Narendra Modi as a Political God-man

MK Raghavendra

Narendra Modi has perhaps a more devoted following than any other national leader in the past few decades, but that may actually owe to his despotic streak. That he tolerates little opposition is not a secret and, in time, he could well develop into a classical tyrant; one is reminded of Socrates’ argument in Plato’s The Republic that tyrannical souls arise in democracies when they afford the leader too much power. After studying the loyalties aroused by tyrants and their popularity – e.g.: Stalin was recently voted the greatest Russian of the twentieth century – one is led to wonder at the reasons. What they do, essentially, is curtail freedom – that of the public and of their followers – and there is something incredibly attractive in a principal who rather than allow one freedom to act, dictates it. Individuals perhaps perceive something threatening in absolute freedom and being made responsible for oneself. The popularity of God-men to whom one submits unquestioningly may also owe to the same human characteristic. Similarly, the more constraints a faith or a cult places upon its followers, the more adherents it is likely to get, and the extraordinary success of ISIS demonstrates this.  

If the equation I have just made between willingly submitting to a tyrant and to a God-man or Guru is accepted we may propose that what ‘tyrants’ do is take away the anxieties that all

people have. A spiritual Guru takes away personal anxieties (usually relating to the future) while a tyrant may be ridding one of civic anxieties – those associated with our positions as citizens of a country or even global citizens. Not only are we anxious about the things that might affect us personally – like the fate of our investments which depends on economic policy but also other issues as citizens; e.g.: Chinese troops massing on the border could alarm us. The key signal a tyrant sends out is that the buck stops with him or her, but even that is hugely reassuring. A weak ‘democratic’ setup in which one never knows ‘where the buck stops’ is even frightening - because it does little to quieten our civic anxieties, and even aggravates them.

Once one’s heart is fully given to the tyrant it is very difficult to withdraw it. The reason is that if one withdraws faith, one finds one’s civic anxieties returning in full force. The tyrant may not conduct himself or herself politically as expected but that is of very little consequence since one can modify one’s expectations. Only an extreme calamity like defeat in war makes one re-examine one’s faith in the tyrant. Till that moment comes, one’s commitment could be so extreme that even martyrdom is more welcome than ‘freedom’. The willingness of followers to die for a leader substantiates this forcefully.

A characteristic that Narendra Modi shares with many of India’s God-men is his confidence in the wisdom he possesses. If one listens to discourses by our wise men like Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, one never catches the sense of less than abundant knowledge on their part. This is a particular characteristic of ‘wisdom’ as understood in India, which – as distinct from ‘knowledge’ – includes the self as a component. If one were to ask a God-man about democracy, for instance, his likely response would be that it is an ‘inner state’, an attitude. It is an indication of the astuteness of Indian God-men that they restrict themselves territorially and do not submit to evaluative standards external to them. Even their discourses are arranged before their own devotees where a minimum support is guaranteed.  

Narendra Modi is like a God-man who has broken out into the public space and his chief attraction to his followers is that he rids them of their anxieties – although these are not personal but civic ones. But while he is nominally out in the open, he carefully controls where he appears and will not participate in open debates. He has had admirers among intellectuals (usually economists) but has kept them at bay. Those whom he appointed as advisors have, since, mostly left. This aspect should even be troubling to Indians because it betokens hostility to expert advice, to ‘theoretical knowledge’ gained through Western-style education and books. My own understanding of Narendra Modi is that he subscribes to the notion that ‘knowledge is within us’ - which God-men also subsist on. His faith in Yoga, in tradition and his association with brahmacharya point to the same mind-set, to someone who looks deep within himself – but to find solutions for external, socio-political problems!

Tradition in India has cultivated the inward gaze and ‘knowledge’ is also regarded as more inward than outward. Like someone out of mythology, Modi seems someone who has made himself strong through penance, but this is where our first sense of disquiet should appear, as citizens of a modern democratic nation. Even when issues like the economy, foreign policy and social transformation need ‘bookish’ knowledge, he appears too confident that such inward knowledge is ample equipment. Drastic decisions like demonetization, still to be explained convincingly to the public, may owe to this.

January 2019