Developing a cult leadership around himself, Modi has chosen the path of Hitler and Mussolini. The cult leadership, followed blindly by its supports has tarnished the secular fabric of Indian social polity, putting minorities at the brink of a genocide.
It was generally believed that with the end of the Cold War and the dawn of an era of remarkable technological advancement, easy access to information, growth of value chains and increased interdependence of economies, the age of personality cult leaders was finally waning and paving the way for democracies to flourish and develop.
However, during the first two decades of this century, partisans’ mild dislike for their opponents has been transformed into a deeper form of animus. Spread of democratic ideas themselves and subsequent development of mass media enabled political leaders–including the usually marginalized fundamentalist and extremist leaders–to project a positive image of themselves onto the masses as never before. It is this enabling environment in the 21st century that has facilitated the resurgence of personality cult leaders who, in the garb of nationalism, have perpetrated heinous crimes against their opponents as we see being done by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, Narendra Modi in India.
What is even more tragic is that leaders like Modi, through the use of populism, provoke religious sensitivities, incite latent fears and exploit the underlying fissures in a society, manage to gather steam and ride on a wave of popularity based on negativity. They also manage to capture political and administrative power and put in place their goons at the helm of affairs including in ministerial and strong administrative positions with judiciary following suit and obliging. Notwithstanding the fact that, like Modi, these are convicted criminals who are iconized not only by their cult following, but are also aided by the full potential of the political, economic, administrative and judicial apparatus to put them on a pedestal as saviors of the nation.
Disinformation via social media platforms and twenty-four-hour news cycle has expedited widespread dissemination and acceptance of deceptive information, propaganda, big lie, fake news, spectacle, misplaced patriotism, and sponsored demonstrations and rallies. Personality cult leaders are common in failing democracies like we are witnessing in India. Supposedly, India remains a secular state and a multifaith democracy. Religious minorities account for roughly 20 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people, who include about 200 million Muslims and 28 million Christians. But beneath the country’s perceived inclusivity runs an undercurrent of Hindu nationalism that has gained strength during the regime of Prime Minister Modi. The concern shared by many among the country’s religious minorities as well as by more secular-minded liberals within the Hindu majority is that the country’s secular and inclusive ethos is already beyond repair.
In Europe, Mussolini was portrayed as the embodiment of Italian fascism. Personality cult surrounding Mussolini became a way for him to justify his personal rule. In recent history, Napoleon III initiated personality cult phenomenon in France, but it was Mussolini in Italy in 1920s who devised the model of dictator-as-cult-figure that was emulated by Hitler, Lenin, Stalin and the others, using the propaganda powers of a totalitarian state. The term was actually coined in 1957 by Khrushchev in his speech, "On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences". In his speech, Khrushchev criticized lionization and idealization and policies of Stalin whose personality cult negatively impacted Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Similarly, Nazi propaganda began to depict Adolf Hitler as a demagogue figure and the almighty defender and savior of Germany. According to Nazi propaganda, only Hitler could save them and restore Germany's greatness, which in turn gave rise to the Führer-cult with disastrous consequences for Europe and rest of the world. North Korean cult of personality surrounding the Kim family has existed for decades.
In India, Modi has created a personality cult around him. Despite bad governance and several political setbacks, Modi's charisma and popularity helped BJP return to power in 2019 elections. BJP sought votes only in Modi’s name and won. This has created a fascist monster who is using the influence of his personality cult to destroy the secular fabric of India and create a Hindu state. Inspired by Modi’s policy of hate, otherization, exclusion and fanaticism, his blind followers are playing havoc with the hapless minorities of India, particularly the Muslims.
Leaders like Modi, through the use of populism, provoke religious sensitivities, incite the latent fears and exploit the underlying fissures in a society, manage to gather steam and ride on a wave of popularity based on negativity.
All minorities alike have faced a surge in Hindutva violence in the recent years, but the largest minority, the Muslims, have faced the worse kind of atrocities committed against them. A number of new laws have been enacted that has adversely affected their daily lives and interfere with the religious garments they wear, the food they eat, where and how they worship, and even whom they marry. Many of the Indian journalists, lawyers, activists, and religious leaders believe that the institutions on which the country once relied to keep this kind of ethnic supremacism in check—the courts, opposition parties, and independent media—have collapsed. Many feel that it is the betrayal of the basic promise of secular India promised by the founding fathers and the constitution.
Rivke Jaffe and Martijn Oosterbaan in their book, Most Wanted: The Popular Culture of Illegality have discussed in detail how in many parts of the globe, democratization and neoliberal economic policies have unexpectedly been accompanied by pervasive violence and insecurity, resulting in a paradoxical phenomenon, sometimes described as violent democracies. Moreover, many formally democratic societies have differentiated citizenship regimes, characterized by the unequal distribution of rights and privileges, like the India of today under Modi’s rule. Legally speaking, all citizens might enjoy the same rights; however, in the Indian society now, minority religious groups are experiencing structural neglect and when they turn to the state for protection from violence, or indeed when they seek any form of government support, they realize that the state itself is behind the discrimination, harassment and otherisation, not only by not protecting the vulnerable, but condoning the actions of the perpetrators of these crimes and raising the criminals to the status of heroes and iconizing them as role models to be emulated.
