Ramachandra Guha on the growth of the Modi cult

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mINE IS A Land of myths and heroes. The worship of gods, goddesses, saints and warriors has always been a central feature of Indian culture. That such hero worship can stand in opposition to democratic practice was anticipated by BR Ambedkar (1891-1956), a scholar and social reformer who oversaw the drafting of the Indian constitution. In a speech in November 1949 he stated that “in politics, bhakti or hero worship is a sure route to humiliation and ultimately to dictatorship”. Citing John Stuart Mill, Ambedkar warned his compatriots “not even to lay their freedoms at the feet of a great man or entrust him with powers that enable him to undermine their institutions”.

Indians have ignored Ambedkar’s warnings twice. First, in the 1970s, when, after a military victory over Pakistan, we allowed a cult to be built around Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. We nodded in agreement when the President of her Congress Party announced: “India is Indira and Indira is India”. When a popular movement against its mismanagement manifested itself, it declared a state of emergency, suppressed the press, imprisoned opposition MPs and had their portraits pasted across the country. Some Indians named the public broadcaster “All Indira Radio”.

Then and now

Their dictatorship lasted less than two years. In the seven years that Narendra Modi has been Prime Minister of India, he has not officially declared a state of emergency – but maybe he doesn’t need to. Because he has ruthlessly used the instruments of state power to undermine the functioning of democratic institutions. He has tamed the media (India currently ranks 142nd on the World Press Freedom Index), adjusted the tax authorities to its political opponents and imprisoned dozens of human rights activists. He has also tried, with some success, to bring previously independent institutions such as the army, the central bank, the electoral commission and the higher judiciary under his control.

As he undermines Indian democracy, Mr. Modi works diligently to build a personality cult around himself. In February, a sports arena previously named after Sardar Patel, a great hero of our freedom struggle, was renamed Narendra Modi Stadium and inaugurated by the President and the Interior Minister. According to the government fiat, all Covid-19 vaccination certificates bear the picture of Mr. Modi, to the embarrassment of many Indians and to the hilarity and horror of immigration officials elsewhere.

Mr Modi has undermined much of the economic and social advances made under his predecessors

And more – or worse – is to come. In 2022 India will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule. To surpass what the Mughals and British have done in Delhi, Mr Modi is planning a redesign of the capital with a number of unattractive new buildings that he will inaugurate.

Personality cults have historically been the hallmark of totalitarian regimes. On the left, consider the cults of Stalin, Mao and Castro; on the right the cults of Hitler, Mussolini and Peron. In this case, however, a cult of personality is created in the largest democracy in the world. Given the density of India’s population and the resources used to create it, the cult of Narendra Modi is possibly the largest mankind has ever known.

History suggests that personality cults work poorly for countries that allow them. China, Germany, Italy, and Russia all suffered badly after allowing one man to presume to represent the nation’s collective past, present, and future. India is doing the same now. Mr. Modi has undone much of the economic and social progress made under his predecessors. Even before the pandemic, growth rates began to decline. Poverty and inequality have increased at an alarming rate, with India ranking 101st out of 107 countries in the annual World Hunger Index and 140th out of 156 in the gender gap. It has developed into an environmental basket and ranks 120th out of 122 countries for water quality and 177th out of 180 for overall environmental performance.

More insidiously, the cult of Modi has been accompanied by deepening majoritarianism as the ruling party attacks and intimidates religious minorities in order to create a theocratic Hindu state. The Prime Minister himself tries to dress himself in religious images by having himself photographed meditating in a cave one moment and opening a temple the next. He grows his hair and beard long and wants his citizens to see him as a unique combination of seer, guru and king. Ambedkar would have been horrified.â– 

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2022 under the heading “Beware of Modi Cult”


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