Let me start with the genesis of this blog. An argument with an old friend rattled my brain on the topic of hero-worship in general—the human psychology behind hero-worship. A couple of days later I had an epiphany. I scavenged the internet and this is what I found:
In 1949, a local newspaper in Calcutta published an article warning India and Indians of two dangers. One referred to the dangers of growing socio-economic disparity in the country. The second warning is the protagonist of this article.
The article asked Indians not to blindly and uncritically follow a particular leader. It further says, “…there is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti plays a critical role in the lives of many people. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
The article tries not to single out any individual but makes references to the Congress party, Gandhi, and Nehru. “They and their Congress Party had participated in an arduous and extended struggle for freedom. The years they had spent in jail demanded attention, and respect. Just because Gandhi and Nehru had rendered ‘lifelong services to the country’, did it mean that their actions or ideas were immune from critical scrutiny? Was their record of patriotism enough reason for the ordinary citizen to follow them implicitly and unquestioningly?”
It was a controversial, but a valid question.
This newspaper article suggests that hero-worship existed during that period. So, who were the heroes back then? Who has been India worshipping as heroes over the years? Whom is India worshipping now?
For the first two decades after independence, freedom fighters and politicians were India’s heroes. They had rid India of the British, and citizens of this country hoped the same politicians would help them realize their dream of a better life. It won’t be an exaggeration if I say people worshipped politicians of that time… and they deserved it largely. People like Nehru, Shastri, and Patel were well-grounded and discouraged people from worshipping them. All that changed in late 1960’s and early 1970’s, with the passing of a generation of politicians.
Unlike her predecessors, Indira Gandhi had no ambivalence about being admired. During her tenure between 1969 and1974, she deliberately positioned herself as embodying the spirit of the nation. She had abolished the princely states, nationalized the banks, and more importantly had led India to a famous military victory against Pakistan. In return, she demanded that citizens worship her. Most of them agreed… and worshiped. They portrayed her as Durga. Slogans were coined: “India is Indira and Indira is India”; poems were written: “Indira teri subah ki jai, tere sham ki jai/ Tere kam hi jai tere naam ki jai.”
The conduct of Indira Gandhi, and her supporters was a classic example of dangers of bhakti (hero-worship) in politics. It led, as the newspaper article had warned, “to degradation and dictatorship,” with the declaration of emergency in 1975.
As people started getting disillusioned with politicians, they had to find new heroes. They found few from the movie industry. People related to hardships shown in the movies. They could relate to the injustices—the hero of the movie faced. They could relate to issues like unemployment, poverty. They loved the fact that the hero of the movie could beat-up all the bad guys, overcome all the obstacles, and eventually lead a happy, normal life with his heroine. Actors like Amitabh Bacchan became superstars overnight. They were worshipped with great fanfare. If 50s and 60s belonged to politicians and freedom fighters, 70s belonged to the movie stars. Movie stars were India’s new heroes.
The year 1983 gave India its third obsession—Cricket, after politics and movies. After a successful world cup in England in 1983, cricketers became stars, and the man who led them became a hero. For the next three decades, cricket was considered as a religion and cricketers were considered gods. If Kapil Dev was a hero in the 80s, Sachin Tendulkar was more than a hero for the next two decades. India’s hero-worship obsession was constantly fed from 1947 to 2013.
With the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar from cricket in 2013, India again had to look for new hero(es). They didn’t have to wait much. Sachin Tendulkar announced his retirement in November 2013. BJP announced its campaign chief for the 2014 Lok Sabha election in December 2013. India got a new hero in BJP’s campaign chief—Narendra Modi it was.
Unlike Congress, and unlike regional parties such as the DMK, the Samajwadi Party, the Shiv Sena, or the Biju Janata Dal, the BJP was never controlled or dominated by a single individual. It prided itself on its collective leadership. From 1989 to 1999, when the party was dramatically growing, it regularly highlighted three leaders–L.K. Advani, M.M. Joshi, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, all of whom were given equal status in the party. All that changed in 2013-14. In the run-up to the general elections of 2014, Modi’s PR machine built him up as, first, the savior of his party, and then, the savior of the Nation itself. The nation rejoiced and whole-heartedly welcomed its new hero.
Indira Gandhi’s was probably the first personality cult in independent India. It has not been the last. Since then, several leaders have been hero-worshiped by their supporters. Bal Thackeray, M.G. Ramachandran, N.T. Rama Rao, jayalalita have all been elevated to a sort of superhuman status.
And now, we have the cult of Narendra Modi. Like all heroes India worshiped , he can do no wrong; he too will be blindly followed; he too will be worshiped.
Will it lead to “degradation and dictatorship” as the newspaper had warned 65 years ago? Will history repeat? We will wait and watch… India’s obsession with hero-worship will never die though. After Modi, we will find someone else…