Modi, the political god-man

Modi, the political god-man

Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to the crowd as he arrives in Medininagar on January 5 during a campaign sweep through Jharkhand state to inaugurate development projects. AFP

Narendra Modi has perhaps a more devoted following than any other national leader in recent times, but that may actually be due to his despotic streak. That he tolerates little opposition is not a secret and, in time, he could well develop into a classical tyrant; one is reminded of Socrates’ argument in Plato’s

The Republic that tyrannical souls arise in democracies when they afford the leader too much power. When Joseph Stalin is voted the greatest Russian of the 20th century, one begins to wonder.

What they do, essentially, is curtail freedom –- that of the public and of their followers –- and there is something incredibly attractive in a principal who rather than allow one freedom to act, dictates it. Individuals perhaps perceive something threatening in absolute freedom and being made responsible for oneself.

The popularity of god-men to whom one submits unquestioningly is also due to the same human characteristic. Similarly, the more constraints a faith or a cult places upon its followers, the more adherents it is likely to get. The extraordinary success of the terrorist group Islamic State demonstrates this.

If the equation I have just made between willingly submitting to a tyrant and to a god-man or guru is accepted, we may propose that what tyrants do is to take away the anxieties that people have. A spiritual guru takes away personal anxieties (usually relating to the future) while a tyrant may be ridding one of civic anxieties — those associated with our positions as citizens of a country or even global citizens.

Not only are we anxious about the things that might affect us personally — like the fate of our investments, which depends on economic policy — but also other issues as citizens; for instance, Chinese troops massing on the border could alarm us. The key signal a tyrant sends out is that the buck stops with him or her, but even that is reassuring. A ‘weak’ democratic set-up is frightening -- because it does little to quieten our civic anxieties.

Once one’s heart is fully given to the tyrant, it is very difficult to withdraw it. The reason is that if one withdraws faith, one finds one’s civic anxieties returning in full force. The tyrant may not conduct himself or herself politically as expected, but that is of very little consequence since one can modify one’s expectations.

Only an extreme calamity, like defeat in war, makes one re-examine one’s faith in the tyrant. Till that moment comes, one’s commitment could be so extreme that even martyrdom is more welcome than freedom. The willingness of followers to die for a leader substantiates this forcefully.

A man of ‘wisdom’

A characteristic that Narendra Modi shares with many of India’s god-men is his confidence in the wisdom he possesses. If one listens to discourses by our wise men, like Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, one never catches the sense of less than abundant knowledge on their part. This is a particular characteristic of ‘wisdom’ as understood in India, which — as distinct from ‘knowledge’ — includes the ‘self’ as a component.

If one were to ask a god-man about democracy, for instance, his likely response would be that it is an ‘inner state’, an attitude. It is an indication of the astuteness of Indian god-men that they restrict themselves territorially and do not submit to evaluative standards external to them. Even their discourses are arranged before their own devotees, where
a minimum support is guaranteed.

Modi is like a god-man who has broken out into the public space and his chief attraction to his followers is that he rids them of their anxieties — although these are not personal but civic ones. But while he is nominally out in the open, he carefully controls where he appears and will not participate in open debates. He has had admirers among intellectuals (usually economists) but has kept them at bay. Those whom he appointed as advisors have mostly left. This aspect should be troubling to Indians because it betokens hostility to expert advice.

My own understanding of Modi is that he subscribes to the notion that ‘all knowledge is within us’ — which god-men also subsist on. His faith in Yoga, in tradition and his association with brahmacharya point to the same mindset, to someone who has convinced himself to look only within himself to find solutions for external, socio-political problems.

Tradition in India has cultivated the inward gaze and ‘knowledge’ is also regarded as more inward than outward. Like someone out of mythology, Modi paints himself as someone who has made himself strong through penance, but this is where our first sense of disquiet should appear, as citizens of a modern democratic nation.

Even when issues like the economy, foreign policy and social transformation need ‘bookish’ knowledge, he appears too confident that such inward knowledge is ample equipment. Drastic decisions like demonetisation, still to be explained convincingly to the public, may be due to this.

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