The cult of Narendra Modi

Updated: 07 January, 2019 08:33 IST | Aditya Sinha | Mumbai

Using flattery, mass media, propaganda and patriotism to create a heroic self-image: does this not sound exactly like our Great Leader?

Modi constantly complains about how elitists are dead set against his vision. File pic
Modi constantly complains about how elitists are dead set against his vision. File pic

Aditya SinhaPrime Minister Narendra Modi came to mind while I watched the film Apostle lately. It's set in 1905, when a man sets out to rescue his sister from a cult, communing on an island near England, that has kidnapped her. It wasn't the heroic brother but the desperate cult leader that reminded me of Modi. As did another film about a cult, The Sacrament, based on the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in which the leader persuaded his brainwashed followers to drink the cyanide-laced, grape-flavoured Flavor Aid: 918 died. Then there is the web-series about Osho/Rajneesh, Wild Wild Country, in which the number two allegedly swindled big money. I was convinced: Modi is a cult leader.

The then USSR's premier Nikita Khrushchev spoke in 1956 against the "cult of personality", basically criticising Joseph Stalin and (by insinuation, Mao Zedong). Wikipedia defines "cult of personality" as where an individual uses flattery, praise, the mass media, propaganda, "the big lie", patriotism, and government-sponsored events and rallies, to create an idealised and heroic self-image. While we are neither a textbook totalitarian nor authoritarian society, the definition fits our Great Leader to a T.

Cult leaders maintain an aura of mystique; you often hear more about them than you actually see. No wonder Modi never attends Parliament. An unverified statistic says that in four years or so, Modi has spent 800 days addressing public rallies and 200 days on foreign trips, yet only attended 19 days in Parliament (and that too, fleetingly). The public rallies are superfluous as direct outreach to people given the ubiquitous 'Mann ki baat'; so despite claims to the contrary, the rallies are a part of Modi in non-stop election mode.

Foreign trips might be a necessary part of his job but our foreign policy is in such shambles — China bullying us, Trump insulting our development work in Afghanistan, Imran Khan fingering us on Kashmir — that it might have been better to allot the burden of diplomacy to the external affairs minister. Modi's absence is most stark during the current session's discussion on the Rafale fighter jet deal. Parliament took it up despite a Supreme Court finding favouring Modi because the court was misled into thinking that a CAG audit had been completed. There is no CAG report into the deal. The opposition demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) so the government agreed to a discussion instead.

This has seen Congress president Rahul Gandhi in full flow, alluding to mysterious files in the Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar's personal possession. As defence minister, Parrikar was in the dark while Modi single-handedly re-negotiated the deal. Though Modi might have preferred taking Rahul on directly — it helps Modi shape his narrative for the coming parliamentary election as a presidential style contest, in which he fancies his chances — he has instead fielded finance minister Arun Jaitley and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Yet neither has the full facts on the deal so they resort more to ad hominem attacks than debate on substance.

Modi's response came not in Parliament but to a friendly news service, ANI. This news service is so blatantly pro-BJP that it was earlier known as Advani News International (after the former deputy PM). All of Doordarshan's feed was switched from PTI to ANI by this regime. The editor threw softball questions at Modi, who answered at mind-numbing length; she did no cross-examining and the 95-minute interview became a joke. Cartoonists depicted Modi interviewing himself. Even foreign newspapers had a good laugh. Rahul dismissed Modi's response as being to a "pliable" journalist.

This was a fair assessment. Again, however, everyone allowed themselves to be distracted (and portray themselves as "centrists") by equating it with the abuse hurled earlier by Modi himself and ministers like VK Singh. It is a false equivalence. Modi and his cohort equate critical journalists with persons who sell their bodies; "pliable" is closer to what Advani had said during the Emergency, that when asked to bend, journalists crawled. This cacophonous semantic discussion diverted attention from the real matter at hand, the Rafale jet fighter deal.

That's how it is in the cult of personality. A defensive shield emerges around the Great Leader and bogus insinuations are levelled against potential challengers, to derail
the narrative. The mass media is pliant, working itself up over a false, diversionary issue. Propaganda is disseminated through pliable journalists. A rally-a-day regimen perpetrates "the big lie", that the usual suspects are ganging up against the lily-white chowkidar. Like any cult leader, our Great Leader constantly complains about how the rigid, things-as-usual elitist society is dead set against his vision and his purity; and no one truly understands him. Except that in a few months, the voter will let Modi know exactly how well she understands his cult of personality.

Aditya Sinha is a writer and columnist. His latest book 'India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy', with Yashwant Sinha, is out now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to

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First Published: 07 January, 2019 05:00 IST

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