M.K. Gandhi, 1937: “It is not good for us to worship an individual. Only an ideal or a principle can be worshipped.”
In November 1969, when Indira Gandhi split the Congress, one of her rivals warned of the consequences. This was S. Nijalingappa, the last president of the undivided party. The history of the 20th century, remarked Nijalingappa, “is replete with instances of the tragedy that overtakes democracy when a leader who has risen to power on the crest of a popular wave or with the support of a democratic organisation becomes a victim of political narcissism and is egged on by a coterie of unscrupulous sycophants who use corruption and terror to silence opposition and attempt to make public opinion an echo of authority.”
At the time they were written, these words may have sounded hyperbolic. But within a few years, they had become prescient. For in the early 1970s, Indira Gandhi increasingly subordinated the Congress to her personal interests. Then, after the adverse judgment in the Allahabad High Court, she sought — egged on by Siddhartha Shankar Ray — to subordinate the government to herself, too. Meanwhile, other sycophants (most famously, Devakanta Baruah), asked us to see the prime minister as the embodiment of the nation. Finally, the most unscrupulous of all her associates, her son Sanjay Gandhi, used terror and coercion to silence the political opposition and the public at large.
It is now 40 years since the promulgation of the Emergency. Can India undergo another Emergency? The chances are slim, in part because — as prime minister and law minister of the Janata government, respectively — Morarji Desai and Shanti Bhushan undid the Emergency-era amendments to the Constitution centralising powers in the prime minister, and in part because it is far harder now to suppress the media — especially social media. That said, there is one aspect of political behaviour that the Emergency introduced which is still with us, corrupting our democratic fabric.
This is the cult of personality. Indira Gandhi was the first politician in independent India to make her party an extension of herself. This even her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was unable to do. Nehru was not a modest man and had a fairly elevated sense of his place in history. Yet, he could not always impose his will on his own colleagues. Sardar Patel, C. Rajagopalachari, G.B. Pant and Maulana Azad in the early years of Nehru’s prime ministership; K. Kamaraj, Y.B. Chavan and Morarji Desai in the later years — these were all considerable figures, whom Nehru could not take for granted. Notably, throughout his tenure, Nehru had no say in the choosing of Congress chief ministers.
All this changed after November 1969. Now, cabinet ministers exhibited an ever-increasing deference to the prime minister. All Congress chief ministers were personally chosen by her, and dismissed if they got too independent-minded for her liking. The conversion of the Congress into a one-person show was consolidated by the party’s spectacular victory in the 1971 elections. Later in the year came the victory in the war against Pakistan, which was widely interpreted as a personal triumph for Indira Gandhi.
First, the party; then, the government; finally, the nation. Indira was the Congress, she was also the sarkar, she was India itself.
The 1977 elections were in part a verdict on this cult of personality. Indira and the Congress lost, but, unnoticed, her methods were being imitated in the states. M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh claimed to embody, in their own self, the AIADMK and the TDP, the Tamil Nadu and the Andhra Pradesh government, and Tamil and Telugu pride, respectively. Meanwhile, in Maharashtra, Bal Thackeray presented himself as the spiritual descendant of Shivaji, and as the embodiment of present-day Maharashtra. True, unlike MGR and NTR, he did not become chief minister, but, as he himself said, he held the “remote”, in response to which the CM did as Balasaheb wished.
In later years, this one-person (or, at best, one-family) dominance of political parties has become ubiquitous across India. It is true of Mayawati and the BSP, Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party, the Badals and the Akali Dal, Lalu Prasad and the RJD, Mamata Banerjee and the TMC, J. Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK, M. Karunanidhi and the DMK, Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP. And, of course, it has remained true of the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis.
The trend, however, was resisted by the BJP, a party based on a strong ideology and multiple leaders. But then, its Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, steadily concentrated power in himself. He first decimated dissent within the state BJP, next within his cabinet. Finally, like NTR and Balasaheb once did, he presented himself as the symbol of his state. Gujarat’s past, present and future, its hopes and its aspirations, its pride (and its prejudices) were all subsumed in the political career of one person.
Now this has been transferred to the national level. The 2014 general elections were projected as a referendum on Narendra Modi. After he won, he has sought to subordinate the party, the cabinet and the government to himself. His admirers go further, seeing him as the very embodiment of the nation.
Consider a recent article by a BJP member of Parliament. This claims that “Narendra Modi’s rise has coincided with the rise of India.” It continues: “When was the last time Indians saw a leader with such an awesome charisma, and a thundering presence? Here was a man with literally a capital M.” And further: “His presence in world capitals has created a cyclonic shift in the way foreigners perceive us. Madison Square magic and Shanghai yoga are no ordinary feats. They have created an impact across the globe — something that was missing in the last 200 years of colonialism, subjugation and poverty.” (Read here iexp.in/WtA167454)
In the exuberance of his sycophancy, the writer seems to have forgotten Mahatma Gandhi, who, without Twitter or television, without access to state power or public funds, without ever visiting Shanghai or New York, created “an impact across the globe” that Narendra Modi cannot accomplish in a dozen lifetimes. Sadly, the article is entirely representative. A nationwide cult of personality is steadily being built around the prime minister, willed along by the BJP’s many D.K. Baruahs and S.S. Rays. In this respect, if in no other, the Emergency is with us yet.
The writer, based in Bangalore, has taught at Yale, Stanford, the London School of Economics and the Indian Institute of Science. His most recent book is ‘Gandhi Before India’.