The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

India, the world’s largest democracy, is now powered by a cult of personality

How Prime Minister Narendra Modi refashioned his governing party.

Modi addresses a rally in Ahmedabad last week.
Modi addresses a rally in Ahmedabad last week. (Amit Dave/Reuters)

Is there a cult of personality in the democratic world to rival Narendra Modi’s? Consider the pageantry of veneration consecrated to the Indian prime minister just last month. On Feb. 24, the world’s largest cricket stadium — built at a cost of more than $100 million and bearing the name of one of India’s most revered founding fathers — was unblushingly re-christened the Narendra Modi Stadium by the Modi government. (Comparisons are inexact, but imagine if Donald Trump had renamed Lincoln Center after himself.) Four days later, the country’s space agency catapulted a satellite bearing a photo of Modi into the heavens. In one week, Modi had his name monumentalized on Earth and his face exalted in the stars.

The glorification of Modi originated in service of a cause larger than the man. Its purpose, at first, was to ennoble Hindu nationalism by elaborately showcasing its most successful proponent. Bereft of respectable historical icons who espoused their creed, Hindu nationalists had been stigmatized for decades as ideological renegades in a country that identified itself as a secular republic. The men venerated by Hindu supremacists had spurned the inclusive struggle for India’s freedom from British rule pioneered by Mohandas Gandhi, eulogized Hitler, peddled race myths borrowed from the Nazis, rationalized the murderous persecution of German Jews as a “good lesson” for India, and vilified Christians and Muslims even as they collaborated with the Muslim supremacists who founded Pakistan.

The secular pantheon had Gandhi; Jawaharlal Nehru, the first popularly elected prime minister; and Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet who bequeathed India its national anthem. The Hindu nationalist hall of infamy featured Nathuram Godse, the chauvinist who assassinated Gandhi; VD Savarkar, the sectarian prophet who mentored Godse; and MS Golwalkar, the demagogue who considered the Third Reich the highest expression of racial pride. This baggage explains why Modi played down his ideology and campaigned as an inclusive, modernizing technocrat in 2014.

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Once ensconced in office, Modi set about canonizing himself as the father of what his admirers call the “New India.” The first casualty was the party that had helped him rise from the margins of society — his mother washed dishes and his father hawked tea — to the apex of political power. Unlike the secular Congress party, which ruled India for most of its post-colonial life and was run largely by a single family, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a democratic organization. There was nepotism, but in theory anyone who subscribed to the BJP’s Hindu-first ideology could aspire to lead it. Those democratic traditions collapsed rapidly under the burden of Modi’s cult. Anyone who faulted the prime minister was ruthlessly ostracized.

Two years after Modi took office, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, told a crowd that the prime minister was “God’s divine gift to India.” A parliamentarian who is now vice president then proceeded to formalize Modi’s divine status in the BJP with a resolution commending him as “a god’s gift for India” and “the messiah of the poor.” Kiren Rijiju, a junior minister from eastern India, went a step further and hailed the “Modi Era” as the glorious consummation of a 450-year-old prophecy. “French prophet Nostradamus wrote that from 2014 to 2026, a man will lead India, whom initially, people will hate but after that people will love him so much that he will be engaged in changing the country’s plight and direction,” Rijiju wrote on Facebook. “This was predicted in the year 1555. A middle aged superpower administrator will bring golden age not only in India but on the entire world. Under his leadership India will not only just become the Global Master, but many countries will also come into the shelter of India.”

There’s nothing novel about personality cults in India. At least 450 government properties and projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars still sport names from the Nehru-Gandhi clan (no relation to Mohandas Gandhi), which took over the Congress party in the 1970s and reduced it to a squalid family enterprise. Modi, who once promoted himself as the self-made antithesis of the Nehru-Gandhis, has replicated — and appears poised to exceed — their excesses in less than a decade. In 2017, he excised images of Mohandas Gandhi from calendars published by the governmental commission that oversees the production of hand-spun cloth and had them replaced with photographs of himself. It might seem a minor matter, but it was freighted with symbolism: Posing beside Gandhi’s spinning wheel, the proud emblem of Indian self-reliance during the freedom movement, Modi had cast himself as nothing less than the new father of the nation. Months later, a network of 160,000 government-run schools across Uttar Pradesh — India’s largest state — forced pupils to attend school on a Sunday to celebrate the birthday of Modi, the “perfect icon for children.”

