Recently the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has accelerated its efforts to appropriate historic national icons like Gandhi and Ambedkar. Driven by the possibility of electoral gains, the party has been trying to hitch its bandwagon to the legacies of both personalities. Why this appropriation is purely symbolic and has not affected the BJP’s core ideology, is a separate matter of discussion.
We have been seeing evidence of the symbolic co-option of Gandhi and Ambedkar for a long time. What began with the synchronisation of his pet project, the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, to Gandhi’s birth anniversary, culminated last week in the Prime Minister’s desire to replace Gandhi with his own image. For any thinking person, it is surely difficult to ignore the implications of this huge leap in the self-promotion that has always defined Modi’s politics.
What we see on display here is a deepening culture of personality cult, the likes of which we have not really witnessed before. Given that personality cults of varying degrees and ideologies have been part and parcel of Indian politics, the novelty of this particular move is no small matter. It can be argued the culture of narcissism has been continuously bolstered since Narendra Modi rode to power with a thumping majority, decimating the main opposition in 2014. Over the last two years and more, the Prime Minister has gone from projecting himself as a legatee of Gandhi, to replacing Gandhi’s image with his own, on the Khadi and Village Industries Commission’s (KVIC) calendar and diary.
The latest row was sparked by the controversial KVIC representation, which shows Modi instead of Gandhi spinning the charkha. That historic image had, till now, been associated solely with Gandhi in popular consciousness. The charkha and Gandhi are synonymous not only in our national culture – but also internationally. Ironically, Gandhi has now been replaced by Modi, whose beliefs – especially in the sphere of economics – could not be further removed from those of the man he displaced. The charkha is, above all, an embodiment of Gandhi’s economic philosophy and his belief in self reliance. Privatisation, economic liberalism, and the opening up of society to all kinds of external capital doesn’t fit Gandhi’s ideas one bit.
Still, we could possibly have overlooked self-delusion of replacing Gandhi with his own image as a one-time flight of fancy, an aberration, had it not been of a piece with the BJP’s and its Prime Minister’s consistent efforts to promote a personality cult.
However, Haryana Health Minister Anil Vij’s offensive remarks, coming a day after the KVIC announcement, affirm such apprehensions. Even as the controversy still raged, Vij said at a press conference: “Jab se khadi ke saath Gandhi ka naam judta raha, khadi uth hi nahi saki. Khadi doob gayi (Ever since Gandhi’s name has been associated with khadi, the industry has not been able to stand up. It has drowned.)” As fresh uproar erupted over his comments, Vij was forced to retract his remarks. But such tactical, clumsy retractions are unlikely to fool anyone. Especially if we keep in mind the Minister’s earlier elaborate comment that khadi sales had risen by “14 percent” after its association with Modi. But that’s not the end of it. In response to the question about why the BJP government is continuing to use Gandhi’s image on the new currency notes, Vij said: “Gradually, he (Gandhi) will be removed from the notes.”
Let us also not forget in this context the prime minister’s office's reaction to the matter. “Modi is an icon of the youth and the growing popularity of khadi in the world is testimony to this.”
Clearly, the ruling party seems happy to both tacitly and explicitly abet the construction of a cult of personality surrounding the Prime Minister. In saying this, we cannot overlook the prominent role Modi himself has played in creating an image of himself as the sole architect of his government’s, the sole protagonist, the only doer, in his party. He has represented himself as the primary mover of each and every policy – beginning with Swachch Bharat in the early days of his government, right down to the recent demonetisation policy.
It is the singular I and not the collective we, which has unfailingly characterised most of his speeches delivered at home and abroad.
Call it narcissism or arrogance, the ultimate result of such politics is both predictable and alarming: personality cults feed dictatorial cultures. An atmosphere is being created where Modi believes he can legitimately step into the shoes of Gandhi, a belief his party colleagues and rank and file applaud from the sidelines. These are not welcome signs.
To state a common sense truism: personality cults – particularly when promoted by powerful leaders at the top – portend disastrous consequences for democracy. India is no exception in this regard.
Updated Date: Jan 16, 2017 12:12 PM