The Cult of Modi

Pakistan Defence, 04.11.2022
Ramachandra Guha, historiador y biografo indio
How India’s prime minister dismantled the world’s largest democratic experiment.

India claims to be the largest democracy in the world, and its ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claims to be the largest political organization in the world (with a membership base even greater than that of the Chinese Communist Party). Since May 2014, both the BJP and the government have been in thrall to the wishes—and occasionally the whims—of a single individual, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. An extraordinary personality cult has been constructed around Modi, its manifestations visible in state as well as party propaganda, in eulogies in the press, in adulatory invocations of his apparently transformative leadership by India’s leading entrepreneurs, celebrities, and sports stars.

This essay seeks to place the cult of Modi in comparative and cultural context. It will show how it arose, the hold it has over the Indian imagination, and its consequences for the country’s political and social future. It draws on my academic background as a historian of the Indian Republic, as well as on my personal experiences as an Indian citizen. However, since I am writing about a distinctively Indian variant of what is in fact a global phenomenon, what I say here may resonate with those who study or live under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world.

The term “cult of personality” was popularized, with regard to Joseph Stalin, by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in his now famous speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956. According to an English translation of Khruschev’s speech, he remarked that it was “impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior.”

The case of Stalin was not singular or unique. In the decades following World War II, the communist world was awash with cults of personality—of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, of Fidel Castro in Cuba, of Enver Hoxha in Albania, of Kim Il Sung in North Korea. Yet indisputably the greatest—not to say most deadly—of all the communist cults following Stalin’s was that of Mao Zedong in post-revolutionary China. Consider, for example, an editorial by Lt. Gen. Wu Faxian that appeared in the Liberation Army Daily on Aug. 13, 1967:

Chairman Mao is the most outstanding, greatest genius in the world, and his thought is the summing up of the experience of the proletarian struggles in China and abroad and is the unbreakable truth. In implementing Chairman Mao’s directives, we must absolutely not regard it as a prerequisite that we understand them. The experience of revolutionary struggles tells us that we do not understand many directives of Chairman Mao thoroughly or even partially at the beginning but gradually understand them in the course of implementation, after implementation, or after several years. Therefore, we should resolutely implement Chairman Mao’s directives that we understand as well as those that we temporarily do not understand.

I suppose this is what is called blind faith.

The cults of Stalin and Mao were preceded by the cults of Benito Mussolini in Italy and of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Notably, both emerged in settings that were not completely bereft of democratic features. Hitler’s National Socialists won the largest number of seats in the 1932 elections. Eight years previously, Mussolini had sought to win legitimacy through an election, though the voting itself was anything but free and fair. After they came to power, however, both leaders swiftly extinguished political and individual freedoms, seeking to consolidate power in themselves and their party.

A hundred years after the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, the world is once again witnessing the rise of authoritarian leaders in countries with some sort of democratic history. A partial listing of these elected autocrats would include: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Modi, and, not least, the autocrat temporarily out of favor but longing for a return to power, former U.S. President Donald Trump.

These leaders have all personalized governance and admiration to a considerable degree. They all seek to present themselves as the savior or redeemer of their nation, uniquely placed to make it more prosperous, more powerful, more in tune with what they claim to be its cultural and historical heritage. In a word, they have all constructed, and been allowed to construct, personality cults around themselves.

While recognizing the existence and persistence of such cults of personality in other countries, this essay shall focus on the cult of Modi in India, for three reasons. First, and least important, it occurs in the country I know best and with whose democratic history I am professionally (as well as personally) engaged.

Second, India is soon to be the most populous nation in the world, surpassing China in this regard, and hence this cult will have deeper and possibly more portentous consequences than such cults erected elsewhere in the world.

Third, and perhaps most important, this personality cult has taken shape in a country that until recently had fairly robust and long-standing democratic traditions. Before Modi came to power in May 2014, India had in all respects a longer-lasting democracy than when Erdogan came to power in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, and Bolsonaro in Brazil. The 2014 general election was India’s 16th national vote, in a line extending almost unbroken from 1952. Regular, and likewise mostly free and fair, elections have also been held to form the legislatures of different Indian states. As the historian Sunil Khilnani has pointed out, many more people have voted in Indian elections than in older and professedly more advanced democracies such as the United Kingdom and the United States. India before 2014 also had an active culture of public debate, a moderately free press, and a reasonably independent judiciary. It was by no means a perfect democracy—but then no democracy is. (In my 2007 book, India After Gandhi, I myself had characterized India as a “50-50 democracy.” Perhaps some countries in Northern Europe might qualify as “70-30 democracies.”)

Before I come to the cult of Modi, I want to say something about the cult of a previous Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi. She was the daughter of the country’s first and longest-serving prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In March 1971, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress party won an emphatic victory in the general election; that December, India won an emphatic victory on the battlefield over Pakistan, in part because of Gandhi’s decisive leadership. She was hailed as a modern incarnation of Durga, the militant, all-conquering goddess of Hindu mythology. The idea that Gandhi embodied in her person the party, the government, and the state—and that she represented in herself the past, present, and future of the nation—was promoted by the prime minister’s political allies. Congress party leader D.K. Barooah proclaimed, “India is Indira, Indira is India.” Equally noteworthy is a Hindi couplet that Barooah composed in praise of Gandhi, which in English reads: “Indira, we salute your morning and your evening, too / We celebrate your name and your great work, too.”

Shortly after the Congress leader read those lines at a rally in June 1975 attended by a million people, Gandhi imposed a state of emergency, during which her regime arrested all major (and many minor) opposition politicians as well as trade unionists and student activists, imposed strict censorship on the press, and abrogated individual freedoms. A little under two years later, however, Gandhi’s democratic conscience compelled her to call fresh elections in which she and her party lost power.

Now compare Barooah’s short poem with an extended tribute, in prose, to Modi by BJP leader J.P. Nadda, offered on the occasion of the former’s 71st birthday. These words appeared in an article published in September 2021 in India’s most widely read English-language newspaper, the Times of India:

Modi has evolved into a reformer who passionately raises social issues plaguing India and then effectively addresses them through public discourse and participation.


… [He] believes in the holistic development of our society and country through good moral and social values. He always leads from the front in addressing the nation’s most complex and difficult problems, and doesn’t rest till the goals are achieved.


… Modi is the only leader who has an electrifying effect on the masses and on whose call the entire nation gets united. During the [COVID-19] pandemic, his appeals have been religiously followed by every citizen.


… His stupendous success is the result of absolute dedication to people’s welfare and wellbeing. His only aim is to make India a Vishwaguru [teacher to the world].

Nadda’s piece is entirely representative. New Delhi’s newspapers are replete with op-ed pieces by cabinet ministers offering sycophantic praise of the prime minister. Indeed, “Modi is India, India is Modi” is the spoken or unspoken belief of everyone in the BJP, whether minister, member of Parliament, or humble party worker. As I was finishing a draft of this article in late September, India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, told an audience in Washington that “the fact that our [India’s] opinions count, that our views matter, and we have actually today the ability to shape the big issues of our time” is because of Modi. The anti-colonial movement led by Mohandas Gandhi, the persistence (against the odds) of electoral democracy since independence, the dynamism of its entrepreneurs in recent decades, the contributions of its scholars, scientists, writers, and filmmakers—all this (and the legacy of past prime ministers, too) goes entirely erased in these assessments. India’s achievements (such as they are) are instead attributed to one man alone, Modi.

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