Why the Modi mask is no longer in fashion in Delhi’s iconic Sadar Bazaar

The demand for election merchandise with the prime minister's face has dried up.

In Delhi’s warren-like Sadar Bazaar, there is a street where flags of Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party flutter agreeably near one another. A banner hangs above the swarms of people, cars and rickshaws declaring "Jhande hi Jhande", all kinds of flags. In shop windows, Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal beam from buttons and badges. This is the place in Delhi where party loyalists, opportunists and benefactors have been coming for decades to source election paraphernalia.

Two years ago, when the so-called Modi wave was cresting, Gali Bajajan was stocked full of Modi merchandise. Shadilal of Manu Bhai Jhande Wale, for instance, had ordered masks, T-shirts, handheld fans and other knickknacks, all adorned with Modi’s face.

“During the general elections, we were getting bulk orders every day for Modi items,” said Shadilal. “We were also getting orders for Congress and AAP items, but those for BJP merchandise were larger.”

Two years on, as the Modi government reaches its second anniversary, the orders have dried up. “The masks are not in fashion anymore,” said Shadilal, fishing out an old, crumpled one from the dark interiors of his shop. “We haven’t ordered them for a year.”

A shop in Sadar Bazaar. Credit: Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri
A shop in Sadar Bazaar. Credit: Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri

The Modi mask, as much as any other merchandise, symbolised Brand Modi during the 2014 general election. Along with selfies and holograms, it was an element of his mythology and iconography. It fed into the folklore of a man who, as a child, ostensibly picked up a baby crocodile from the banks of a lake and took it home to be a pet.

At BJP rallies, hundreds of supporters would be seen donning the mask, reiterating the narrative that the contest was between Modi and the rest. At some point, naturally, Brand Modi overtook Brand BJP, and the saffron party’s mantra became “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar" – this time, a Modi government.

His face was everywhere – on billboards, Metro stations, buses and in the newspaper. “If you look at all the symbolism of brand Modi, it’s about him as a personality – a decisive personality that has so much force that it is going to break the incapacity of the last 10 years,” adman Dheeraj Sinha was quoted as saying in the Financial Times.

A man wearing a Modi mask. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A man wearing a Modi mask. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An article in Business Standard in 2014 noted: “The look and feel is as much a part of the package as the sophistry. The bespoke kurta, the Movado watch, Bvlgari spectacles and the Mont Blanc pen set him quite apart from the ‘regular’ Indian politician. Modi’s obvious delight in dressing well resonates with a section of the electorate that values opportunity and personal growth and progress above divisive politics and chicanery.”

Two years later, that Modi wave has ebbed somewhat. A survey by the Centre for Media Studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in April found that 49% of the respondents felt there had been “no change” in their living standard, while 15% felt it had worsened.

Credit: Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri
Credit: Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri

Back in Sadar Bazaar, Ramesh Gupta runs a small stationery shop, whose storefront is lined with jars of sugary sweets, and the shelves inside are stocked with everything from Nataraj pencils to colourful chart paper and Parker pens.

For a short while in 2014, Gupta had also hoarded Modi masks and other BJP merchandise. “It made good business sense then,” said Gupta, mopping sweat off his face. “There was a demand for it at the time. I was selling single pieces rather than in bulk as the wholesale shops.”

According to Gupta, in the run-up to the elections, the paper masks were being sold for somewhere between Rs 6 and Rs 10 and the plastic ones for around Rs 15. “Anyone coming to buy a pen or a diary would pick up a mask or a Modi sticker if they were supporters. Not anymore though.”

Credit: Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri
Credit: Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri

Most shops in Sadar Bazaar tell a similar story. Modi was big during the general elections, and they were able to sell anything as long as Modi’s face was printed on it. But now the Aam Aadmi Party is the merchandise leader.

“After the party flags, AAP caps are the biggest sellers,” said Shadilal, while negotiating the price for an order of 10,000 AAP caps with a customer.

Chander Aggarwal has been in the business of selling merchandise for the past five years. His hole-in-the-wall shop, Jhanda Ghar, sits in a small, relatively quiet lane off the thoroughfare. “India sees elections throughout the year,” he said. “We get small orders every now and then, but they are mostly for party flags or AAP caps or Gandhi caps. We still have some Modi stickers and badges left from the [2014] elections.”

He pointed to a Modi sticker on the shop’s wall.

“I don’t know where the rest are kept. I will have to look for them in the back. My stock mostly got over on his one year anniversary. There were a few orders then. I haven’t ordered more, but he is completing two years as prime minister soon, maybe then.”

The lanes of Sadar Bazaar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The lanes of Sadar Bazaar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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