I’d travelled up the elevators in the Akashdeep Building up to the eleventh floor, as high as they would go. Less than two dozen steps now separated me from the Asian Regional Institute of the Juche Idea, the largest Indian outpost of "supreme commander Kim Jong-Il and his impregnable country". Kim’s trusted spokesman, Vishwanath, hadn’t taken my calls, returned my mail, or sent me flowers. "To study Juche idea," the website had promised, "it costs nothing, but pays in plenty". There was nothing up the stairs, though, bar bird-poo and pigeons.
Heartbreak, not for the first time, had followed seduction (Kim Jong-Il, mind, ended up dead, having first starved millions of his people. So perhaps I got off easy).
Later, I received a mail from Vishwanath, declining to meet. “I wish you had visited the Democratic People’s Republic Korea and seen with your own eyes, what this country [is] today”. “Seeing is believing,” he concluded.
Seeing is indeed believing.
Heading into possibly the most important Lok Sabha elections in our history, India’s parties ought to be discussing an ailing economy, the geostrategic crisis that might envelop us as Pakistan melts down, the crisis in West Asia that is inexorably pushing up the price of energy, and a youth bulge that threatens to put millions of under-educated youth on the streets in years to come. Instead, as Venky Vembu has argued in Firstpost, the BJP’s got busy guarding its right flank. Its busy building up the cult of Narendra Modi; the Congress trying desperately to build a cult out of the resisting, cotton-textured, cardboard-flavoured Rahul Gandhi.
The fate of the Juche cult in India, mock-worthy as it might seem, thus holds up a mirror to our political culture. The only thing we have is cults.
Liberal opponents of the Modi cult have long cast it as a personality cult that heralds a coming fascism. Modi’s holographic clones, his armies of mask-wearing supporters, his quite literal deification in Gujarat: all these have been read as evidence of an authoritarian anti-politics in which the person of the leader replaces god. This line of argument has a venerable intellectual lineage. Emilio Gentile, a great historian of fascism, famously 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".
The thing is, these kinds explanations only take us so far. In India, all kinds of politicians have done the same thing, including several who cannot credibly be accused of being fascist.
Following the death of Tamil Nadu chief minister MG 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, K Karunanidhi.
Earlier this year, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa fan HU Husaini 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. Journalist DBS Jeyaraj has recorded that in some Tamil Nadu homes, "people light camphor and lay flowers before" her photographs. “Falling at her feet or touching them as a mark of respect is almost a ritual for many of her followers,” Jeyaraj wrote. In one incident, “veshti-clad party men standing in a line fell down like ninepins as she alighted from [an] aircraft. When they got up, the white veshtis were all red from the soil.”
It would be tempting to write this off as some kind of macabre Tamil sport, but it is in fact deeply woven into our national cultural fabric. Journalist Amita Verma has chronicled how former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, in 2003, asked her party workers to pray to her instead of to deities. In 2007, author ML Dosad published a book describing Ms Mayawati as Ek Zinda Devi, or living goddess. Two years later, artist Mahesh Tripathi put up an exhibition with works depicting her in various goddess-like states. Finally, in 2010, lawyer Kanhaiya Lal Rajput obligingly handed over three acres of land to build a temple to the object of his veneration.
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". Indira Gandhi was, however, marketed as Durga—myth-building, it bears mention, that bore former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s approval. The most successful cult-building exercise of all, of course, was the making of the Mahatma.
M Madhava Prasad has called it this process of deification ‘Fan Bhakti’. Prasad’s reflections, published in 2007, were provoked by the rise and rise of movie star Rajnikanth. The actor’s fans famously conducted a palabhishekham—the ritual washing of temple idols with milk—on his cut-outs. Hinduism, 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, 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, asking for favour in return for offerings.
Political Fan Bhakti is a delusion—a ceaseless search for a messiah who will deliver us from our sufferings. Modi—for those of us old enough to remember the disillusion that followed the seductive sunrises of prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Vishwanath Pratap Singh—is the latest in a long line of leaders promising radical change. The problem is that successful political change needs a rigorous, evidence-based sensibility—a sensibility that privileges hard thinking on policy issues over feel-good polemic. It’s always good to be beware of prophets.
In this case, there isn’t one: Modi might or might not be a decent administrator, but he’s no prophet. I’ve searched, without luck, to find one genuinely original idea in Modi’s much-praised speech at Shri Ram College of Commerce conclave. Economic vision? Think Margaret Thatcher, think Ronald Reagan, think—gasp—Manmohan Singh. Modi thinks that “government has no business doing business”; Singh takes pride in “getting government off the backs of the people”. Singh claims poverty will be addressed by India “becoming a major global player in the world economy”; Modi asserts that “the solution to all problems is development”. Modi hopes “India will once again rise and become a great power”; Singh insists that “the emergence of India as a major global power, [an] economic power, is an idea whose time has come”. Reading these anodyne speeches, the words Tweedledum and Tweedledee kept springing out at me; I felt a deep sense of loss for Kim Jong-Il.
Modi’s discursive strategies, Firstpost’s Lakshmi Chaudhry has pointed out, derive not so much from the high traditions of Hindu-nationalist ideology, but the Chetan Bhagat novel. Singh uses longer sentences, but says much the same things.
The horrible truth is that even the Gujarat mass killings of 2002 weren’t a particularly original project. Modi didn’t invent communal violence—and, for cynical exploitation of mass killings, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi deserved first prize. It’s one of the great ironies of recent Indian history that a major national secularism award is named after the Prime Minister who presided over the Delhi riots of 1984, Meerut in 1987 and the Bhagalpur riots of 1989.
Modi’s more serious supporters, as well as his critics, have made thoughtful arguments about the issues we ought be debating. There’s little evidence, sadly, the political leadership either comprehends or cares for these debates—or, more important, that they’re informing popular discussion, online and in homes. Instead, we have invective, abuse and outright stupidity.
Look hard, thus, for serious new ideas on how India should engage our dangerous geo-strategic environment, our explosive youth bulge, or the looming energy crisis—and you come up with zip.
I’ll happily admit that Modi an intellectual giant compared to Rahul Gandhi, who once claimed, with breath-taking earnestness, that politics “is in your pants” (though, in fairness, certain gender-studies types might agree with him).
Nor will I dispute that political vacuity is a global illness. In a sparkling essay published earlier this month, the commentator Harris Khalique savaged Ian Khan’s anti-corruption campaign, pointing out that “snazzy management solutions to deeply-entrenched and almost organic structural problems fix nothing”. From the younger George Bush to Bunga-Bunga’ Silvio Berlusconi, desperate peoples across the world have turned to leaders offering feel-good politics.
Zero ought not, however, be the base line by which we judge our leaders. India needs better politicians if it is to become the country we all want. For that to happen, we’ll have shed the tribal, leader-focussed passions that drive Fan Bhakti.