By Vinod Mubayi, January 1, 2022
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent “performance” in Varanasi where he changed costumes four times in the course of a day in several locations in the city while performing Hindu religious rituals, from immersing himself in the Ganges River to praying in the refurbished Vishwanath temple, on national TV channels shows the outrageousness of the cult of personality engulfing the country. Billboards at bus stops and train stations and all manner of government issued documents including Covid vaccination cards, are bedecked with the image of the Supreme Leader accompanied, on occasion, by his faithful attendant Amit Shah. The assiduous promotion of this personality cult, much of it with hundreds if not thousands of crores of public money, has, in addition to its easily mocked cartoonish aspects, a more frightening and dangerous side.
The dangerous part is the steady march to a majoritarian and authoritarian autocracy destroying or negating each and every facet of a supposed constitutional secular democracy. This journey is already quite far advanced; every government institution, executive, legislative, as well as the judicial branch is being eroded and stripped of its independent character and function and being fashioned into a mere appendage of the Prime Minister’s Office. Thus, actions of government are portrayed as manifestations of the benevolence of the Leader. His picture on the vaccination card conveys the impression that one’s vaccine dose is a personal gift from him.
In addition to destruction of constitutionally independent institutions, there is a panoply of ostensibly “legal” methods including the passage of new laws, both at the central level as well as in BJP ruled states, by pliant rubber-stamp majorities without discussion or debate. This process began soon after the 2019 elections with the dissolution of the state of Jammu & Kashmir into two union territories ruled by the Centre in August 2019 and the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution followed a few months later by the passage a few months later of the blatantly majoritarian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Peaceful and constitutional protests against these “laws” were quelled by force, either mass arrests and virtual military rule in J&K or by provoking communal riots as in Delhi against the CAA protestors. The onset of the pandemic did not slow down this dangerous process of “legal” subversion of the constitution; at the height of covid, parliament passed the farm laws in September 2020, now repealed after a year of struggle and sacrifice by hundreds of thousands of farmers. These moves to a majoritarian autocracy at the Centre are supplemented by a slew of anti-minority “laws” in BJP ruled states. The most notorious is the so-called Love-Jihad law passed by the legislatures of BJP-ruled states of UP, MP and Uttarakhand that criminalizes inter-religious marriage even between consenting adults. Karnataka, another BJP ruled state, has now mounted this bandwagon too. While the thrust of this legislation in north India is against Muslims, in Karnataka in the south it is also anti-Christian, on the ground of “protecting Hindus” from being converted to allegedly foreign religions like Christianity or Islam. In practice, what such laws encourage and promote is polarization within a community on the basis of religious identity accompanied by violent attacks by extremist Hindus on isolated places of worship (churches, mosques) of the minorities or random individuals like Muslim food vendors. The police either look the other way or at times arrest the victims rather than the perpetrators on the grounds that what the victims said or did or how they reacted to the assault on them threatened the peace!
In addition to new laws that criminalize heretofore constitutional behavior, law enforcement agencies are used systematically to quash dissent to the Modi regime and its policies. The Bhima-Koregaon (BK) case is the most notorious in this regard perhaps where several human rights activists, trade union lawyers, and cultural figures, some of them more than 80 years old, have been in jail for years on the basis of what has conclusively been shown to be incriminating documents planted by malware on the computer of one those jailed. One of the accused Father Stan Swamy an 84-year-old Jesuit priest who had fought all his life for the rights of the Adivasis of Jharkhand even died in jail after being denied bail. But the BK case is only the tip of an iceberg of harassment and intimidation of all potential opponents of the Modi regime that has used the tax authorities, the (economic) enforcement directorate, as well as items such as the Pegasus spyware from the Israeli NSO group to infiltrate the mobile phones of journalists, academics, lawyers, and politicians.
All these actions are dangerous because they are designed to provide a legal veneer to what would otherwise be blatantly anti-constitutional acts. However, as long as the courts, principally the Supreme Court, turn a blind eye to these acts the Modi regime can get away with them as has been the case for the last few years. It is indeed shameful that even habeas corpus petitions have been pending for years before the Supreme Court that has chosen to kick the can down the road and avoid its responsibilities. It seems that the cult of personality is fast enveloping and intimidating the judiciary to such an extent that it is neglecting its constitutional prerogatives.
