By Ramchandra Guha (Foreignpolicy.com) – India claims to be the largest democracy in the world, and its ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claims to be the largest political organization in the world (with a membership base even greater than that of the Chinese Communist Party). Since May 2014, both the BJP and the government have been in thrall to the wishes—and occasionally the whims—of a single individual, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. An extraordinary personality cult has been constructed around Modi, its manifestations visible in state as well as party propaganda, in eulogies in the press, in adulatory invocations of his apparently transformative leadership by India’s leading entrepreneurs, celebrities, and sports stars.
This essay seeks to place the cult of Modi in comparative and cultural context. It will show how it arose, the hold it has over the Indian imagination, and its consequences for the country’s political and social future. It draws on my academic background as a historian of the Indian Republic, as well as on my personal experiences as an Indian citizen. However, since I am writing about a distinctively Indian variant of what is in fact a global phenomenon, what I say here may resonate with those who study or live under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world.
The term “cult of personality” was popularized, with regard to Joseph Stalin, by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in his now famous speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956. According to an English translation of Khruschev’s speech, he remarked that it was “impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior.”
The case of Stalin was not singular or unique. In the decades following World War II, the communist world was awash with cults of personality—of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, of Fidel Castro in Cuba, of Enver Hoxha in Albania, of Kim Il Sung in North Korea. Yet indisputably the greatest—not to say most deadly—of all the communist cults following Stalin’s was that of Mao Zedong in post-revolutionary China. Consider, for example, an editorial by Lt. Gen. Wu Faxian that appeared in the Liberation Army Daily on Aug. 13, 1967:
Chairman Mao is the most outstanding, greatest genius in the world, and his thought is the summing up of the experience of the proletarian struggles in China and abroad and is the unbreakable truth. In implementing Chairman Mao’s directives, we must absolutely not regard it as a prerequisite that we understand them. The experience of revolutionary struggles tells us that we do not understand many directives of Chairman Mao thoroughly or even partially at the beginning but gradually understand them in the course of implementation, after implementation, or after several years. Therefore, we should resolutely implement Chairman Mao’s directives that we understand as well as those that we temporarily do not understand.
I suppose this is what is called blind faith.
The cults of Stalin and Mao were preceded by the cults of Benito Mussolini in Italy and of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Notably, both emerged in settings that were not completely bereft of democratic features. Hitler’s National Socialists won the largest number of seats in the 1932 elections. Eight years previously, Mussolini had sought to win legitimacy through an election, though the voting itself was anything but free and fair. After they came to power, however, both leaders swiftly extinguished political and individual freedoms, seeking to consolidate power in themselves and their party.
A hundred years after the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, the world is once again witnessing the rise of authoritarian leaders in countries with some sort of democratic history. A partial listing of these elected autocrats would include: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Modi, and, not least, the autocrat temporarily out of favor but longing for a return to power, former U.S. President Donald Trump.
These leaders have all personalized governance and admiration to a considerable degree. They all seek to present themselves as the savior or redeemer of their nation, uniquely placed to make it more prosperous, more powerful, more in tune with what they claim to be its cultural and historical heritage. In a word, they have all constructed, and been allowed to construct, personality cults around themselves.
While recognizing the existence and persistence of such cults of personality in other countries, this essay shall focus on the cult of Modi in India, for three reasons. First, and least important, it occurs in the country I know best and with whose democratic history I am professionally (as well as personally) engaged.
Second, India is soon to be the most populous nation in the world, surpassing China in this regard, and hence this cult will have deeper and possibly more portentous consequences than such cults erected elsewhere in the world.
Third, and perhaps most important, this personality cult has taken shape in a country that until recently had fairly robust and long-standing democratic traditions. Before Modi came to power in May 2014, India had in all respects a longer-lasting democracy than when Erdogan came to power in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, and Bolsonaro in Brazil. The 2014 general election was India’s 16th national vote, in a line extending almost unbroken from 1952. Regular, and likewise mostly free and fair, elections have also been held to form the legislatures of different Indian states. As the historian Sunil Khilnani has pointed out, many more people have voted in Indian elections than in older and professedly more advanced democracies such as the United Kingdom and the United States. India before 2014 also had an active culture of public debate, a moderately free press, and a reasonably independent judiciary. It was by no means a perfect democracy—but then no democracy is. (In my 2007 book, India After Gandhi, I myself had characterized India as a “50-50 democracy.” Perhaps some countries in Northern Europe might qualify as “70-30 democracies.”)
