for you to kindly post the link in your blogs.

    Thanks and Regards,

    J

  2. catchharish Says:

    I could not agree with u more..
    Indian bureacucrats and IFS folks look so uncouth and lose the battle of the minds even before it has started.
    I personally think except for Rajiv Gandhi, we have never had a leader who had a telegenic presence.
    The battle of the minds is an alien concept to much of Indian bureacuracy. This concept that is so essential to managing a succesful state and foreign policy is so completely lost upon Indian agencies, espescially RAW.
    Chinese and Americans are past masters at this.

  3. Alamandrax Says:

    wondered about this all along too yes. i gathered it had something to do with self-image. or the lack of a good PR consultant.

    does prentiss mccabe run offices in india? i think they ought to.

    or do they have too good an image of themselves? they fool themselves into thinking they look good solely because of the power they weild.

    i’d suggest making the public office much more difficult to hold than it is now, but who am i to break up the old-boy network?

  4. Mallik Says:

    Hi Rajeev,

    I lived in the bay area for 6 years before moving to Hyderabad in 2002 to start some thing of my own. I have been following your Rediff articles from the beginning. I must say they are too good to the point that I never miss them.

    Have you read “The Downfall of Capitalism and Communism” by Ravi Batra? It was a very interesting read for me. If you have read it, I would like to hear your comments on it. If you haven’t, I urge you to read it.

  5. wanderlust Says:

    true. very true.

  6. wanderlust Says:

    it’s all a matter of looking like you mean business. and the sooner we understand it, the better.
    however, there are also people like Shashi Tharoor.

  7. ironfalls Says:

    The artice is very good. But I dont think it does matter a lot in real life. Indians negotiators and diplomats have done a good job so far. The front where we have been lacking is politicians with a vision. Our leaders just as our public who votes them, are very unclear in their mind about their goals and what they really want. On top of that they lack the guts for it. Its one of those Gandhian things. Think about this you are a kid bullied in your school and then in your college. What kind of leader you become. Scheming silent person not a one who has guts to express clearly what he is going to do and not a person who will throw a challange in face. Like they all agree that China is the number 1 threat, no one talks about it. They talk about non-essentail things to prove their courage but never ready to throw the challanges clearly.

    If our leaders would be wise they would have used china as a clear opportunity to creat so much energy in the country. Just throw this challange to China openly that we will fight a war with them and recover our land and also economically defeat them. We really lack the confidence. It may be that we might lose, but chances for victory are much greater if we express this desire clealy rather than just scheme about it. Recently china fired that space missle, and India did not have the spine to go out and attack it openly. They said we are exploring opportunities of space defence.

  8. Innova Says:

    Mr Rajeev, talking negatively about our clan requires no MBA. That is our Specialty. We Indians are perfect artists in getting ourselves adopted to any kind of region, religion, sect or state or country. That shows how many religions came here, flourished and how many supreme leaders of religions visited our land. It is Karmabhoomi. It can not be erased just like that. I saw a comment – why British hate India? It is just indigestion. I request you to visit my blog
    1. zubram.wordpress.com 2. careerandresume.wordpress.com ( more like your blog is http://accountingwoes.wordpress.com

  9. S Rajeev Says:

    well, we generally put style before substance. that is a national obsession. for instance, obama has figured out that giving a ‘state dinner’ to manmohan singh instead of anything substantive would be enough.


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