The cult of the leader

There is a depressing dysfunction in India’s political culture: choices are increasingly about aesthetic preference, rather than rational decision-making

February 14, 2014 01:31 am | Updated August 21, 2016 07:58 pm IST

HERO WORSHIP: Rajinikanth fans bathe his banner in milk whilecelebrating the release of his movie Sivaji in 2007. Photo: M. Vedhan

HERO WORSHIP: Rajinikanth fans bathe his banner in milk whilecelebrating the release of his movie Sivaji in 2007. Photo: M. Vedhan

It is possible an archaeologist may one day puzzle over this holy relic: the bespectacled idol perched over the lingam inside the Shiva temple at Bhagwanpur, Uttar Pradesh, its ‘Fair-and-Lovely’ complexion in fetching contrast with its hot pink lips. Mediated through moffusil pop art, Narendra Modi’s likeness may lack the gravitas of Michelangelo’s Moses, but that has done nothing to deter the faithful. Sonia Gandhi has also begun to enter India’s religious iconography, incarnating as the Goddess of Telangana and, earlier, as an eight-armed Durga in a Congress party calendar.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal doesn’t need a temple: he has abandoned his atheism, claiming his own rise to power is proof god is on his side. The great Bertrand Russell would have been delighted: “Look at me,” the philosopher mocked the theists. “I am such a splendid product that there must be design in the universe.”

The rise of these cults of the leader, each invoking divinity to legitimise its power, points us to a dispiriting dysfunction in our political culture. “For the barbarians were not only at our gates but within our skins,” wrote Salman Rushdie in The Moor’s Last Sigh . “We were our own wooden horses, each one of us full of our doom.”

The wages of chaos From the time of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to his grandson, India’s political bodies all orbited a single star. In the last two decades, the constellation fell apart, never quite regaining its centre. The idea that the political universe lacks a guiding hand seems self-evident: corruption and misadministration are endemic; economic growth is threatened; demographic and ecological pressures are mounting. The dramatic performances on the Telangana issue in Parliament on Thursday was just a scene in unfolding operatic crescendo, that spectators cannot but suspect may have a tragic end.

Leadership cults give the illusion of order, even if the choice is principally between a man who thinks Alexander’s armies were beaten back on the banks of the Ganga, and another who mystifyingly proclaims that politics resides “in your pants.”

It doesn’t take a lot to notice that the major cults have an awful sameness to their scripture. Rahul Gandhi and Mr. Modi, though enmeshed in establishmentarian party machines, both cast themselves as outsiders. Mr. Modi thinks that “government has no business doing business”; Mr. Gandhi says he’s upset business is being “held back by slow decision making.” They both agree that some variant of community self-rule is a good thing, say the empowerment of women is a core concern, and agree on larger entitlements for the poor. And they’re united in their outrage against corruption.

Mr. Modi has a vision: “India will once again rise and become a great power.” Mr. Gandhi has a vision, too: he promises to propel India towards becoming a superpower.

Phrases like these have all the substance of a Chetan Bhagat novella: it’s not for nothing that the word vision, after all, also applies to chimeras. They tell us next to nothing about what public policy interventions leaders intend to make. There’s no detail at all on precisely how corruption will be stamped out, what administrative reforms will be put in place, or exactly how education will be improved. From all this, there’s one safe bet to be made: whoever takes power in 2014 is guaranteed to make his predecessor look like an intellectual giant.

The lack of seriousness about actual reform has manifested itself in the outgoing Lok Sabha, which has passed less legislation than any of its full-term predecessors. The point of politics has become the possession of power, mainly for ends linked to municipal patronage, not its exercise for transformative ends.