This phenomenon can be clearly seen in the violence being encouraged and perpetrated in India by the state institutions with the Prime Minister himself leading the charge and enforcing Hindutwa ideology. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP goons are idealized, appreciated, rewarded and iconized for the atrocities that they subject the minorities of India to, particularly the largest minority, the Muslims. State Ministers of the BJP government spread hate and incite violence from the floors of the two houses of the Indian Parliament shredding the concept of equal rights for all citizens and the now the long-lost principal of secular India and are hailed as heroes by the government while the police and the judiciary not only turn a blind eye, but aid the state-backed atrocities.
In the social context of insecurity and inequality, marginalized citizens in search of protection and support cannot seek help of state agencies which themselves have transformed and developed into criminal organizations. What is even more painful and mind-boggling is the deafening silence of the Western world, the bastion of human rights and rule of law.
If we take a closer look at these criminal leaders and the people who iconize them and bring them into power, we find that criminal leaders’ positions of power are not only rooted in fear and force, these leaders are often associated with a broad range of symbols, icons and objects that communicate their extraordinary or even supernatural potential and spiritual legitimacy. The BJP takes its inspiration from extremist and fundamentalist ideology of RSS and its desire to establish a purely Hindu state with no place in the state for any other religion, culture or philosophy to exist.
Inspired by Modi’s policy of hate, otherization, exclusion and fanaticism, his blind followers are playing havoc with the hapless minorities of India, particularly the Muslims.
There are many instances of criminal leaders who are highly dangerous because of the divisive and hate infested ideologies they propagate like Hitler and Mussolini, yet who are admired or even loved by people who feel supported and protected by them. Although it is mind-boggling to see how criminal governance structures that use violence enjoy so much legitimacy as Modi does in India. Government-backed criminal use of violence, contentious, disruptive, discordant and acrimonious discourse to wipe out opposition and other elements who may not fit their own myopic, narrow and intolerant ideology, should not be acceptable at any level, both internally by the population and externally by the rest of the world.
However, unfortunately, we do not pay attention to the popular culture that constitutes, legitimizes and iconizes the power of governance by criminal leaders. We neither investigate the imaginative and aesthetic underpinnings of criminal authority nor pay attention to those mechanisms that persuade citizens, like the extremist Hindus of India that violent and criminal rule inflicted on the population is acceptable or even natural. It would not be an exaggeration to state that criminal mindset and politics in India have become synonymous and we do not see any respite in the foreseeable future. Modi has stroked such raw emotions in Hindus and have aroused their negative sense of nationalism to the extent that they want to eliminate and purge India of all elements and symbols that do not fit their own image, with Hindu hardliners openly calling for Muslim genocide in India.
Since 1998, the BJP is in power in Gujarat and out of these 22 years, Modi was Gujarat’s Chief Minister for 13 years till 2014 when he became the Prime Minister of India. Modi assumed power in Gujarat in October 2001. Four months later, mass-scale riots were orchestrated in February-March 2002. For three days, there were mass massacres and then for nearly three months sporadic riots targeting mostly the Muslim population of Gujarat. Now with Modi as the Prime Minister of India, the Supreme Court of India has released the culprits who had been convicted earlier and were established as criminals. In all, 31 accused were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by a lower court. The High Court which heard an appeal had upheld the life sentence of 14 offenders.
There is no doubt that under Modi, the role of the Indian judiciary has become highly questionable, particularly in this case. The released prisoners were not undertrial detainees but convicted criminals held for murders. Earlier in 2019, the Supreme Court had granted bail to Babu Bajrangi who had played a pivotal role in those riots. Given this character of judiciary in India, the future of secularism appears bleak. India’s secular constitution that persuaded a large number of Muslims to stay in India after the inception of Pakistan, has become a country where Hindu nationalism is dominating and the prophetic warning of Quaid-i-Azam sends a chill down the spine that those Muslims opting to stay in India will spend the rest of their lives justifying their loyalty to India and that Muslims will always be subservient to Hindus.
After 2002, the Hindu extremists started campaigns against Muslims under Modi’s patronage which strengthened Hindu extremism politically, socially and culturally. Having a mindset of Hindutva ideology, Modi used the train incident as an excuse to punish Muslims and initiate cold-blooded genocide of Muslims. Modi is now hell-bent on obliterating Muslims from the land of Kashmir. Recently, a group of powerful Kuwaiti parliamentarians have demanded the government of Kuwait to put an immediate ban on the entry of any member of the ruling BJP of India into Kuwait. “We can’t sit back and watch Muslim girls being publicly persecuted,” they said.
Now Modi, the “butcher of Gujarat” as the Prime Minister, continues to encourage his cronies to promote Hindutva ideology through systemic discrimination, public speeches as well as social media and other tools. Instead of apprehending the elements disturbing the Indian social fabric, Modi regime continues to promulgate the laws to marginalize the non-Hindu communities. It is sickening to see how his hardline Hindu followers hero-worship Modi, turning the BJP from a political party into a cult. Although it must be added that the BJP was never a regular political party as it is genetically linked to the extremist RSS organization, so its genesis and political orientation is intrinsically linked to RSS ideology. The Hinduization of India is nearly complete and Modi’s ethnonationalist rule is unraveling the country’s constitutional commitment to its Muslim, Christian and other minorities.
The writer has served as an Ambassador to China, the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland. She has also authored and edited several books including Magnificent Pakistan, Pakistan-China All Weather Friendship, and Lost Cities of Indus.
E-mail: [email protected]
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