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