For many Indians, political choice has become a matter of aesthetic preference, not rational decision-making. It may be true, as Mr. Modi’s supporters say, that he has a record of delivering on governance. But if governance alone was the criteria, the data shows Mr. Modi’s supporters ought be throwing their weight behind Ms Jayalalithaa. Mr. Gandhi’s supporters, for their part, cast the choice as a defence of pluralism and social justice. His party, though, has an unsurpassed record as a practitioner of mass communal violence and economic injustice. Few Delhi voters who support the spartan Mr. Kejriwal would consider backing the even more austere Tripura Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar.

This is because our society has lost the intellectual capacity to seek the information that a rational choice would require. Issues of policy roll past Indian ears like Sanskrit mantras , incomprehensible to all but a caste of high priests. Indian democracy is thus reducing itself to a question of whether we like our heroes to have charming dimples or manly chests.

Fascism or farce? Liberals sometimes argue that this degeneration marks a slow drift towards fascism. Mr Modi’s holographic clones and his armies of followers have been read as evidence of an authoritarian anti-politics in which the person of the leader replaces god. It isn’t just an idle argument. The historian Emilio Gentile argued that the Italian fascists used festivals and rituals to create a kind of lay religion — a cult of the Duce. 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.”

In India, though, politicians who cannot be credibly described as fascist have also used this idiom. Following the death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran in 1987, 31 grief-stricken followers committed suicide. No less than 21 people killed themselves in 1986, mainly by burning themselves, to protest the arrest of his rival, M. Karunanidhi.

Last year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s fan H.U. Hussaini had a bust of her made up in human blood. Elsewhere, supporters were reported to have cut off their thumbs and tongues as acts of ritual sacrifice. Followers in Tamil Nadu, journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj has recorded, “light camphor and lay flowers” before her photographs.

It would be tempting to write this off as some kind of amusing Tamil eccentricity, but the sad fact is that it is deeply woven into our national cultural fabric. Journalist Amita Verma has chronicled how former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kumari Mayawati asked her party workers to treat her as deity. Later, artist Mahesh Tripathi put up an exhibition with works depicting her in various goddess-like states.

Sonia Gandhi herself has long been cast by the Congress as a mother-goddess figure. Tamil Nadu Congress leader Vimla Ganesan, typically, said her leader was “above greed and power.” She was also, Ms Ganesan went on, above human passion, asking “for clemency for her husband’s murderer.”

India’s leadership crisis is part of a larger landscape of cultural dysfunction, which our political life simply provides a stage for.

The politics of ‘Fan Bhakti’ The scholar M. Madhava Prasad called this political culture ‘Fan Bhakti.’ Dr. Prasad’s reflections, published in 2007, were provoked by the rise and rise of movie star Rajinikanth. The actor’s fans famously conducted a palabhishekham — the ritual washing of temple idols with milk — on his cut-outs. Hinduism, Dr. Prasad contended, allowed for the production of “a space of worship around any suitable image, however produced.” It was not that fans watching an actor play Krishna mistook him for the real thing. Instead, the actor came to embody virtues one associated with godhood—for example, justice and the hope of a better life.

‘Fan Bhakti,’ Dr. Prasad’s work suggests, flourishes in cultures were politics fails to devolve meaningful power to people. India’s people are thus reduced to worshippers before a deity, supplicating it for favours.

For those of us old enough to remember the disillusion that followed the seductive sunrises of Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the contenders in this election are just the latest in a long line of prophets. Faith in prophets is often closely followed by disillusion — but, then, as the durability of queues at temples shows, disillusion rarely deters believers.

The degeneration of our political life is likely enmeshed with a broader crisis. The obsessive influence questions of ethnic-religious identity have come to have in the lives of Indians; the tyrannical suppression of individual freedoms by tradition; the recrudescence superstition and ostentatious religiosity; of the anxieties over masculinity that so often erupt into rage: these together point to our failure to evolve a culture with the vocabulary modern democracies need.

It is improbable that meaningful political change will take place until society comes to value evidence-based thinking, reason and the pre-eminent republican quality, citizenship. Leaders will not hold themselves to higher standards of conduct until society starts demanding that of them. The democracy we’ve got is the one we’ve built.

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