The personality cult

By Rajiv Shah
Gujarat has just finished its celebrating 50 years of its foundation. The last event was the Golden Jubilee Exhibition, which began on April 29, extended beyond May 1, the Foundation Day, and ended on May 9. Formally, the babus who organized it were asked to showcase Gujarat’s history of the last 50 years. But one of the organizers revealed, “We were discreetly told to concentrate on three things – Gujarat’s development since 2001 when chief minister Narendra Modi came to power, achievements of the Golden Jubilee year, and put up a contrast between what Gujarat was between 1960 and 2000 and what it became post-2001.”
Modi’s babus got the message loud of clear. Organized just outside what the new Mahatma Mandir – the government’s own convention hall for elite gatherings – the Golden Gujarat exhibition showcased all three rather meticulously. There were huge Modi photographs and cutouts dotted all over the 2.5 lakh sq ft area in which the exhibition was spread. One could see curious visitors taking snaps while shaking hands with Modi cutouts. Modi, as if, stood taller than the Mahatma and the Sardar, who were hardly visible. Small photographs of all other former CMs’ photographs were put in an insignificant corner.
I went to the exhibition as a lay visitor. And what particularly struck me was the display of umpteen number of big and small electronic screens, where Modi was shown giving speeches on great strides under him. I was instantly reminded of my first visit abroad. It went to Cuba, where I was sent by my editor in Patriot, RK Mishra, to cover a world indebtedness conference, organized by Fidel Castro, a roaring communist figure then, in August 1985. A hard leftist to crack at that time, I had read of personality cult, and how it had harmed the Soviet Union under Stalin and People’s Republic of China under Mao.
On my way to the hotel from the airport in a cab late in the evening, it seemed that the personality cult had come alive. There were huge Castro cutouts everywhere. And there were big screens showing Castro giving speeches in a language (Spanish) I didn’t understand. The screens remained live 24 hours for two weeks I was in Cuba. Go anywhere, you just saw Castro. As if screens were not enough, TV also showed Castro. I wondered if Castro was any different from Stalin or Mao, the ruthless leaders who killed dissent. “If he is so popular, why is he afraid of popular mandate?”, I asked senior journalist Hari Sharan Chhabra, who accompanied me. “Enjoy young man. That’s what you’ve come here for”, was his cryptic reply.
During the seven years of my stay in Moscow as Patriot man, I learnt many more lessons in personality cults. It arises when an individual uses means of propaganda available to him to create an idealized image for himself. Flattery and praise are two accompanying characters. In my own home-state, Gujarat, I fondly notice similar tinges of communism which I had witnessed in Cuba in 1985 and the Soviet Union before perestroika and glasnost were initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. There is no dearth of local politicians, even officials, who have compared Modi with the Mahatma and the Sardar. An IAS official even called him Lord Ram of the present times!
Modi, of course, has a limitation – he must operate in India’s democratic setup, and he cannot hope to rise beyond it. Yet, there have been occasions when he has betrayed his special liking for communist authoritarianism. It was an informal chat with reporters. The topic was his impressions of China, where he had gone 2006. Modi was all praise on how Three Gorges Dam, world’s biggest, was built in a record time of 14 years. Someone asked him, “Why couldn’t we complete our own Narmada dam so quickly?” And Modi’s determined reply was: “China doesn’t allow anti-dam environmentalists to raise the bogey of oustees. That’s why.” Scribes knew whom he was hitting – Medha Patkar, dubbed by officialdom as “anti-Gujarat.”
Of course, babus who organized the Golden Jubilee exhibition explained huge Modi photographs, cutouts and e-screen displays as their effort to follow in a faceless manner all that what the powers-that-be want them to do. “There is nothing unusual to see only Modi placards on display all over Gujarat during the Golden Gujarat celebrations”, one Modi aide said in justification, adding, “First of all, one must remember that Modi has grown much bigger than his party, the BJP. Secondly, which Indian politician doesn’t want to be displayed in a similar way? Indira Gandhi did it in her days, even imposed emergency to keep her cult alive. Mayawati has got her statues built around in Uttar Pradesh. This was equally true of the Amma in Tamil Nadu.”

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