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The final harvest of Modi's cult of personality has yet to be reaped

January 22, 2013 11:38 IST

'Narendrabhai is India and India is Narendrabhai.' Is this the chorus that will greet us a few years hence, asks Vivek Dehejia.

The great Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks: La crisi consiste appunto nel fatto che il vecchio muore e il nuovo non puo nascere; in questo interregno si verificano il fenomeni morbosi piu svariati.'

My rendering of this typically epigraphic and enigmatic quotation would read: 'The crisis lies precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born; in this interregnum are manifested phenomena of the most morbid variety.'

Gramsci was writing in the early part of the 20th century, and chief amongst the 'morbid' phenomena that he identified was the rise of Fascism in Italy. Benito Mussolini was perhaps the first authoritarian politician of modern times to recognise the power of the media in helping to create and then nurture a cult of personality, and, indeed, a politics centered on himself more than on the Fascists' reactionary ideology.

The Mussolini cult very explicitly drew on the imagery of the old Roman Empire, thus suggesting that Il Duce was a modern incarnation of the Roman emperors and drawing a vicarious if spurious legitimacy from the glory of the imperial past.

Mussolini was followed by Adolf Hitler in Germany and Josef Stalin in Soviet Russia, and by innumerable authoritarian leaders the world over, up until the present day. Hitler, in particular, was a master at using the (then relatively new) medium of cinema to cement his hold on the consciousness of the German middle classes.

Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 film, Triumph des Willens, is to this day parsed by scholars for its pioneering fusion of technology and art, together devoted to the propagation of Hitler's cult of personality and the simultaneous reification of Nazi ideology.

The legendary opening scene, of Hitler's aircraft descending from the sky, evokes some sort of Teutonic god coming down from Valhalla to earth on a chariot, and sets up the deifying narrative that follows.

In an important sense, a politics of personality represents an atavistic return to an older, pre-modern, and even pre-rational form of politics. Kings in ancient times ruled by divine right, and were often themselves imbued with divinity by orthodox doctrine.

The Roman 'imperial cult', whereby the emperor was at once divine and a secular ruler, was the foundation of Roman religion, politics, and law alike and is an apt illustration.

Likewise, the Pope was (and remains) the spiritual leader of Roman Catholicism, but up until 1870 was also the secular ruler of the region around Rome, a claim the papacy did not officially give up until 1929 (after striking a deal, fittingly enough, with Mussolini's Fascist government).

In all such instances of divinely ordained rulers, the neat conflation of king and god made fealty to the secular ruler not only politically but religiously sanctioned behaviour. Disloyalty was not only unpatriotic; it was immoral and against divine law.

The rise of the rule of law and of modern constitutional democracy was meant, in theory, to sever that umbilical connection between the ruler and the ruled. But, perhaps paradoxically, personality-driven politics -- if now without explicit religious sanction -- has thrived as much in democracies (and not just nominal ones) as in authoritarian States.

In pre-modern times, a personality cult, perhaps religiously sanctioned, buttressed or bolstered a ruler's position and helped secure the obedience (if not the consent) of the population.

In our modern world, a personality cult may be used to electoral advantage if it helps to build a political base for a party or candidate, brings the faithful out to vote on election day, and keeps them supportive (or at least docile) between elections.

One might well argue that the first personality cult in modern Indian politics is the one that developed around Gandhi during the freedom struggle against British rule. Indeed, it was exactly the visceral reaction of large segments of the Indian populace to Gandhi's exhortations and actions that transformed a genteel club of Anglicised lawyers that was the Congress Party into a genuine mass movement.

After Independence, and Gandhi's assassination, the mantle of that cult was assumed to some extent, if perhaps unwillingly, by Nehru.

But it was Indira Gandhi who made decisive the turn of the Congress away from its ideological roots in Nehruvian socialism and non-alignment (how realistic or successful these policies were being a different debate) to a politics of personality.

These coincided with the decay of the institutions of state erected by the Constitution, and culminated, of course, in the Emergency, a period during which Mrs Gandhi's authoritarian rule threatened, however briefly, to turn India into another generically failed postcolonial State.

The cringe-worthy and sycophantic slogan, 'Indira is India and India is Indira', uttered by the Congress president during the Emergency, punctuated this transformation of the Indian polity.

To a great extent, after the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, and decisively after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the politics of personality has receded at the Centre and given way to the realities of coalition politics, which has more to do with brokering sectional interests than it does with galvanising support around a single charismatic leader.

For the Congress, the brokerage party par excellence, the dynastic family at its helm has so far floundered in its fledgling attempts to build a following around its scion and presumptive heir, Rahul Gandhi.

Faltering rather than decisive, wooden rather charismatic, Rahul rather presents the image of a tired dauphin who has grown prematurely middle-aged waiting to ascend the throne.

Be that as it may, the younger Gandhi took a step closer to that throne this past weekend, when the Congress appointed him as its vice-president and thus officially its second in command.

