Narendra Modi has been trending since Friday evening. In black and white. First for his sartorial embrace of the veshti-sattai-thundu (white dhoti-shirt-towel), the traditional attire of the Tamil Nadu male and then plogging at the Mamallapuram beach on Saturday morning.
The country seems divided in its opinion, if social media trends and comments on digital media are anything to go by. For many, he is seen as leading by example, focusing on his Clean India mission. For others, mainly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, he is just engaging in a photo-op. Where is the SPG, they ask. How come the beach was not cleaned up before you arrived, is another query. Or was it littered just so that the PM could playact, they ask.
I think we are being overly critical and harsh. Even before the Prime Minister set foot on Tamil Nadu soil, #GoBackModi began trending, even in Mandarin language. While registering a protest is a democratic right of every citizen, to do so while a foreign dignitary was coming visiting was not in good taste and reflected more on Tamil Nadu than on the PM. His decision to adorn the veshti while he led the Chinese President through a conducted tour of the Shore temple at Mamallapuram was ridiculed.
As someone who comes from the southern part of the country and wears a veshti with pride, I ask why not. Why shouldn’t the PM wear the veshti and carry it off with a swag. Politically, it may be driven by a desire to soften the Tamilan towards the BJP that comes across looking like a Hindi belt party but so what.
With an international audience tuning into the Indo-China summit, Modi’s move to present the veshti as an attire of style and convenience should be complimented, not lampooned. I think the PM makes for a great brand ambassador of the traditional attire. No surprise that Ramraj brand of veshtis, carried an ad in Saturday’s newspaper, celebrating the moment though the appropriateness of that could well be questioned.
In any case, food, attire and the first few words of a new language are often the best starting points to start a conversation and establish a relationship. Modi over the last few weeks, has been showcasing his love for things Thamizh at international fora. First at the United Nations General Assembly where he quoted Tamil poet Kaniyan Pungundranar to say “yaadum oore, yaavarum kelir” (For us, all towns are one and all the people are ours). He told the people there that Tamil is the oldest language in the world. In Chennai on 30 September, he spoke of his fondness for the city’s trademark breakfast fare of “idli, dosa, vada and sambar”.
The plogging came next. Admittedly, while his solitary presence on Mamallapuram beach looked very staged, Modi’s intention was presumably neither to show that he is also India’s clean-up man nor a rap on the knuckles of the civic body at Mamallapuram. Given the security limitations he operates under, it was his way of telling fellow citizens that they need to take responsibility as well to keep the country clean. In fact, plogging is a weekly routine undertaken by the Chennai Civic Corporation at beaches in the city and is very much part of the civil society culture.
A fellow journalist remarked in jest that thanks to the summit, people beyond south India know that Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu is different from Malappuram in Kerala. What it is most certain to do is to drive hordes of tourists to Mamallapuram, having been wowed by the visuals on television. The ASI needs to ensure the place is maintained as clean as it was when the two PMs were visiting.
Narendra Modi may well consider hosting such informal summits with more world leaders at different monuments across India. Not only will it give a huge fillip to tourism in India and help showcase the cuisine and sartorial variety of India, it will also result in the civic agencies giving a much-needed facelift to the roads leading to the monument. Move out of New Delhi and make it a win-win situation for everyone.