Before I come to the cult of Modi, I want to say something about the cult of a previous Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi. She was the daughter of the country’s first and longest-serving prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In March 1971, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress party won an emphatic victory in the general election; that December, India won an emphatic victory on the battlefield over Pakistan, in part because of Gandhi’s decisive leadership. She was hailed as a modern incarnation of Durga, the militant, all-conquering goddess of Hindu mythology. The idea that Gandhi embodied in her person the party, the government, and the state—and that she represented in herself the past, present, and future of the nation—was promoted by the prime minister’s political allies. Congress party leader D.K. Barooah proclaimed, “India is Indira, Indira is India.” Equally noteworthy is a Hindi couplet that Barooah composed in praise of Gandhi, which in English reads: “Indira, we salute your morning and your evening, too / We celebrate your name and your great work, too.”
Shortly after the Congress leader read those lines at a rally in June 1975 attended by a million people, Gandhi imposed a state of emergency, during which her regime arrested all major (and many minor) opposition politicians as well as trade unionists and student activists, imposed strict censorship on the press, and abrogated individual freedoms. A little under two years later, however, Gandhi’s democratic conscience compelled her to call fresh elections in which she and her party lost power.
Now compare Barooah’s short poem with an extended tribute, in prose, to Modi by BJP leader J.P. Nadda, offered on the occasion of the former’s 71st birthday. These words appeared in an article published in September 2021 in India’s most widely read English-language newspaper, the Times of India:
Modi has evolved into a reformer who passionately raises social issues plaguing India and then effectively addresses them through public discourse and participation.
… [He] believes in the holistic development of our society and country through good moral and social values. He always leads from the front in addressing the nation’s most complex and difficult problems, and doesn’t rest till the goals are achieved.
… Modi is the only leader who has an electrifying effect on the masses and on whose call the entire nation gets united. During the [COVID-19] pandemic, his appeals have been religiously followed by every citizen.
… His stupendous success is the result of absolute dedication to people’s welfare and wellbeing. His only aim is to make India a Vishwaguru [teacher to the world].
Nadda’s piece is entirely representative. New Delhi’s newspapers are replete with op-ed pieces by cabinet ministers offering sycophantic praise of the prime minister. Indeed, “Modi is India, India is Modi” is the spoken or unspoken belief of everyone in the BJP, whether minister, member of Parliament, or humble party worker. As I was finishing a draft of this article in late September, India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, told an audience in Washington that “the fact that our [India’s] opinions count, that our views matter, and we have actually today the ability to shape the big issues of our time” is because of Modi. The anti-colonial movement led by Mohandas Gandhi, the persistence (against the odds) of electoral democracy since independence, the dynamism of its entrepreneurs in recent decades, the contributions of its scholars, scientists, writers, and filmmakers—all this (and the legacy of past prime ministers, too) goes entirely erased in these assessments. India’s achievements (such as they are) are instead attributed to one man alone, Modi.
Meanwhile, a then-serving Supreme Court judge called Modi an “internationally acclaimed visionary” and a “versatile genius who thinks globally and acts locally.” And India’s richest and most successful industrialists compete with one another in publicly displaying their adoration of, and loyalty toward, the prime minister.
In February 2021, Modi joined the ranks of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussain in having a sports stadium named after him while he was alive (and in office). The cricket stadium in the city of Ahmedabad, previously named after the great nationalist stalwart Vallabhbhai Patel, was henceforth to be called the Narendra Modi Stadium, with the inauguration of the refurbished premises conducted by then-Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, no less, alongside Home Minister Amit Shah and other officials. Later that year, as Indian citizens received their first COVID-19 vaccines, they were given vaccination certificates with Modi’s photograph on them. As second and then booster doses were offered, the official certificates also had the prime minister’s photograph. I know of no other country in the world that has followed this practice. Indians asked to show their COVID-19 certificates when traveling overseas have since become accustomed to being greeted with either mirth or disgust, sometimes both.
Any egalitarian democrat would be dismayed by Modi’s extraordinary displays of public narcissism. However, the scholar’s job is as much to understand as to judge.
Any egalitarian democrat would be dismayed by Modi’s extraordinary displays of public narcissism. However, the scholar’s job is as much to understand as to judge. The cold, hard fact is that, like Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s, Modi is unquestionably very popular. Why is this so? Let me offer six reasons.
First, Modi is genuinely self-made as well as extremely hardworking. Folklore has it that he once sold tea at a railway station—while some have questioned the veracity of this particular claim, there is no doubt that his family was disadvantaged in terms of caste as well as class. He takes no holidays and is devoted 24/7 to politics, which can be represented as being devoted 24/7 to the nation.
Second, Modi is a brilliant orator, with a gift for crisp one-liners and an even greater gift for mocking opponents. He is uncommonly effective as a speaker in the language most widely spoken in India, Hindi, and is even better in his native Gujarati.
