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Surprised by victory parade at Modi stadium? But we’re like that only

What probably made this lap of honour stand out as entirely inappropriate was the extent to which it went
Last Updated : 09 April 2023, 03:02 IST

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Last month, when the Prime Minister of Australia visited India, he went on a victory lap around the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad along with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. They stood together on what looked like an ugly cricketing adaptation of the Iron Throne from the fantasy series Game of Thrones. In the show, the throne’s rear is embedded with swords. This Gujarati version had cricket stumps and bats on the back. The Prime Ministers rode on the throne-mobile, standing and waving at spectators, much like how films show Roman emperors acknowledging cheering crowds as they returned victorious from battle. The swords were missing but the imagery was similar. On social media, online and print media, politicians, sports journalists and public intellectuals severely critiqued the event. They spoke of the political appropriation of a cricket match and the ghastly flexing of muscularity by the Indian Prime Minister. I had no disagreement with most of what was expressed, but that anyone should be surprised by this enactment was odd.

What probably made this lap of honour stand out as entirely inappropriate was the extent to which it went. But let us not forget that our Prime Minister has worn a suit with his own name printed as stripes! This behaviour is not just about Modi. As people, we love hero worship, crawl at the feet of the politically powerful, and find over-the-top demonstrations of devotion perfectly alright. How often have we seen crazy fans pour milk on larger-than-life cut-outs of Rajinikanth, or flowers strewn on the pathways on which stars or politicians walk.

We have never called these out for what they are: unthinking cultism. Instead, we tout this as a part of our culture, something that adds colour to our chaotic, frenzied and unpredictable social landscape. Cricketers are treated like royalty; fans are willing to stand for hours on the streets to catch a glimpse of their heroes. When we are engulfed in this sort of culture, why are we really taken aback when Modi takes out a parade on an artificial throne? Those who make these arrangements are convinced that this is a show of Modi’s greatness and of their own bhakti toward their leader. Modi himself seems to believe in his 56-inch chest persona and knows that his admirers adore such cultural bravado.

Intellectuals can diss all this as crass but, for the common person, there was nothing wrong with this display. Politicians have to exaggerate their presence. Thrones, designer wear, and grooming add to their enigma. In-between all this, throw in an attitude of nonchalance toward this extravagance and a repeated show of humility. Once this is done, the package is complete. Recalling Gandhi or anyone else’s simplicity from a bygone era does not impact this present reality. Vulgarity in public life is common to all. It is only the degree of vulgarity that differentiates one person from the other. And one person’s vulgarity is another’s grace!

A strong symbol of dominance in our political culture is the ‘chair’. The height, shape, colour and even comfort determines who will sit on it. At public functions, organisers hire different kinds of chairs, based on the identity of the dignitaries. Even before the participants climb up on the stage, just by looking at the empty seats, everyone knows who will be seated where. The Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, Governors, and the President are given very special seats. Seats with high backrests and usually red velvet upholstery. Others will sit on relatively less significant chairs. This informs the audience of their relevance. The ‘extras’ occupy plastic chairs that are often hurriedly brought in to accommodate those the organisers had forgotten. The motored chariot that Modi rode in Ahmedabad was one such seat of significance meant only for the raja, who was impressing on his Australian counterpart his popularity. A seat on wheels that furthered the throne metaphor.

We tout ourselves as a representative democracy, but somewhere within, many of us want an all-powerful leader who expresses unencumbered machismo and control. The middle-class call this ‘decisiveness’. In the minds of people, such conduct emphasizes clarity, courage and grip. In the recent past, we have been repeatedly informed about the horrid days of Emergency. The privileged middle-class are nodding in agreement and generously sharing WhatsApp forwards. But until the 2000s, many in the same section of society spoke about the good days of the Emergency. Anecdotal evidence of trains and buses coming on time and public servants working hard were provided to substantiate the point! Unfortunately, we do believe in some form of authoritarianism, and authoritarians need to be visibly mighty. Modi demonstrates that through actions, his swagger, hand wave, stare, smile, and sartorial choices.

When we revisit the dramatics of Indira Gandhi, N T Rama Rao, M G Ramachandran or J Jayalalithaa, we see the commonalities. Styles, methods and contexts are different, but the intent and end-result similar. The excesses of the past seem trite in comparison to today. But, for their time, they were as unbecoming.

The easy acceptance of Modi’s ride in the stadium is not a product of just admiration. It comes from the toxic combination of feudalism and casteism. Every Indian is entrenched in these two inter-linked systems of social stratification. Depending on where we are placed in the social tier, we either exert influence or are forced to comply. We are tutored to pamper, fawn, succumb to, and placate the person placed above us. And the people above learn how to appear supreme in their body language, demands, words and demonstrations. We are all trapped in a socially delineated unpleasant behavioural culture.

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Published 08 April 2023, 19:14 IST

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