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Modi’s emerging cult got a shot of glamour the following year with a hagiopic of the prime minister’s childhood, “Chalo Jeete Hain,” or “Come Let’s Live,” the first of several such cinematic productions. The film gave Modi’s early years a saintly gloss: The future premier was shown as an enlightened child, a modern avatar of Siddhartha, consumed with altruistic concern for others. In the days leading to the premiere, the prime minister’s colleagues tripped over themselves to praise, and to be seen praising, the movie. Suresh Prabhu, a cabinet minister, attested on Twitter to being blown away by the “childhood of our beloved leader. . . . Motivational, inspirational! Triumph of struggle!” Devendra Fadnavis, who was then the chief minister of Maharashtra, India’s richest state, said that watching the film had helped him fathom “how this amazing, humble, visionary personality might’ve taken shape!”

An army of volunteers and keyboard warriors on the ruling party’s payroll, devoted to pumping out lies about the prime minister’s accomplishments, savaged those who disagreed, while digital evangelists deluged WhatsApp — the most effective propaganda medium in Modi’s New India — with countless memes composed of doctored images portraying the prime minister as the weightiest of international statesmen. One showed Barack Obama and his aides watching a Modi speech, riveted, on a television in the White House. “Congratulation to all of us,” said another under a picture of Modi at his desk: “Our PM ‘Narendra D. Modi’ is now declared as the best PM of the world by UNESCO.”

This burgeoning cult has imposed a steep cost on Indians. Deliberation, which moderates ruinous impulses by subjecting them to dispassionate scrutiny, is the great strength of democracies. But rewarded with praise for functioning like a despot, Modi came to see discussion as beneath him — and grew habituated to bypassing Parliament, keeping his already enfeebled cabinet in the dark and throwing India into turmoil with decisions made with barely any consultation. The political, social and economic disasters of the past half-decade are inseparable from the cult of personality forged for Modi. He abruptly abolished high-denomination currency bills in 2016; the decree, annulling 86 percent of the circulated currency in a country where 90 percent of all financial transactions are conducted in cash, was sold as a remedy for the malady of “black money” (wealth amassed from illegal means) despite the central bank’s confidential assessment that the move would be counterproductive because illicit fortunes in India were held mostly “as gold or real estate,” not cash. Hatched in secrecy and hidden from the cabinet, Modi’s decision was announced four hours before its implementation. Dozens of Indians killed themselves, at least 1.5 million lost their jobs, and the country’s economy still bears the scars of Modi’s unilateralism.

Three years later, Modi deployed the same secretive template to revoke the constitutional autonomy of Kashmir. And last year, he hastily promulgated sweeping agricultural reforms without first sounding out the farmers who are now staging one of the largest mass protests in recent history.

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The coronavirus pandemic completed the consolidation of Modi’s cult. Days after announcing the world’s largest lockdown with four hours’ notice — precipitating an exodus of terrified millions from the cities to the countryside — the prime minister invited tax-deductible donations for an opaque fund, called PM CARES, established to aid the “poorest of the poor.” Nearly $1 billion flowed into it in the first week alone. The staffs of government departments were encouraged to give a portion of their salaries. Private corporations paid millions into it while withholding paychecks from their low-wage workers. One company laid off close to 1,000 employees days after diverting more than half a million dollars of its cash reserves into PM CARES. Where has all that money gone? That question is impossible to answer: PM CARES, structured as a private trust, cannot be reviewed by the state auditor.

India’s economy has cratered, its freedoms have receded, sectarian hostilities are rife, and the prospects of a generation have been wiped out by the virus. And yet the cult of the leader is so formidable that coronavirus vaccine certificates bear the image of the prime minister, and even justices of the Supreme Court — oddly silent as dissenters from the regime were denounced as “anti-national” — now extol him as a visionary. India should not be written off yet. But a country that was once a source of inspiration for aspiring democrats has become, under Modi, a cautionary tale for established democracies.

Twitter: @kapskom

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