The frightening part of the Modi cult is its utilization for the promotion of the goal of a Hindu rashtra (nation). This goal has a wide variety of projects associated with its implementation and some of them include the more violent fantasies of the Hindu right-wing. These were on full display at the “Dharam Sansad” (a sort of religious parliament) held in the holy town of Haridwar from December 17-19, 2021, in which assorted Hindu religious figures, many closely linked to mainstream BJP politicians, participated and gave open calls for genocide of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, in India. Characteristically, Modi has remained silent on these vile tirades of his fervent supporters. To what extent this rhetoric was designed to rev up the BJP’s base in advance of the forthcoming UP and Uttarakhand elections is beside the point. The Uttarakhand police’s failure to act until now against those “Swamis” like Yati Narsinghanand and others openly exhorting Hindus to pick up weapons and kill Muslims speaks volumes in and of itself of the posture of the police and their political masters.
It is not the first time that the world has witnessed the rise of a cult of personality and its vice-like grip on a nation’s social and political consciousness. Wikipedia states:
“The cult of personality phenomenon refers to the idealized, even god-like, public image of an individual consciously shaped and molded through constant propaganda and media exposure…A cult of personality, or cult of the leader, arises when a country’s regime uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized and heroic image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. A cult of personality …is established by modern social engineering techniques. The mass media have played an instrumental role in forging national leaders’ cults of personality.”
Although the context is different, the closest resemblance of the Modi personality cult and Hindutva is to the Hitler cult and the Nazi movement in Germany of the 1930s. Religious minorities, notably Jews in Germany, suffered acute discrimination and demonization, including random lynching, destruction of property and social boycott, prior to the Final Solution of mass extermination. Majoritarian ideology based on the notion of Aryan race was pushed to such an extreme that “normal” citizens either applauded it or were afraid to rebuke it. Modi’s ideological mentors in the RSS like Guru Golwalkar recommended how Nazi Germany was dealing with its minorities when he said in his book We Or Our Nationhood Defined:
“To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of Semitic races – the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by”
While the anti-minority phenomena of Nazi Germany may be in an initial stage in India at present, the rhetoric of the Haridwar sansad suggests that a higher phase is fast approaching. Majoritarian sentiment is also rooting itself in the minds of the Hindu middle classes who are turning into Modi bhakts with a firm belief in fake news about minorities just like the adoration and adulation afforded to Hitler by significant numbers of the German middle classes who also came to believe the most atrocious nonsense about Jews.
It is also useful to recall as another point of comparison that Hitler and the Nazis came to power through elections. They benefited from the conflict between other established political parties in Germany such as the Social Democrats and Communists who failed to comprehend the motives and goals of the Nazis.
While Modi’s BJP may have won only a little over a third (about 37%) of the votes in the last parliamentary election in 2019, given the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral politics in India, it was enough to give Modi a solid majority in the Lok Sabha. He has adroitly used this majority to both convert parliament into a mere rubber stamp for his policies as well as provide a sheen of legitimacy to his cult of personality. The complicity of the mainstream media helps strengthen this legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate. The mainstream media, known popularly as the godi (lapdog) media, furnish the elements of propaganda needed to polish and burnish the image of the Leader or conceal inconvenient facts that may bring him into disrepute. Most of the major media are owned by big capital and the fact that the Modi government is the most pro-corporate regime in independent India’s seventy-five-year history has established the nexus needed to promote this cult of personality.
However, his capitulation to the historic farmers struggle shows the chinks in his armor that are directly related to his disastrous policies affecting both the economy and the polity. Modi’s cult thrives on the legitimacy conferred by his electoral victories. To defeat him and BJP, starting with the fast-approaching state elections, unity of the parties of the Left and Centre, along with regional parties is needed to confront and defeat BJP. In a highly emotional interview with TV host Karan Thapar reported in The Wire of December 23, former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah repeatedly asserted the need for opposition unity to defeat the BJP and “save India” from a horrible fate. How feasible this is in individual states or at the national level, where elections are due in 2024, is a matter of detail in each jurisdiction. But there is an old political adage about creating a united front to oppose a fascist party: “If you don’t hang together, you will assuredly hang separately.”