Anatomy of a political cult
By Valson Thampu
The invincibility of Narendra Modi is now a potent political dogma. It is heretical to suggest anything to the contrary. The idea that there could be an alternative seems scandalously impious. So, we are back to our former days: days of the TNA dogma.
The puzzling thing is that this fervor does not explain itself. It is simply not attributable to anything tangible. The larger-than-life stature of a leader results usually from having delivered an economic miracle, which Modi hasn’t. Or, from effecting a national rejuvenation, which is nowhere in sight. Or, from out-performed his predecessors by a good English mile, which too is hardly the case.
Development, in itself, is an abstract thing. As a rule, the masses are not enthused by anything abstract. “Short term pain converting itself into long-term gain” tickles ears, but the pain still lingers and the gain remains elusive.
Realities of life continue to hurt – price rise, worsening unemployment, disconcerting signs of public anarchy, tensions across the borde. Experts sit in TV studios and spout good news about the state of the nation that has nothing to do with the aches and pains of the common man. If they are to be believed, we are tantalizingly close to heaven!
There is a worthy – a genius of an economist- who has taken it upon himself to convince the rest of us that the charity doled out to the poor is a criminal waste. What is the point in feeding them, when they are so parasites-infested that the food they eat is lapped up by worms? Who can fault his logic? TV channels vie with each other to be impressed! The expert is poised for big things. He senses it; and excretes energy and enthusiasm.
What, then, is the secret of the Modi charisma? I have to take you to Dostoevsky for a plausible answer. His Grand Inquisitor -an old, wizened, cunning cardinal – has a few insights which our experts could benefit from. History, he says, has never succeeded in combining ‘bread’ and ‘freedom’. The masses have no use for freedom. If anything, they are burdened by it. They want only bread. Promise them bread; they will gladly surrender their freedom.
So, the rank and file are eager to surrender their freedom to any demagogue who can sustain the illusion of multiplying loaves. There is succulent irony here. The more under-developed a people are, the greater is their craving for bread. The more their stomachs ache for bread, the more willing they become to mortgage their freedom. Secular deities are spun out of this eagerness of the masses to offload the burden of freedom.
The Grand Inquisitor continues…. When it comes to worship, only one thing matters to the groveling masses. The excitement and fervor of the majority. Dostoevsky argues that the wretched of the earth have a crying need to worship. For them, it is not theology that matters; it is the ambience of a surging, burgeoning majority. The majority is ‘democratic mythology’ conceived in the crucible of general backwardness and growing bewilderment.
This is why propaganda proves decisive. The press becomes a battery of prestidigitators. With amazing sleights of hand, they conjure up propagandist tricks with consummate ease and telling effect. As Hitler said, they make black look white; white, black. Elections will be won, in case you don’t know, not through good governance, but through tsunamic propaganda.
Admitted, good governance can boost propaganda; but it is optional. The merit of propaganda is its one-sidedness. No one will ask you a blooming question. Every word that falls from your mouth will be lapped up. You don’t have to explain what good governance is, or what is good in the given jamboree of governance.
It is admittedly uncharitable to take any credit away from Modi. He is playing his role to perfection. The crucial duty of a leader, under the circumstances, is to create and sustain images and illusions. In times of disarray, as at the present time, what would appeal most is an image of sternness and of flamboyant courage that, apparently, discounts the cost.
It is a heavy dose of heroism. It borders on the spirituality of renunciation. It is bolstered further by overtones of supernatural industry; like Atlas in mythology, who bears up the weight of the globe.
And there is, besides, the Stockholm syndrome. People adore those who exact most from them. Love the masses – worse still, serve them – you will become commonplace in their eyes. It is like keeping an open office, out of consideration for those under your watch; and each of them growing daily more resentful that you are not available 24×7. Make yourself unapproachable, they grow ecstatic at catching a fleeting glimpse of your face, hidden behind gun-toting black cats.
Above all else, there is generous help from opposition parties that make a virtue of being anemic and indecisive, as if it is a privilege to serve as foils to a fiery image. They create the impression of living a few decades behind time, waiting for the kursi to fall into their hands by default. Like a flock of befuddled sheep, they seem unable to grasp what has hit them. And they think this will somehow inspire confidence in the masses!
The youngest among them seem half a century more ancient than Modi in respect of energy levels. They lisp concepts and ideals, the heart of which they did what they could to gouge out. It doesn’t occur to them that people will be impressed only by effectiveness; not by tentative noises and timid posturings.
But there is this other thing too. Propaganda is a bubble. It is programmed to burst. Its shelf-life is short. Especially so, at a time when, if Alvin Toffler is right, ‘future shock’ is the order of the day. Propaganda-bred images are like yesterday’s loaves of double-rotti. Look closely. You’ll see fungi on them.