Third, in terms of his background and achievements, Modi compares very favorably to his principal rival, Rahul Gandhi of the now much decayed Congress party. Gandhi has never held a proper job or exercised any sort of administrative responsibility. (On the other hand, Modi was chief minister of a large state, Gujarat, for more than a decade before he became prime minister.) Gandhi takes frequent holidays, and he is an indifferent public speaker. (English, spoken or understood by only 10 percent of the population, remains his first language.) He is a fifth-generation dynast. In all these respects, Modi shines by comparison.
Fourth, as Hindu majoritarianism increasingly takes hold in Indian politics and society, Modi is seen as the great redeemer of Hindus and Hinduism. Reared in the hard-line Hindu chauvinist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Modi frequently mocks the past rulers of India, both Muslim as well as British. He speaks of rescuing the country from “thousands of years of slavery” and of ushering in India’s much-delayed national and civilizational renaissance.
Fifth, Modi has at his command a massive propaganda machinery, sustained by the financial resources of his party and government and by 21st-century technology. An early and effective user of Twitter and Facebook, Modi has had his party use both as well as WhatsApp to build and enhance his image. (The prime minister also has his personalized, and widely subscribed-to, Narendra Modi App.) Modi’s face, and usually no other, appears on all posters, hoardings, advertisements, and websites issued by or under the aegis of the Indian government. He is thus able to use public resources to burnish his personality cult far more widely and effectively than elected autocrats elsewhere (even Putin).
Sixth, Modi is an exceptionally intelligent and crafty man. While mostly an autodidact, in 14 years as a party organizer and 13 as chief minister of Gujarat, he assimilated a huge amount of information on all sorts of subjects—economic, social, cultural, political. He can speak with apparent authority on the benefits of solar energy, the dangers of nuclear warfare, the situation of the girl child, developments in artificial intelligence, and much else. He is also extremely shrewd in manipulating the political discourse within his party, and the country at large, to favor himself and diminish his rivals or opponents. (The likes of Trump and Bolsonaro are mere demagogues in comparison.)
Having outlined the elements of the cult of Modi, let me speak of its consequences for democratic functioning. The cult of Modi has led to the weakening, if not evisceration, of five crucial institutions that, in a democracy, are meant to hold unbridled power to account and to prevent the personalization of political power and the growth of authoritarianism.
The first of these institutions is the political party. In part because so many of its leaders were jailed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, Modi’s party, the BJP, had previously stoutly opposed cults of personality. The BJP’s sister (some would say parent) organization, the RSS, has always insisted that it does not believe in vyakti puja (worship of an individual). Since 2014, however, Modi has established his total and complete authority over the BJP. Whether out of fear or adoration, all BJP leaders, even those senior to Modi in public life, have obediently fallen in line. There is not even a whiff of dissent within the world’s largest party in the world’s largest democracy; there is no Liz Cheney-like figure here at all.
The second institution that has prostrated itself before Modi is the Union Cabinet. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP’s first leader, was prime minister between 1998 and 2004, he governed as first among equals, giving his senior cabinet ministers considerable autonomy, this in keeping both with his party’s ethos and the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy that India had adopted. However, Modi does not consult cabinet ministers about important government decisions and makes sure that all credit for state welfare schemes accrues entirely to him. The government is run largely, if not entirely, from the Prime Minister’s Office, which is staffed by unelected officials personally loyal to Modi, several from his home state of Gujarat.
Unlike with previous prime ministers (from different parties), in India today there is no consultation within the Union Cabinet. What Modi says, goes. And there is little debate within Parliament either. Whereas prime ministers such as Nehru and Vajpayee spent a great deal of time in Parliament, often listening with attention to the speeches of opposition MPs, Modi uses it more as a platform to make his own speeches. Unfortunately, the country has no tradition of Prime Minister’s Questions, an aspect of the Westminster model that India did not incorporate. Bills on crucial subjects such as personal privacy and farm reforms, which affect hundreds of millions of Indians, are passed with little discussion and without being referred for assessment to a parliamentary select committee, as tradition demands. The speakers in both houses of Parliament are notoriously partisan, hastening the rapid conversion of an idea hatched in the Prime Minister’s Office into law, bypassing the cabinet and with no input from Parliament. During the 2021 monsoon session of Parliament, for example, it took an average of 34 minutes for a bill to be passed in the Lok Sabha, the lower house. Some were passed in less than 10 minutes.
Unlike with previous prime ministers (from different parties), in India today there is no consultation within the Union Cabinet. What Modi says, goes.
