When will normal political philosophy replace personality cults?
by Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 11 2007,
A decade after Solzhenitsyn’s classic 1962 memoir One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch, an ambitious young Delhi photographer published a hagiography called A life in the day of Indira Gandhi. Indira was shown gambolling with her little grandchildren, guiding her dutiful daughter-in-law, weeping for her father, greeting her loyal subjects from around India, reprimanding her ingratiating sycophants, imperiously silent during political meetings, smiling and scolding alternately at press conferences, and of course standing in victory at Shimla beside the defeated Bhutto. “Indira is India” the sycophantic slogan went, and the cult of her personality was one of showing her as omniscient and omnipotent in all earthly matters of Indian politics.
She had indeed fought that rarest of things in international law: the just war. Supported by the world’s strongest military, an evil enemy had made victims of his own people. Indira tried patiently on the international stage to avert war, but also chose her military generals well and took their professional judgement seriously as to when to fight if it was inevitable and how to win. Finally she was magnanimous (to a fault) towards the enemy ~ who was not some stranger to us but our own estranged brother and cousin.
It seemed to be her and independent India’s finest hour. A fevered nation was thus ready to forgive and forget her catastrophic misdeeds until that time, like bank-nationalization and the start of endless deficit-finance and unlimited money-printing, a possible cause of monetary collapse today four decades later under Manmohan Singh whose career as an economic bureaucrat began at that time.
Hitler, Stalin, Mao
Modern personality cults usually have had some basis in national heroism. In Indira’s case it was the 1971 war. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were seen or portrayed as war heroes too. Because there has been leadership in time of war or national crisis, nervous anxious masses extend their hopes and delusions to believe such a leader has answers to everything. The propaganda machinery available as part of modern state apparatus then takes over, and when it is met on behalf of the citizenry with no more than a compliant docile ingratiating mass media, the public image comes to be formed of a parental god-like figure who will protect and guide the community to its destiny.
Beneath this public image, the cunning play of self-interest by anonymous underlings in the allocation of public resources continues unabated, and so it is possible some truth attaches to the idea that an individual leader is not as responsible for evil misdeeds or depredations done by “the party” in his/her name.
In the Indian case, hero-worship and ancestor-worship are part of the culture of all our major religions. Hence we have parades of parliamentarians garlanding or throwing flowers and paying obeisance at this or that statue or oil-painting or photograph regularly ~ though as a people we have yet to produce rigorous intellectual biographies of any major figures of our own modern history, comparable to, say, Judith Brown’s work on Gandhi or Ayesha Jalal’s on Jinnah.
Indira continued to dominate our political culture until her assassination more than a decade later, but there was hardly a shred of political or economic good in what she left the country. Her elder son (leaving aside his blunders in Sri Lanka, J&K etc.) did have the sense to initiate fundamental change in his party’s economic thinking when he found a chance to do so in the months before his own assassination.
Rajiv was the son of Feroze Gandhi too and a happy family man; he seemed not to have psychological need for as much of the kind of personality cult his mother clearly loved to indulge in. It is not clear if his widow is today trying to follow his example or his mother’s ~ certainly, the party that goes by the name of Indian National Congress would like to relive for a second time the worst of the Indira personality cult around Sonia Gandhi. And Rahul Gandhi, instead of seeking to develop or display any talent as befits a young man, has shown disconcerting signs of longing for the days of his grandmother’s personality cult to return. He may have been more effective pursuing a normal career in the private sector.
The Congress’s perpetual tendency towards personality cults has extended by imitation to other political parties in New Delhi and the States. Atal Behari Vajpayee at his peak as PM did not find it at all uncomfortable to be portrayed by his sycophants as a wise, heroic and loving father-figure of the nation ~ an image shattered when, immediately after perfunctorily commiserating the Godhra and post-Godhra horrors, he was pictured fashionably on a Singapore golf-cart sporting designer sunglasses.
India’s organised communists make a great show of collective decision-making since they most intimately followed the details of Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult. It has not stopped them routinely genuflecting to China’s communists. There also has been a communist tendency to deny individual merit and creativity at junior levels and instead appropriate all good things for the party bosses. New brilliant faces will never arise in the Left and we may be condemned to see the usual characters in perpetuity. If personality cults around Jyoti Basu or Buddhadeb Bhattacharya have failed to thrive it has not been through lack of trying on part of the publicly paid communist intelligentsia and their docile artists, but rather because of resistance from Bengal’s newspapers and a few clear-headed journalists and well known opposition politicians.
Tamil Nadu has seen grotesque rivalry between Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha as to whose personality cult can alternately outdo the other, supplanting all normal political economy or attempts at discovery of the public interest. In Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, J&K, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (but not Gujarat or Rajasthan lately), two-party democratic politics has succeeded in limiting tendencies for personality cults to develop. The North Eastern States have had inadequate coverage by modern media, which, fortuitously, along with tribal traditions, may have restrained personality cults from developing.
Facts explode cults
Facts are the most reliable means by which to explode personality cults. It is not a coincidence that facts are also the source by which to develop modern political philosophies, whether conservative, classical liberal/ libertarian, or socialist. Facts have to be discovered, ferreted out, analysed, studied and reflected upon by those civil institutions that are supposed to be doing so, namely university social science, economics and related departments, as well as responsible newspapers, radio and other mass media. Julian Benda once titled a book The Treason of the Intellectuals. India will begin to have a normal political philosophy when the treason of its modern intellectual classes begins to be corrected.
It is not a treason in which the state has been betrayed to an enemy. Rather it is one in which the very purposes of public conversation, such as the discovery of the public interest, have been betrayed in the interests of immediate private gain. This may help to explain why there is so little coherent public discussion in India today, and certainly almost nothing on television, or in the business papers or what passes for academia.
The search engine above should locate any article by its title; the Index and Archives may be used as well.
Readers are welcome to quote from my work under the normal “fair use” rule, but please try to quote me by name and indicate the place of original publication in case of work being republished here. I am at Twitter @subyroy, see my latest tweets above