Modi's personality cult diminishing BJP-RSS

Modi's personality cult diminishing BJP-RSS

The Sangh Parivar has risked the credibility of an entire organisation at the altar of the deeds of one individual

Artists make paintings of PM Narendra Modi to wish him on his birthday, at Lalbaug, in Mumbai, Thursday. Credit: PTI Photo

It isn't a first in the history of independent India for followers to celebrate a political leader's birthday. Breathtaking, however, was the scale at which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the governments it runs at the Centre and in states indulged in paroxysms of activity to mark Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 71st birthday on Friday. 

The BJP and its leaders spent resources from party coffers and probably their own pockets and much public money to celebrate the PM's birthday.

It is, therefore, a suitable day to remind ourselves of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat's frequent enough cautionings in the last seven years against personality cults. We should also heed LK Advani's left-handed compliment in April 2014, when the veteran leader described Modi as a "brilliant events manager".

It was indeed an eventful day where the BJP leaders, the Centre and state governments paid obeisance to the personality cult of the prime minister. BJP leaders filled editorial pages of Hindi newspapers eulogising Modi. In his essay, BJP chief JP Nadda extolled Modi as a great social reformer. Nadda was probably unmindful that September 17 was the birth anniversary of Periyar, one of the greatest social reformers of India.

Also read: Cornered BJP polishes its trump card, 'Brand Modi', as he turns 71

The BJP's Madhya Pradesh government issued full-page advertisements with Modi and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan's visages. The ad announced the MP government's "jan kalyan aur suraj abhiyan", or social welfare and good governance campaign, from September 17 to October 7.

The Uttar Pradesh government's full-page advertisements had the beaming faces of the PM and UP CM Yogi Adityanath, announcing the state government's "vikas utsav", or a festival of development, from September 17 to October 7. The 20-days are to mark the 20-years of Modi helming governments, first in Gujarat and now at the Centre. He took the oath of Gujarat CM on October 7, 2001.

As the day progressed, it was challenging to decipher the BJP sponsored events, like blood donation camps and Tiranga Yatras, from those the Centre and state governments undertook - vaccination drives and e-auction of gifts that the PM has received, to name a couple. All India Radio broadcasted news bulletins covering these events and also programmes on Modi's journey.

The BJP, and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), claim that they believe in nation first and self last. So, adhinayakvaad, or personality cult, is an anathema for the Sangh Parivar.

Also read: PM Modi bats for fighting radicalisation, extremism at SCO Summit

While the BJP appropriates leaders of the Congress party – Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Subhas Bose and Lal Bahadur Shastri – it has over the years criticised Indira Gandhi for her efforts at building a personality cult around her. Opposing her "Indira-is-India", which eventually had her impose the Emergency, remains the leitmotif of the BJP's criticism of the present day Congress party since her descendants continue to lead it.

The BJP had come in for criticism for encouraging a personality cult around Modi even as he was its prime ministerial candidate in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In March 2014, Jaswant Singh, who had left the BJP and contested as an independent from Barmer, said the "Namo Namo" chant buoyed a personality cult. 

Arun Jaitley and others in the party slammed Jaswant Singh, but soon enough, the BJP course corrected to speak of a more collective leadership, or the party's "Jodi number 1" of Modi and Rajnath Singh. The latter was then the party chief and also its most influential leader in Uttar Pradesh. 

It all changed when the BJP crossed the simple majority mark on May 16, 2014. Months later, with Rajnath Singh quitting as the party chief to join the government and Amit Shah succeeding him as BJP president, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat warned of a putative personality cult.

In August 2014, Bhagwat countered those who credited Modi with delivering the Lok Sabha win. He said an individual could not have ensured the victory if common people did not want the change. A year later, with months to go for the Bihar Assembly polls, Bhagwat warned of the dangers of "adhinayakvaad".

Earlier that year, Organiser, the English weekly linked to the RSS, bemoaned the BJP's defeat in the Delhi Assembly polls (in February 2015). It criticised those who believed only Modi and Shah could win BJP the elections, hinting that RSS alone could. A couple of years back, RSS's Suresh "Bhaiyyaji" Joshi said the BJP was not "synonymous" with the Hindu community; his subtext was that this was the ambit solely of the RSS.

Also read: India administers over 2 crore Covid-19 vaccine doses in a day on PM Modi's birthday

In its study circles, the RSS teaches its young volunteers that the individual is dispensable, and the organisation is supreme. As BJP leaders queued up to celebrate Modi's birthday, and since most trace their training to RSS shakhas or its ideology, the Sangh Parivar confronts an uncertain political future.

It indicates the marginalisation of the RSS leadership within the Sangh Parivar. It also runs the risk that people's disenchantment from individuals could impact the entire organisation's standing. The more perceptive among the RSS leaders are alert to such an eventuality. But they find themselves helpless given the force of the personality cult among its rank and file.

The RSS prides itself in its belief in the organisation before self. The BJP has, over the years, preened itself as a rare party on the Indian political scene with functional inner-party democracy. Both claims have started looking feeble. 

Probably, the unpopularity of the BJP's state-level leaders and reverses in Assembly polls has forced it to boost the prime minister's image to ensure success in the forthcoming Assembly polls. It should, however, not forget that the decline of the Congress party began with the personality cult of Indira Gandhi, and the party continues to suffer for it. 

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