The third democratic institution that has rapidly declined since 2014 is the press. In a democracy, the press is supposed to be independent; in India today, it is pliant and propagandist. In eight years as prime minister, Modi has not held a single press conference involving questions from the media. He conveys his views by way of a monthly monologue on state radio and by the occasional interview with a journalist known to be favorable to the regime, these conduced with a cloying deference to Modi. Furthermore, because most of the country’s leading newspapers and TV channels are owned by entrepreneurs with other business interests, they have quickly fallen into line, lest, for example, a chemical factory also owned by a media magnate does not get a license or an export permit. (Indian media also depend heavily on government advertising, another reason to support the ruling regime.) Prime-time TV exuberantly praises the prime minister and relentlessly attacks the opposition—so much so that a term has been coined for them, godi media. These two words require a longer translation in plain English—perhaps “the media that takes its instructions from and obediently parrots the line of the Modi government” would do. Many independent-minded journalists have been jailed on spurious charges related to their work; others have had the tax authorities set on them.
The fourth key institution that has become less autonomous and independent since May 2014 is the bureaucracy. In India, civil servants are supposed to work in accordance with the constitution and be strictly nonpartisan. Over the years, they have become steadily politicized, with many officials tending to side with a particular political party or even with a particular politician. However, since 2014, whatever independence and autonomy that remained have been completely sundered. In choosing his key officials, Modi places far greater emphasis on loyalty than on competence. Every ministry now has a minder, often an individual from the RSS, to make sure that, when a senior civil servant retires, his or her replacement will have the right vichardhara, or ideology. Furthermore, state agencies have been savagely let loose to intimidate and tame the political opposition. (According to a recent report by the Indian Express, 95 percent of all politicians raided or arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation since 2014 have been from opposition parties.) These raids are held out as a warning as well as an inducement, for a slew of opposition politicians have since joined the BJP and had cases against them withdrawn.
Finally, the judiciary has, in recent years, not fulfilled the role accorded it by the constitution. District and provincial courts have been very energetic in endorsing state actions that infringe on the rights and liberties of citizens. More disappointing perhaps has been the role of the highest court of the land. The legal scholar Anuj Bhuwania has gone so far as to speak of the “complete capitulation of the Supreme Court to the majoritarian rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” It has delayed the hearing of crucial cases; even when it does, it tends to favor the arbitrary use of state power over protecting individual freedoms. As Bhuwania writes in Scroll.in, “During the Modi period, not only has the court failed to perform its constitutional role as a check on governmental excesses, it has acted as a cheerleader for the Modi government’s agenda. Not only has it abdicated its supposed counter-democratic function as a shield for citizens against state lawlessness, but it has also actually acted as a powerful sword that can be wielded at the behest of the executive.” And furthermore, he writes, the Supreme Court “has placed its enormous arsenal at the government’s disposal in pursuit of its radical majoritarian agenda.”
As suggested by my earlier formulation of India as a 50-50 democracy, none of these institutions performed flawlessly in the past. They were occasionally (and sometimes more than occasionally) timid or subservient to the party in power. There was no golden age of Indian democracy. However, since May 2014 these institutions have lost even more—one might say far more—of their independence and autonomy and are now in thrall to Modi and his government.
It is important to note that the capture of these five institutions—the party, the legislature, the press, the civil service, and the judiciary—has been crucial to the consolidation of other personality cults, too. My analysis of what Modi has done to democracy in India would broadly hold for Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, and even to some extent Trump in the United States.
I should briefly note two additional features of personality cults in such partially democratic regimes. The first is that they tend to promote crony capitalism, with a few favored industrialists making windfall gains owing to their loyalty and proximity to the leader and his party. The second is that they tend to promote religious or ethnic majoritarianism. The majority ethnic or religious group is said to represent the true essence of the nation, and the leader is said to embody, with singular distinction and effectiveness, the essence of this majority group. On the other side, religious or ethnic minorities, such as Kurds in Turkey, Jews in Hungary, or Muslims in India, are said to be disloyal or antithetical to the nation. Majoritarian arguments singling out minorities for harassment or stigmatization are rife on social media, made often by ruling party legislators and, on occasions when he feels politically threatened, by the leader himself.
Even while they were in office, it seemed to me that Modi was more dangerous to the interests of his country than Johnson and Trump were to theirs.
