A culture of cult worship

Sep 04, 2013, 07:11 IST | Ranjona Banerji

The manner in which the supporters of the religious leader Asaram have been defending him against rape and molestation charges is quite remarkable

The manner in which the supporters of the religious leader Asaram have been defending him against rape and molestation charges is quite remarkable.

They show great fealty for their leader in spite of the disturbing allegations made against him. They have attacked journalists. They have picketed police stations. This is not the first time that allegations of various sorts have been made against Asaram and his associates. But it is the first time they have been taken seriously to the extent that he has been arrested and remanded to judicial custody.

Mass worship: Narendra Modi is nothing less than a cult figure for his followers

The need for a cult leader seems to be intrinsic to human nature and can be found in all societies all around the world. India perhaps has a lien on the maximum number of such people with godly pretensions. It is one thing to believe in God or gods or divinity in general. But it is quite another to ascribe those attributes to a human being, especially in the 21st century...

Even more interesting is what happens when divine characteristics are given to a politician -- like the current chief minister of Gujarat for instance.

Narendra Modi is nothing less than a cult figure for his followers. He can do no wrong, he is perfect in his thinking and his delivery and he has super human powers. What makes Modi more than just a popular politician is that his devotees do not necessarily belong to his vote bank. All 100 per cent of the voters in Gujarat do not vote for this great leader. In the last assembly elections in 2012, the Bharatiya Janata Party got 47.9 per cent of the vote share, a small decrease in fact from 2007.

The people of Gujarat therefore are not those who have made Modi into a cult figure. Indeed, when you consider that the Congress got 38.9 per cent of the vote share in 2012, you can see how many traitors there are to the great cause of the Perfect Man.

No, Modi’s popularity comes from the mythic proportions that his followers outside Gujarat -- many on the Internet and in other countries -- have given him. Some portions of the Indian middle classes in other states also belong to his fan club, with popular authors like Chetan Bhagat giving him advice on how to better himself every time he makes a little mis-statement like comparing dead riot victims to the children of dogs being run over his car.

Modi is not the first chief minister to win consecutive elections or indeed to improve conditions in his state. Indeed there are enough contradictory figures which come out of Gujarat to show that it is as haphazard as the rest of the country. The state has always been entrepreneurial and industrious. Modi has made life better for new and existing businesses, yes. But life for everyone else in Gujarat -- having lived there in two time frames including during Modi’s time -- is hardly perfect compared to the rest of India.

However, facts and figures are of no use to believers in the Modi cult -- the way they are of no use to followers of Asaram. Instead cultists seem to be emboldened rather than disgusted by criticism or even proof of misdemeanours by their Ideal Leader. They get a greater impetus to prove that their initial leap of faith in trusting X or Y was correct. To give in to criticism reflects very badly on their own decision-making processes.

As Asaram’s followers continue to believe outside his jailhouse, so will Modi’s fan club become shriller as we get nearer to the general elections. Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad informs us that even God wants Modi to lead. The myth-building will continue. Take BJP president Rajnath Singh’s assurance that he has seen the pain in Modi’s eyes whenever the 2002 Gujarat riots are mentioned.

With no disrespect to Singh’s mind-reading powers, that sounds a bit like LK Advani’s tears as the Babri Masjid collapsed. You don’t really quite know why exactly they were pained or weeping. Devotees of cult figures have no such doubts though. They see greatness even in the muck. A testament to human greatness or foolishness?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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