AAPI Convention 2022


India’s devotional politics; and its immunity to criticism

Beginning with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru till Narendra Modi, we have a tendency to associate divine qualities to a political leader, writes Dr. Suparna Banerjee for South Asia Monitor

Dr. Suparna Banerjee Jun 17, 2022
Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi

There are two trends currently characterizing Indian politics. These trends have successfully managed to not just question the democratic framework but also undermine some of its institutions. These are: the legitimacy of devotional politics and a winning mentality.  

This is not to suggest that they were absent in the Indian political discourse earlier but what is noteworthy in the current scenario is the presumed ordinariness of it which has been inculcated within the people’s psyche. Both these trends have successfully managed to remove criticism which is a core ingredient of any functional democracy.  

Without criticism, the political class has remained not just immune to plausible negative questions that raises doubts over their performance but also obliterated the notion of accountability that any public servant must instill as duty towards its citizens. 

Devotional politics 

By devotional politics is implied the unquestionable symbolism which equate human figures with religious, making it impossible to be questioned without raising the wrath of the millions. India is a country of gods and goddesses, no doubt! Somehow, we have managed to metamorphose this religio-cultural psyche onto human beings.  

Cult worship is not a new phenomenon in our society. Anyone even remotely associated with or siding with the accepted morality (or popular for that matter!) is elevated to super-human status. The person is equated with gods and goddesses and is believed to possess celestial attributes (comparing Sachin as God, for example). While this is rampant in our everyday society, politics or political fraternity is not beyond this metaphor.  

Beginning with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru till Narendra Modi, we have a tendency to associate divine qualities to a political leader. Among other things, what it does and what is antithetical to a democratic structure is to keep that absolutely human figure indulging into politics beyond any criticism or negative depiction. That human figure is elevated to a podium, thereby incessantly challenging the democratic ideals of equality, secularism and freedom of speech.  

Mamata Banerjee 

As a social scientist, I could not help but notice the use of specific terms to celebrate the political win. Take for example Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. After her win in the Legislative Assembly election in 2021, she began to be ascribed with adjectives normally associated with Hindu gods and goddesses. She transformed into a Durga avatar out there to demolish the demons (implying the BJP). She became the symbol of divinity that should and must remain outside the critical circle. She metamorphosed into a goddess who remained over and above condemnation and disapproval.  

People in general and women in particular naturally could relate to this image where negative commentary became equivalent to disrespecting a divine entity, thereby comfortably overlooking the post poll violence that wreaked havoc in the state. This normalization of a demi-god (or goddess) is not quite different from what we are used to witnessing for the past several years in our national politics. Therefore, a formula in our democratic society to remain secured from criticism is to metamorphose into a cult figure! 

A country obsessed with cricket and Bollywood often transcends its associated symbols to politics as well. The notion of success has often been controversial. However, the popular domain equate success with economics. A rich person is ‘naturally’ a successful person. While in politics it is all about a ‘win’.  

End justifies means 

In these cases, it really does not matter to ordinary folks if the path towards that success is strewn with controversial or questionable means. Therefore, most part of this success actually facilitate towards shrouding the means and overlooking the path. And that is the winning mentality and the perks associated with it. By perks is implied gaining immunity from plausible criticism.  

Even as a child, we must have noticed how our unwarranted activities often used to be overlooked by our parents when we would have managed to make them ‘proud’ by our achievements like – getting good grades in exam or excelling in extra-curricular activities. Extrapolating such an observation to the bigger and broader arena helps us observe these features rampant in our everyday activities which we, more often than not, overlook.  

Rather we go on to celebrate those unwarranted features as a mark of confidence and enthusiasm. Virat Kohli’s machoism on the field are rather celebrated than chastised for aggressive behaviour because he has always managed to win matches putting a smile on the faces of his audience. Narendra Modi’s win is often able to hide his past because winning is a vindication of right over wrong. In every duel since infinity, winner is always considered right while the loser is associated with wrong.  

Win anyhow 

The win has succeeded in relegating the issues on which students, teachers, workers and farmers have collectively raised their voices – at least for the time being. The win has vindicated the position of the winner as someone who is right; over the loser who is destined to be wrong. This is an unfortunate state of affairs on which Indian (South Asian per se) political class have managed to survive despite the repeated misdeeds committed over time. This could also be pointed out as faultlines of our democratic structures. 

A win, therefore, does not remain confined to its designated objectives. It transcends and embraces these additional qualities which become essential not just for political survival but for protection. And so does an imagery of cult which remains beyond everyday questioning. The banality of these strategies has suddenly been invoked with living artefacts which has successfully stupefied a substantial section of the populace for the last eight years.  

Ironically, these trends did not occupy the public discourse all of a sudden. It is how our society and its members function in everyday life, thereby creating a bubble around any kind of authority that makes it immune to criticism – parents, teachers and elders for example. The habit of raising questions and doubts are nipped in the bud without satisfactory answer to a young mind. It is only the reflection of such a behaviour that is visible in a broader societal function. 

Until these become exception and not the norm, many surprises are awaiting that we had only imagined in our wildest of dreams, many of which will have done irreversible damage to our society.

(The writer is a PhD in Political Science from University of Bonn, Germany and currently resides in Frankfurt. Views are personal. She can be contacted at mail.suparnabanerjee@gmail.com


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