Vol. XL No. 46 November 06, 2016

The Making of Personality Cult

C P Bhambhri

THE Narendra Modi government decided to decisively respond to the terrorist attack on the army camp at Uri on September 18, in which 19 soldiers were killed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led from the front and his first statement on September 24, while participating at the BJP national council meeting in Kozhikode, was that there is nationwide “aakrosh (anger)”. Modi reiterated his resolve to decisively respond to the Uri attack by Pakistani terrorists, and in his monthly “Mann Ki Baat” radio address on September 25, he had observed that “I will just reiterate…that the guilty will certainly be punished”. “The army does not speak, the army takes action, shows its power.” Modi made it clear that his “resolve to do something” was in response to the nation’s anger against terrorists from Pakistan. It was left to other BJP leaders like president Amit Shah and general secretary Ran Madhav to inform BJP delegates at Kozhikode that the Modi government is determined to hit back at Pakistan and the action came on the intervening night of September 28/29 when the Indian Army’s Special Forces launched “surgical strikes” on terrorists launching pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Narendra Modi government announced to the people of India after the action that “successful” surgical strikes were carried out on seven camps across the Line of Control, inflicting heavy casualties on terrorists.

What is the political significance of the surgical strikes by the army for the BJP in the country? Why did the Narendra Modi government make “public announcement” of this military action claiming that the Line of Control was crossed by the Indian Army? It is not for the first time that the Government of India had taken action against Pakistan-based terrorists who had harmed the Indian Army, but the erstwhile Manmohan Singh-led UPA government at the Centre never made “public announcements” of such responses taken against terrorists across the Indian border. India has been dealing with such terrorist intrusions from Pakistan without making any public boastful statements of actions taken by the Indian Army. It is not only Modi who talked that the guilty will be punished, Amit shah, the BJP president, on September 29, after the Army’s successful surgical strike, in a celebration mode observed: “It is for the first time (that) in this frontal fight against terrorism, India under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi is feeling secure… Today’s strikes signal the rise of a new India when the GOI (Government of India) doesn’t get cowed down by nefarious designs of terrorists.” Shah claimed Modi is a leader who believes in “walk the talk”.  Ram Madhav, the BJP general secretary, in the same tone on September 29 said we have got a “complete jaw for a tooth” and that “PM Modi Ji has walked the talk. Punishing the perpetrators of terror from across has begun”. The BJP leadership and RSS have been working overtime to spread the message across the country that Prime Minister Modi is different and a man of immense courage because only such a leader could ask the Indian Army, in spite of many risks, to cross the LoC and attack the terrorists launching pads.

It may be suggested that such adulation of a Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy is normal because such an individual serves appreciation because he successfully leads the country in a quasi-warlike crisis situation after Uri. Modi’s case is different because his projection by the BJP with full support from the RSS, especially its all-powerful Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, has been on the top of the agenda of the Hindu Sangh Parivar. Bhagwat single handedly picked Modi as the BJP’s chief election campaigner and prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Perhaps, it was based on an assessment of the personality traits of Modi, the most important is his single-minded commitment to the idea of Hindu Nationhood. The Sarsanghchalak of the RSS was clear that Modi had the persona to lead the Indian state and achieve the goals of establishing Hindu Nation in the country and hence, deserves unqualified support by all Swayam Sevaks within or outside the BJP governments. Further, RSS believes that an organisation including the government should ultimately revolve around the personality of an individual -- the Leader. The RSS organisation itself is hierarchical and the authority of the Sarsanghchalak is unquestioned and unquestionable. This is precisely the quality that the RSS supremo was searching in a leader who should be able to impose his authority on the government of the BJP and whose personality should inspire respect and fear and awe among his government colleagues and MPs. Modi’s image of a strong leader was projected during the election campaign to the 16th Lok Sabha both by the army of the RSS cadre and big industrial houses and corporate business groups who controlled the media. The whole burden of election campaign of Modi was that the UPA government led by weak Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has led to serious domestic crisis and only Modi, a strong decisive leader, has an immense capacity to pull out India which was in disarray because of directionless UPA II government.  Had Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014 not shown his immense capacity to build a new industrial state? Hence, Modi on the basis of his tracking record of Gujarat could deliver the goods at the Centre also. This projection of Modi’s personality-oriented leadership became the subject matter of normal times in 2014 to 2016 when every policy initiative of the BJP government was attributed to the great leadership qualities of Modi.

The point to be understood is that ‘personality cult’ around Modi has been in the making from the time he was chosen by the RSS to lead the BJP in the Lok Sabha election of 2014 and it became a normal feature of Indian politics beginning with the electoral successes in 2014 when BJP obtained 282 seats out of 543. However, beginning with the Uri attack of September 18 by Pakistani terrorists and the drama around the success of surgical strikes of the Indian Army has added one more chapter in the so-called glorious achievements of the Leader -- Narendra Modi.  The surgical strikes by the Indian Army is only one part of the story, the other part is that between September 18 and 29, 2016, a campaign was launched to condition the Indians to demand revenge for the killings of 19 soldiers at Uri.  It is a well-known fact that much emotional responses seeking revenge can be normal ‘even’ manufactured and artificially maneuvered. Any student of public opinion in a democracy knows it that demagogues, war mongers masquerading as nationalists and patriots can create an artificial situation where everyone seems to be speaking the same language of revenge. Modi himself in his first public statement observed on September 24 that “anger” is visible and ‘sacrifices of the soldiers’ will not go in vain.  Modi himself set the atmosphere of emotion based on hyper nationalistic public discourse in India and big industrial houses-controlled media, representing no one, added fuel to the fire by broadcasting loaded debates. The upshot of above narration is that without reading conspiracy theories, it becomes clear that the post September 18 situation in the country should not be seen in just black and white terms because the way BJP has campaigned in the country, its political meanings cannot be ignored.

The real political significance is that Modi is riding high in public estimation and in normal political situation of 2014-2016, or during quasi-crisis situation of post-Uri events, it is only his leadership and personal qualities that matter. Another important offshoot of post-Uri situation is that the RSS brand of aggressive, jingoist, hyper nationalism is dangerously spreading its shadow over the minds of citizens of India. The post-Uri glorification of Modi is extraordinary capabilities as a leader who can courageously face a ‘war-like crisis situation’ has unfortunately eclipsed the role of patriotic professional Indian Army which successfully destroyed terrorist camps through surgical strikes. The whole credit should be given to the Army but the BJP and the RSS have successfully shifted the focus away from the contribution of army to the adulation of Modi as the Leader so that only he matters in public affairs.