If his dynastic succession is democratically confirmed (that is, both by being chosen as the Congress' prime ministerial candidate, and if the Congress and allies win re-election next year), his elevation is sure to elicit sycophantic cries of approbation from the usual quarters.

And as the fifth generation of a dynastic family, he may well reign rather than rule. But it seems implausible that anything like a cult of personality will develop around him, no matter how much the Congress may wish to create it.

Rather, the incipient return of the politics of personality to the centre follows directly upon the meteoric rise of Narendra Modi. I have recently analysed the 'Modi model' in Gujarat both in terms of its feasibility and desirability as a template for other states in the Indian Union and its implications for politics at the Centre.

While one may debate the economic success of Gujarat and try to ascertain what measure of the credit (or blame) may be apportioned to the leader at the helm of state, what is beyond dispute is that good governance and market-oriented economic policies alone are not responsible for Modi's political success.

The latter is premised as much, if not more, on by what is now a fully-fledged cult of personality around Modi himself as much as it is on the policy improvements or administrative reforms he may have accomplished.

French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot has documented well how, in the 2007 election, Modi worked assiduously to forge and burnish his image, doing so in part by tapping a vein of communal chauvinism that had been brought to the surface in 2002.

By the time of the 2012 election, the fruits of that effort, and of a tireless public relations campaign in the intervening years, were ready to be plucked in Gujarat and resulted in Modi's decisive re-election victory.

One measure of the success in building a Modi cult -- for calling it merely a 'brand' would be to deny its true significance -- may be found in the zeal of its adherents. Unlike Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, who largely shun even the conventional media, Modi has capitalised brilliantly on the advent of the new social media, and used it to full advantage -- as evidenced both by last year's election campaign and the recently concluded 'Vibrant Gujarat' summit.

This new world of Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts, blogs, and all the rest has empowered a swathe of conservative, educated, middle class, urban, mostly Hindu followers, not just in Gujarat but throughout India and amongst the Diaspora, who have felt heretofore excluded from the orthodox narratives as told by the conventional media, principally print newspapers and television.

These followers are by and large not drawn from the old Anglicised elite ('Macaulay's Children'), but are rather the children of the 1991 economic liberalisation. And as members of a newly risen bourgeoisie, many harbour quite legitimate grievances against an old order which had, until recently, deprived them of opportunities for economic, political, or social advancement and which continues to be rife with cronyism and corruption.

Much like the acolytes of the Tea Party movement in the United States, which they in many ways resemble, today's Internet-savvy Modi supporters at once rail against what they decry as a 'Left-Liberal' bias in the media establishment, as they work tirelessly in the social media both to promote Modi and to pillory those whom they perceive to be his critics.

Yet, the putative final harvest of Modi's ripening cult of personality has yet to be reaped. That day would arrive if he ascends to the nation's highest office after the general election next year.

That outcome, of course, is contingent both on the Bharatiya Janata Party anointing him its prime ministerial candidate and the BJP and its allies winning the election, in whichever order; and neither contingency at this point is anything like a certainty.

Still, nor is it a long shot, and the prospect of Modi's brand of personality-driven politics finding electoral success at the Centre must be taken very seriously indeed.

If the nation does, in fact, wake up to a Prime Minister Modi ensconced at 7 Race Course Road in a little more than a year's time, it would obviously be a major political upheaval, ending ten years of Congress-led rule.

More importantly still, it would mark an apotheosis of sorts for the politics of personality in India.

Finally, it would represent vindication for his many fervid supporters, who seen in him at once a champion of their inchoate anxieties, frustrations, and grievances with the established political order, as much as they see an exemplar of the new self-made, aspiring bourgeoisie to which they belong.

This possibility is as much a reflection on the decadence of the ancien regime, and the corruption and dissolution of some of its members, as it is a commentary on the aspirational new bourgeoisie who stand ready to overthrow it.

Robespierre would have been impossible without Louis XVI -- not so much the extravagance and ostentatious display of his court, as brought out in popular and fictionalised accounts, but rather, as stressed by serious historians, the fiscal profligacy of the State and its failure to accomplish much needed economic and political reforms -- which should be familiar to us in India today.

Yet, as Lenin understood better than Trotsky and Gandhi better than Nehru, the achievement of any revolution is a function not merely of the perceived rightness of the ideology to which it adheres, but equally of the personal charisma of the leader who promulgates those ideals and, if need be, departs from them for politically expedient ends.

For good or ill, the veneer of a cult of personality that is now encrusted on Narendra Modi, and which animates his supporters, can no longer meaningfully be separated from the ideology that he espouses or the accomplishments that he touts.

'Narendrabhai is India and India is Narendrabhai.' Is this the chorus that will greet us a few years hence?

Vivek Dehejia, is professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He contributes to The New York Times' IndiaInk blog and is co-author of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India.

Vivek Dehejia