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Why bhakti in politics is bad for democracy

Ramachandra Guha in The Hindustan Times


Back in 2005, a knowledgeable Gujarati journalist wrote of how ‘Narendra Modi thinks a detergent named development will wash away the memory of 2002’. While focusing on new infrastructure and industrial projects in his state, the then chief minister of Gujarat launched what the journalist called ‘a massive self-publicity drive’, publishing calendars, booklets and posters where his own photograph appeared prominently alongside words and statistics speaking of Gujarat’s achievements under his leadership. ‘Modi has made sure that in Gujarat no one can escape noticing him,’ remarked the journalist.

Since May 2014, this self-publicity drive has been extended to the nation as a whole. In fact, the process began before the general elections, when, through social media and his speeches, Narendra Modi successfully projected himself as the sole and singular alternative to a (visibly) corrupt UPA regime. The BJP, a party previously opposed to ‘vyakti puja’, succumbed to the power of Modi’s personality. Since his swearing-in as Prime Minister, the government has done what the party did before it: totally subordinated itself to the will, and occasionally the whim, of a single individual.

Hero-worship is not uncommon in India. Indeed, we tend to excessively venerate high achievers in many fields. Consider the extraordinarily large and devoted fan following of Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar. These fans see their icons as flawless in a way fans in other countries do not. In America, Bob Dylan has many admirers but also more than a few critics. The same is true of the British tennis player Andy Murray. But in public discourse in India, criticism of Sachin and Lata is extremely rare. When offered, it tends to be met with vituperative abuse, not by rational or reasoned rebuttal.

The hero-worship of sportspeople is merely silly. But the hero-worship of politicians is inimical to democracy. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu were epicentres of progressive social reform, whose activists promoted caste and gender equality, rational thinking, and individual rights. Yet in more recent years, Maharashra has seen the cult of Bal Thackeray, Tamil Nadu the cult of J Jayalalithaa. In each case, the power of the State was (in Jayalalithaa’s case still is) put in service of this personality cult, with harassment and intimidation of critics being common.

However, at a nation-wide level the cult of Narendra Modi has had only one predecessor — that of Indira Gandhi. Thus now, as then, ruling party politicians demand that citizens see the Prime Minister as embodying not just the party or the government, but the nation itself. Millions of devotees on social media (as well as quite a few journalists) have succumbed to the most extreme form of hero-worship. More worryingly, one senior cabinet minister has called Narendra Modi a Messiah. A chief minister has insinuated that anyone who criticises the Prime Minister’s policies is anti-national. Meanwhile, as in Indira Gandhi’s time, the government’s publicity wing, as well as AIR and Doordarshan, works overtime to broadcast the Prime Minister’s image and achievements.

While viewing the promotion of this cult of Narendra Modi, I have been reminded of two texts by long-dead thinker-politicians, both (sadly) still relevant. The first is an essay published by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1937 under the pen-name of ‘Chanakya’. Here Nehru, referring to himself in the third person (as Modi often does now), remarked: ‘Jawaharlal cannot become a fascist. Yet he has all the makings of a dictator in him — a vast popularity, a strong will directed to a well-defined purpose, energy, pride, organisational capacity, ability, hardness, and, with all his love of the crowd, an intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and the inefficient.’

Nehru was here issuing a warning to himself. Twelve years later, in his remarkable last speech to the Constituent Assembly, BR Ambedkar issued a warning to all Indians, when, invoking John Stuart Mill, he asked them not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions’. There was ‘nothing wrong’, said Ambedkar, ‘in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness.’ He worried that in India, ‘Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.’

These remarks uncannily anticipated the cult of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency. As I have written in these columns before, Indian democracy is now too robust to be destroyed by a single individual. But it can still be severely damaged. That is why this personality cult of Narendra Modi must be challenged (and checked) before it goes much further.

Later this week we shall observe the 60th anniversary of BR Ambedkar’s death. Some well-meaning (and brave) member of the Prime Minister’s inner circle should bring Ambedkar’s speech of 1949 to his attention. And perhaps Nehru’s pseudonymous article of 1937 too.

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