From July 2019 to January 2021, the world’s largest, oldest, and richest democracies were all led by charismatic populists with authoritarian tendencies. Boris Johnson and Trump are now both gone, yet Modi remains. Even while they were in office, it seemed to me that Modi was more dangerous to the interests of his country than Johnson and Trump were to theirs. The reasons for this are both structural as well as biographical. As the preceding discussion would have made clear, democratic institutions intended to act as a check on the abuse of power by politicians are far more compromised in India than in the United Kingdom or the United States. In the U.K., the press, Parliament, and the civil service all sought to thwart Johnson’s authoritarian tendencies. As for the United States, even if Trump sought to pack the Supreme Court, lower courts remained independent; so did the tax authorities and other regulatory institutions. Influential sections of the press did not capitulate to the cult of Trump; the universities remained crucibles of freedom and dissent. Even the person Trump chose as his vice president acted to endorse the results of the 2020 election, in consonance with the U.S. Constitution and in defiance of his boss.
Democratic institutions are far weaker in India than in the U.K. or the United States. And as an individual, too, Modi represents a far greater threat to his country’s democratic future than Johnson or Trump ever could. For one, he has been a full-time politician for far longer than they have been, with much greater experience in how to manipulate public institutions to serve his own purposes. Second, he is far more committed to his political beliefs than Johnson and Trump are to theirs. While Johnson and Trump are consumed almost wholly by vanity and personal glory, Modi is part narcissist but also part ideologue. He lives and embodies Hindu majoritarianism in a much thoroughgoing manner than Trump lives white supremacy or Johnson embodies xenophobic Little Englandism. Third, in the enactment and fulfillment of his ideological dream, Modi has as his instrument the RSS, whose organizational strength and capacity for resource mobilization far exceed any right-wing organization in the U.K. or the United States. Indeed, if it lasts much longer, the Modi regime may come to be remembered as much for its evisceration of Indian pluralism as for its dismantling of Indian democracy.
I have presented a qualitative narrative so far; allow me to append just a few figures that show how far India’s democratic standards have slipped in recent years. In Freedom House’s political and civil freedom rankings, India was among the countries with the largest declines in the last decade, dropping from “Free” to “Partly Free” in 2021. In the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, India fell from 75th in 2015 to 119th in 2021. In Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, India fell from 140th in 2013 to 150th in 2022. Finally, in the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Gender Gap Report, released in July, India ranked 135th out of 146 countries in overall score and lowest (146th) when it came to health and survival.
I’d like to end my essay with two past warnings by Indians against the unthinking submission to charismatic authority. The first warning is relatively well known. It is from B.R. Ambedkar’s last speech to the Constituent Assembly of India in November 1949. In the speech, Ambedkar quotes the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who cautioned citizens not “to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.” This warning was even more pertinent in India than in England, for, as Ambedkar points out:
in India, bhakti, or what may be called the path of devotion or hero worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be the road to the salvation of a soul. But in politics, bhakti, or hero worship, is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.
The cult of Modi the Superman, like the cult of Indira the Superwoman that preceded it, shows that Ambedkar was right to be worried about the dangers to Indian democracy of the religious practice of bhakti, or blind hero worship. The ruling party’s presentation of Modi as Hindu messiah-cum-avenging angel falls on fertile soil. One would not expect the population of a free country to be so cravenly worshipful of a living individual—but, tragically, they are.
The cult of Modi the Superman, like the cult of Indira the Superwoman that preceded it, shows that Ambedkar was right to be worried about the dangers to Indian democracy of the religious practice of bhakti, or blind hero worship.
The second quote is far more obscure but perhaps equally pertinent. It is from a letter written to Indira Gandhi in November 1969 by S. Nijalingappa, who was president of the Congress party when Gandhi split the party and made it an extension of herself. Born in 1902, Nijalingappa came of age in an era of imperialism and fascism while being part of a freedom struggle that stood for democracy, nonviolence, and pluralism. The Congress party in which he had spent all his adult life was a decentralized institution with vigorous state and district units. It had many leaders, never just one. Now, as Gandhi sought to reshape the party and the country in her own image, Nijalingappa warned her that the history of the 20th century “is replete with instances of the tragedy that overtakes democracy when a leader who has risen to power on the crest of a popular wave or with the support of a democratic organization becomes a victim of political narcissism and is egged on by a coterie of unscrupulous sycophants who use corruption and terror to silence opposition and attempt to make public opinion an echo of authority.”
History offers us a few lessons. One is that—as the cases of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini, Putin, and others all show—personality cults are always bad for the country that fosters and encourages them. Historians have passed their judgment on the damage that the cult of Indira Gandhi did to Indian democracy and nationhood. The day will come, though perhaps not in my lifetime, when historians will pass a similar judgment on the effects on India’s happiness and well-being of the cult of Modi.
This essay draws on the author’s George Herbert Walker Jr. lecture, “Personality Cults and Democratic Decline,” delivered at Yale University’s MacMillan Center on Oct. 6.