Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to troops during his visit to Nimu in the territory of Ladakh. Photo: AFP / Indian Press Information Bureau

On November 13, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, with jawans (soldiers) in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan. As has been his habit for the past few Diwalis, he appeared in the Indian Army’s uniform and addressed the jawans as if he were a military commander.

Now, this penchant for army uniforms may well be a publicity stunt aimed at shoring up the “strongman” image Modi has sought to cultivate. But if his motives go beyond that, it could be cause for concern.

Modi’s mouthpieces, the Indian media, have helped to foster this image that “anything is possible if Modi is there.” And he has been successful in maintaining this “strongman” image despite grave domestic failures and counterproductive policy decisions since he assumed power in 2014.

Modi’s bonhomie with US President Donald Trump has also played a significant role in promoting his strong image abroad. Trump portrayed Modi as a “strongman” and tough person during his India visit in February.

Trump said, “Modi is a very religious and calm man, but he is actually a very, very strong person, very tough. I have seen him in action.”

Modi has been considered a strong politician who can protect India’s territory since he ordered a surgical strike against suspected militant camps in Pakistan in 2016.

Since May, this image has been enhanced further by his “standing firm” against Chinese military pressure in Ladakh.

All in all, Modi has left no stone unturned to expand his “strongman” image since becoming prime minister in 2014.

One of his tactics is celebrating Diwali with Indian Army jawans.

Notably, Modi used to appear in civilian attire while celebrating Diwali with Indian soldiers until 2016. However, since the 2017 Diwali, he has appeared in Indian Army combat dress.

No other Indian prime minister, from the first one, Jawaharlal Nehru, to the PM from Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to his immediate predecessor, Manmohan Singh, has appeared in an army uniform publicly.

In most liberal democracies with a presidential system, the elected leader, despite being the country’s supreme military commander, never appears in combat dress. Have you ever seen any US or French president in military uniform publicly?

Similarly, no democratically elected prime minister appears in a military uniform anywhere else in the world. This is so even for political leaders who previously served in the military and have the right to wear a uniform with the insignia of their rank.

This is the general norm of all countries, a norm that also applies to India. But Modi has no previous record of military service.

In India, the president is the supreme commander of the Army, Air Force and Navy. The president also has the right to wear a military uniform bearing insignia according to his or her rank.

But the Indian prime minister is the head of the civilian government, and the civilian control over the military rests with him or her. The Council of Ministers decides when and how to use the nation’s military forces. That decision-making power is vested in the prime minister.

India’s seniority order is the president, the prime minister, defense minister, defense secretary, chief of defense staff and the chiefs of the three service units, Army, Navy and Air Force.

Thus the prime minister’s position is much higher than those of the chief of defense staff and chiefs of the Army, Air Force and Navy.

The prime minister and his team make policy decisions on defense-related issues. Specific decision-making and operational planning are vested in the uniformed service persons in their respective jurisdictions.

However, the prime minister generally has no right to give direct orders to the Indian military. The cabinet decides on an order, and the order is signed by the president to authorize the use of armed forces.

This is why military uniforms have a long tradition of not being worn by civilian leaders or administrators in India. 

The defense minister and the prime minister usually don’t attend any Indian Army functions in military uniform.

Although Modi has been wearing combat dress without displaying an insignia of rank, it is worth discussing what message he wants to convey at home and abroad by this practice. There are two possibilities.

Internally, the Modi government has completely failed to deliver its electoral promises. Most recently, it has been unable to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, the Indian economy has suffered its worst contraction in 40 years.

As well, the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been facing off on the border in the high Himalayas for the last eight months.

Therefore wearing the uniform may be just another publicity stunt to maintain his popularity based on a strongman image and to distract the public from his grave failures.

However, this has never happened in Indian politics before he came to power, and it was criticized by the opposition Indian National Congress on November 13.

Externally, Modi wants to send a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping that he is an influential leader. Modi seeks to impress on the Chinese leader that he is as popular among the Indian Army as Xi is among the PLA.

Modi started appearing in military attire after Indian and PLA troops faced off in Doklam in the summer of 2017. So this is not merely a coincidence. 

Besides, he also seems to be trying to warn India’s traditional adversary, Pakistan.

So if this first theory is correct, that Modi’s appearances in military dress are only publicity stunts to hide his domestic failures and to maintain his popularity, it is not a matter of grave concern.

Again, if his motive is to spread a “strong leader” image to China and Pakistan, that is also not a severe worry.

But if Modi’s ambition is to take on the role of a military dictator, that would be an enormous threat to the world’s largest democracy.

We already know that the Indian media have become blind supporters and mouthpieces of Modi’s right-wing populism. Suppose he declares himself the prime minister of India indefinitely. In that case, would the media support him in the name of protecting the country’s territory?

But even if Modi has no ambition to become a military dictator, he is misusing the long-standing politically neutral military institution for his political gain.

Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master's program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at