More Than Leaders: The Systematic Practice of Cult Worship in Indian Politics

There is a conscious effort to create a binary narrative just before the elections. What transcends common logic is: how can complex national and international issues be reduced to a dichotomous discourse?

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In the wake of the 1971 war, Indian politics was changed forever. What had been the image of a topi-clad Gandhian leader was now that of a robust “rashtranayak”- a sort of Gentilian metaphor for a strong nation builder who would restore order to the system, often at the cost of sacrificing liberal values.

When D.K.Barooah-one of Indira Gandhi’s most devout, and often sycophantic followers, proclaimed “Indira is India and India is Indira”, it was but the omen of a shift in the nature of politics and genre of politicians in India. The 70’s witnessed the rise of Indira Gandhi- who built an aura of Kemalian nationalism around herself, thereby setting the trend for future political leaders and their election campaigns. The next decades were filled with the likes of Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Jayalalithaa making their forays into regional elections. Following the footsteps of her mentor- M.G.Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa was one of those leaders who was not just followed, but revered all across Tamil Nadu. In fact, it was reported that upon hearing the news of Jayalalithaa’s death, around a dozen of her grief-stricken followers had committed suicide. Shocked?

Cut to 2019.

As the election campaigns rage on, bearing likeness to a highly cacophonous procession, the system of worshipping our politicians continues. If campaign themes are charted, we could observe the mobilisation of the masses being ensured by creating an aura of prophetic charisma around certain politicians. On one hand we have a self-proclaimed “chowkidaar” who fancies himself as the man who will refashion the country into an ideal, corruption-free State. Here, the State and her symbols shall reign supreme and all citizens shall pay obesciance, as faithful golems. On the other hand, a man from a corruption ridden Party is trying to rally another section of leaders who have accused the watchman of working in cahoots with the financial elite, and deliberately colluding with thieves. 

It is pitiful that elections in India are being fought over construction of temples, not roads, of statues, not industries. Moreover, the battle of perception has haunted electoral campaigns for ages. It does not matter who has better policies, or a more comprehensive manifesto, as long as people believe that they are voting for a messiah. The cultural critic Walter Benjamin argued that fascism’s great success was to give the masses a means to express themselves, using politics for “the production of ritual values.” Faith in prophets is often closely followed by disillusion. But, then, as the long queues at temples show, disillusion rarely deters believers. This practice gives Governments the option of evading the duties of governance and creates a scope for poor governance. In 2016, the former RBI Governor- Raghuram Rajan and other eminent economists, including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had casted their aspersions on the decision to demonetize the 500 and 1000 rupee notes. The Government chose to evade the economic debate and the social impact, by choosing to hide behind the Prime Minister’s anti-corruption cry. They tried to project Narendra Modi as the man, who had taken this decision with “an honest intention” to wipe out corruption and black money. Thus, if some Indian’s had to face inconveniences due to the decision, they should all stand behind the PM in his crusade against corruption. Such justifications are pointless, and almost seem like the BJP wanted points for effort. 

It is not just that cult worship of political leaders lands a blow on national democracy. This habit also ends up compromising internal politics in the national and regional parties in India. When all the shots in the largest party in India are called by one man, aided by his friend, the Party President, we start resembling the Communist dictatorships of the erstwhile Soviet Union and present day China. On the other hand, the vice like grip of one family on all decision making procedures of the Party and the Government at times, has reduced the party members into mere lackeys, vying for goodwill with the top brass. It was once said that 7 Race Course Road was below 10 Janpath Marg in the decision making hierarchy. Now it can be speculated with reason that two men have hijacked the controls of the ruling party.  This system absolutely smashes all internal democracy and dissent within parties, something that has widespread ripple effects. It means that politicians no longer have to perform to get a ticket; they just have to have the right connections with the rulers of the roost. This allows for conmen, corrupt leaders and inefficient lawmakers to be elected into the Parliament, merely on the basis of their proximity with the Party President. This has also enabled whims and fancies of single leaders, and not party workers to influence the formation of electoral alliances based on ideological preferences. For instance, recently MP Shatrughan Sinha spoke to journalist Karan Thapar about the dictatorial practices within the BJP. The decision making has been concentrated to the Prime Minister and the Party President-Amit Shah. Other ministers have been reduced to mere stooges. Moreover, a large number of BSP workers had expressed grievances over the recent decision of the BSP-SP alliance to leave the Congress out of the alliance in UP. However, BSP supremo- Mayawati had taken this decision without consulting the remaining members of the Party High Command. This probably happens because of how the inflated auras around these leaders make them believer that they are not accountable to the members placed below them on the Party pyramid. Such practices expose the underlying fault lines within the democratic setup of Parties led by leaders who enjoy a cult following. 

A trend has evolved in recent times, which is not only regressive, but also reminiscent of Nazi propaganda tools- the utilization of the cinema to spread a political message. The release of the controversial biopic on the Prime Minister was stalled by the Election Commission. However, it’s trailer, and the attempt to repaint certain parts of political history is aimed at enhancing the cult around the Prime Minister. Along with this, the advent of NaMo TV-a television platform which continuously broadcasts the Prime Minister’s rallies and speeches, is a worrying sign for democratic elections. The growth of such platforms indicates a departure from electoral norms. 

