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iain marlow

Narendra Modi's tailor has a shop that smells of jasmine, I thought, as I ascended a steep set of winding stairs – past displays of "Modi" brand knee-length kurtas, elaborate Nehru jackets and fantastical wedding outfits for lucky grooms – in order to meet the man who stitches clothes for the controversial leader likely to win India's pivotal national election.

After a short wait, I was ushered into the cluttered office of Bipin Chauhan, the proprietor of Jade Blue Lifestyle India Ltd., a gracious, fifth-generation tailor who was waiting for me behind a desk covered in bold blue and pink fabric samples. He had a bemused look on his face and a length of measuring tape draped over his shoulders.

Mr. Chauhan has been Mr. Modi's tailor since 1989, but what can he tell us about the controversial man likely to lead the world's largest democracy?

"He loves himself a lot," Mr. Chauhan says, as he pulls out his Samsung smartphone and swipes through awkward photos of Mr. Modi standing in various fitting sessions. "I make clothes for lots of industrialists, but there is something about Modi. He stands out."

Back when he first started coming to Mr. Chauhan, Mr. Modi was a propagandist in the state of Gujarat for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, an enormous right-wing volunteer group that churns out many of the top members of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. Mr. Modi, who grew up as the son of a tea-seller in rural Gujarat, mainly wore white, short-sleeved kurtas (which are like long, collar-less shirts), because they were smaller and easier to wash. The austere bachelor life of RSS propagandists meant Mr. Modi washed his own clothes, and cooked his own food.

In late 2001, Mr. Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat (a position akin to a provincial premier, if you could imagine a province with more than 60-million people), and changed his style dramatically. He has ruled the state – and received meticulously stitched kurtas and formal jackets from Mr. Chauhan – ever since. Around that time, Mr. Modi became too busy to come into the showroom for fittings, so Mr. Chauhan began coming to Mr. Modi, sometimes flying to New Delhi from Ahmedabad for a simple fitting session. He carried with him new fabrics he thought Mr. Modi might like.

"I (once) suggested a strong colour, blue linen, and Modi said it was too strong," Mr. Chauhan recalls. "I said, 'A strong fabric for a strong man.' "

In a lengthy digression that took me far from the type of ground usually trodden for political profiles of global leaders, Mr. Chauhan described Mr. Modi is a "fashion icon" who has brought about "a revolution" in elite Indian menswear. He has made it de rigeur to wear cream-tinted kurtas (Mr. Modi's favourite) and other bold colours, Mr. Chauhan says with a genuine sense of awe and importance, thereby ending an era in which white dominated politicians' outfits.

Boldness, whether you like him or not, is a hallmark of Mr. Modi. He is a polarizing figure whom critics accuse of being viciously divisive and anti-Muslim, in a country where communal violence between Hindus and Muslims is common. His supporters see him as a no-nonsense economic reformer who will bring development to all Indians, regardless of religion.

Mr. Modi is now leading the Hindu nationalist opposition in India's five-week general elections, which wrap up on May 16. As Mr. Modi and his BJP gathered momentum, his handlers began to try and pitch Mr. Modi as a moderate, after more than a decade as one of India's most prominent Hindu firebrands, a man who has said many offensive things about Muslims (all while accusing his rivals of courting the Muslim vote). When anti-Muslim riots swept through Gujarat in 2002, destroying homes and killing more than 1,000 people, Mr. Modi, who was then chief minister, referred to the resettlement communities that were set up to house Muslim survivors as "baby-making factories." Some serious Indian liberals have compared him to Hitler.

I ask Mr. Chauhan if he thinks Mr. Modi has mellowed, and he muses that the man's preference for bold colours is slightly diminished. "He used to wear all sorts of bright colours," Mr. Chauhan says. "He's become slightly more sober now."

One thing, though, is undoubtedly clear in his tailor's mind. Mr. Modi is a driven man. He sets goals and accomplishes them. He is incredibly punctual, and has not kept Mr. Chauhan waiting more than 30 minutes in all these years. He is also an unforgiving perfectionist. Once, at a public event, Mr. Chauhan looked up at Mr. Modi speaking from a podium and noticed that his waistcoast was slightly loose. He felt instantly anxious, and knew that he would soon get a call. It came the next afternoon. "Nothing is too small," Mr. Chauhan says. "He is a perfectionist."

But it has still been a mutually beneficial relationship. Mr. Chauhan has trademarked the brand name "Modi" for his kurtas, and his business has expanded. He now has 18 locations, in various states, and is planning further expansion.

"I had two wishes," he says to me. "One dream was to stitch clothes for industrialists. That has come true. The other dream was that I could stitch clothes for the prime minister. And that dream is going to come true soon."