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

Original article here. Some excerpts below:

… 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.

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.”…

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.

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.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of “Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.”

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