In any Parliamentary democracy, elections are fought by Parties and the Prime Minister is chosen from among the Party that enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha. However, Indian politics has long involved Parties announcing their Prime Ministerial candidates long before the polling begins. This shows that Parties attempt to sell the Prime Ministerial candidate, and not their policies. This resembles the elections in the United States, which are Presidential elections, which is not the norm in a Parliamentary democracy like India. This point was proven by the BJP. The front page of their election manifesto in 2014 had featured a slew of BJP lawmakers, some veteran leaders and Narendra Modi. This year however, the looming portrait of the Prime Minister dominates the glossy cover of the front page of the manifesto. Gone are the familiar faces of the former Prime Minister-Vajpayee, or the other cabinet ministers of the Government. Even in advertisements, the call is to reelect the Modi Government, not the NDA Government. The Congress too has caught up with this trend, with leaders like Priyanka Gandhi dropping the ‘Vadra’ part of her surname and using her likeness to Indira Gandhi to gain political traction. The ruling Party and the Opposition have resorted to name calling, and other forms of marginalization to stoke divisive sentiments wherever it is convenient for them. The NDA is trying to convince people that while voting, they should forget all voting norms and treat this as a showdown between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. In fact, that is the very reason that all attempts have been made by the BJP to portray Rahul Gandhi as a privileged, corrupt, nepotistic fool who has no qualities of a leader. On the other hand, Mr. Modi is being portrayed as a man who rose from humble origins through sheer dint of hard work, and has emerged as the great challenger to the post colonial elitists who have apparently huddled together to save their crumbling world. This transcends commonplace practices of political reductionism, and is an attempt to alter the electoral system to suit strongmen and authoritarian leaders. The Prisendtial system of elections was rejected by the makers of the Constitution because the masses could easily be influenced by the aura around leaders, thereby overlooking the entire concept of electing local representatives. Such attempts to change the Indian polity into a de facto Presidential system should not go unchecked. It is indeed tragic that people fail to realize a simple fact. In any democracy, people elect MP’s and not PM’s. We vote to elect someone into the office of an MP from our constituency to represent us in the Parliament. This brings MP’s closer to understanding local problems, and thus also helps people reach the correct person when they need an issue to be addressed. The leaders who represent a constituency are from that constituency and can sympathize with the problems faced by locals. This enriches democratic practices and ensures that the MP remains accountable to the people who voted him/her into office. We do not have the means to elect a Party to power, and most definitely are not meant to elect one leader into the office of Prime Minister. It is the departure from this trend that lets a former Gujarat Chief Minister contest from Banaras to collect communal brownie points.

There is a conscious effort to create a binary narrative just before the elections. What transcends common logic is: how can complex national and international issues be reduced to a dichotomous discourse? Why should we be made to choose between bigotry and corruption? The reason behind this phenomenon is again the obsessive worshipping of political leaders. In fact, the very cause of such electoral trends is the presence of the less informed voter, who has heard of how the Government is involved in the Rafale deal, but probably lacks the necessary information to make a conscious choice. This voter can, thus be swayed by impressions of a politician’s personality, thereby leading to a need for creating such a personality. Millions of rupees are spent on social media campaigns and the creation of a profitable narrative before election season. The ruling party is attempting to paint the Congress and the entire Opposition at large, as some sort of a major conspiracy involving intellectuals, liberals, activists and of course, the Government’s go-to card for creating national anger- Pakistan.

We live in an age of unchecked and irresponsible journalism, where the media houses are more of political mouthpieces and not impartial watchdogs of democracy. The corporatization of journalism has led to the politician-industrialist nexus creating their own versions of the truth and peddling it during elections. While media houses continue their profiteering and politicians engage in their sloganeering, the increasing unaccountability of these two entities is enhancing the rise of fringes. And as the last part of this vicious cycle, it is these fringe groups who create TRPs for media houses by engaging in blind devotion towards politicians and creating controversies for media houses to feed on. This has also led to an increasing mistrust in the media, a fact that is well utilized by autocrats all over the world.

This practice has spilled over onto social media, where faithful armies of protectors, fans and political augurs occupy cyberspace- ready to pounce on any voice which dares to express views contrary to those of their favourite leaders. This has unleashed a terrible wave of trolling, threats and forceful suppression of different viewpoints. In the 21st century, this is perhaps the single largest threat to freedom of expression on the internet, and our democracy at large.

In the words of Winston Churchill: “Democracy is certainly the worst form of Government, after all the others”.

India has enjoyed over seven good decades of democracy. This Republic has survived the dark days of the Emergency, religious riots and unified under a single banner to share moments of national solidarity. But today, we stand at crossroads from where one road leads down the path of autocracy, while the other might lead to a better tomorrow for the nation.   


First published on the Law School Policy Review

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