Two things that Indians may be looking forward to will now be delivered with the name or face of the prime minister. As we all know, matches in the world’s largest cricket stadium will henceforth be remembered for taking place in the Narendra Modi Stadium, which after having started life as Sardar Patel Stadium was renamed on February 24. A bowler may come running in from the Adani end or the Reliance end, but omnipresent is our prime minister, his name immortalised in his lifetime in a modern monument.
Less attention has been given to the fact that Narendra Modi’s face also graces the certificates handed down to citizens who have taken the coronavirus vaccine. The name, age of recipient and date of the jab is recorded on what is called the Final Certificate for Covid-19 Vaccination issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. On the bottom left next to an image of Narendra Modi are two lines that read, first Hindi, “Dawai bhi aur Kadai bhi” (Both medicine and firmness) and then in English: “Together India will defeat Covid-19.”
The cult of leadership and the nation embodied in one individual places a leader above the institutions that are designed to create checks and balances in functioning democracies. The personality cult around Narendra Modi has been a work in progress since he became Gujarat chief minister in 2002. In the first elections in the state after the 2002 riots, he was presented as the Hindu Hriday Samrat, the Emperor of Hindu Hearts.
In election of 2007, Modi was recast as the liberator of Gujarat and friend of industrialists, while in the 2012 polls, the motif of Swami Vivekananda was used to present the chief minister as a sort of muscular philosopher king.
A polished persona
Elements of the persona polished in Gujarat have been used in Narendra Modi’s national imagery too, different facets enhanced at different times: the economic liberaliser, protector of the people, Hindu ruler marking a new consciousness and all too frequently the leader removed from the earthly realm, beard currently flowing, giving sermons to the people.
An omnipotent Modi who may be descending, ascending, posing or performing has been the mainstay in the electoral arsenal of the BJP for some years now.
But in the stadium and the Covid-19 certificates, we see the transition to making the elected leader the symbol and emblem of the nation-state. It is therefore a new threshold in the personality cult built around Narendra Modi.
This is a step ahead of what we have witnessed nationally for the last six years: the staged interviews, the Man ki Baat radio address broadcast on All India Radio that aired its 74rd episode on February 28 and constant live feeds of Modi’s speeches and rallies offered to television channels that have bent over to crawl when being asked to bend.
There has never been the possibility of an open press conference as the traditional media is apparently useful only for amplification of the image and not for asking real questions. The “fifth estate” or independent online media is now the space for hard analysis and questions but the new Information Technology rules, 2021, certainly seek to increase government control over digital media.
The Leader, meanwhile, is only to be confronted with adulation and adoration. We have transited to a reality where even traditional middle of the road journalists do not think twice about playing along with constructed narrative of Leader worship.
Take the episode that could be titled “Modi takes a Covid shot” in the serialised telling of the Many Adventures of Our PM. The media was allowed visuals and journalists given information – not possible without the Prime Minister’s Office willing it to be shared – about the social origins of the two nurses that gave him the shot. Both happened to be from election-bound states in South India. Cute or crass?
There are excellent studies of backsliding democracies that elaborate on the manner in which popular elected leaders subvert institutions that are meant to constrain them. An extreme example is of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, pushed against a wall by the attack of the old elite, who suspended Congress and the Constitution in 1992. Most autocrats just learn how to bend institutions and silence opponents.
In Russia the Vladimir Putin’s regime filed cases against rich oligarchs who had media holdings or were funding opposition forces. In Turkey the Erdogan regime went after the old media conglomerates that had a secular, liberal worldview at odds with that of the president and forced them into bankruptcy even as it pursued businessmen they believed were helping opposition forces.
In India, the battle with traditional media has already been won and business is overwhelmingly on one side, making the Bharatiya Janata Party the richest party in India’s history and its election campaigns the most expensive. Yet the classic symptoms of a democracy transiting to a crude authoritarianism are also visible in the outright purchase of power and elected legislators in states, from Madhya Pradesh to Karnataka to Goa to the North East and currently in West Bengal and Puducherry.
If a co-opting does not work, then again like an authoritarian state in the making income tax inquiries are opened and criminal cases filed against opponents. It happened in the pre-BJP era but is happening quite brazenly now on a larger scale now.
This also extends to cultural figures. In the book How Democracies Die by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, there is an analysis of the gradual erosion of freedoms. The scholars elaborate on “cultural figures whose popularity or moral standing makes them potential threats”. They cite examples from various nations to say that regimes in the process of becoming authoritarian, try to first co-opt these cultural figures – artists, actors, writers, pop stars, athletes, intellectuals –-and failing that resort to intimidation tactics.
Wednesday’s income tax raids on film-maker Anurag Kashyap and actor Taapsee Pannu, both outspoken and influential figures who give solidarity to opposing viewpoints, can be seen to fit into that analysis.
This is particularly so if we recall that last year India’s top woman star Deepika Padukone, not known to a fan of many things happening in the country, was dragged into long interrogation in a spurious drugs case that went nowhere.
But for all these pulls and pushes, Narendra Modi as the Supreme Leader operates in a country way more diverse than say an Erdogan or a Putin and he has not yet come to reign over all the country all the time (in the 2019 election the BJP got 38% of the vote). But he has the services of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that claims to be the largest cadre organisation in the world.
Here we get to a chicken and egg situation. Does the RSS see a Supreme Leader as a necessity (against their stated position about leadership cults) because he is the ends to the means of a Hindu nation where minorities are shown their place and the Savarna-ordained way of life is not challenged? Or is Modi bending the RSS to his own will and it would henceforth be an organisation that obeys leaders instead of creating them? Either way, together Modi, the BJP, the RSS and all its affiliates, have come a long way and it is mostly a happy union to all their advantage.
But the conquest of India remains a work in progress as the BJP has not been able to replicate results of national elections in the states. That is why One Nation One poll is the ideal and it would look more attainable if the BJP could dispose off all the outlier states. In that case, the Leader will not have to confront the irritant of a few regional satraps holding out and would be a Monument unto himself.
Veteran journalist Saba Naqvi is the author most recently of Shades of Saffron: from Vajpayee to Modi.