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Selfies, Trains, School, Exhibition, Coin, Lotus: Taking Stock of the Modi Cult

What is especially disturbing is the rapid spread of the Modi cult and of saffron symbols into the hitherto apolitical military establishments.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

The twenty-first century’s populist dictators are experts in subverting democracy without disturbing its structures. They skillfully distort its provisions in order to establish their control.

Consider how Narendra Modi has been ingeniously using popular beliefs and practices for cult creation. The range and depth of his cult are mind-boggling, to say the least.

Modi’s primary school has become a hallowed ‘prerana sthal’ or site of inspiration where students will be brought from different states on study tours. A Rs 100 coin was struck to mark the 100th episode of Modi’s radio show, Mann Ki Baat.

Then there are Modi colleges and Modi exhibitions.

External affairs minister S. Jaishankar says vishwaguru diplomacy will be taught in universities.

Modi himself flagged off the NaMo Bharat train named after him. A new species of lotus has been named after Modi.

In an unusual move, the Ahmedabad cricket stadium named after Sardar Patel was renamed after Modi, a living politician. And at the Modi Stadium, a son of Modi’s friend presented a photo of Modi to Modi – all under a big publicity glare.

Modi selfie stands are the most visible Modi build-up. In the next few months, you will find selfie points every few kilometres, when the instructions reach BJP-led corporations and civic bodies. They have already spread to railway stations and to universities, where they met with local resistance.

The most alarming trend has been the spread of Modi selfies and other saffron symbols to the hitherto apolitical military establishments.

The defence ministry suggested in an October 2023 letter that 822 geo-tagged selfie points that “may contain” a photo of Modi be installed by the Army, Navy, Air Force and other military organisations in public places across the country.

As per the directive, the order should be executed ”immediately”.

Significantly, last the combined commanders’ conference addressed by Modi was held not in a military camp, but at Bhopal’s Kushabhau Thakre Centre, at whose gate was an imposing Modi portrait. Part of the 2021 conference was held at the Statue of Unity in Gujarat.

Former Army chief Ved Prakash Malik has said the forces should stay away from politics. He decried the attempts to politicise the military and Admiral Arun Prakash said such developments will have a long-term impact on the forces. Officers lower down the pecking order have also spoken out:

But the Modi cult marches on.

‘Traces of God’

A culture of sycophancy is fast catching up to the BJP, as it does with the parties of all dictators. In parliament, during the debate on the motion of thanks on the president’s address in 2021, BJP members mentioned Modi 420 times.

Five weeks later, a BJP MP in parliament praised Modi as an avatar of God.

Modi was also likened to an avatar of God by a senior minister in the Yogi Adityanath government in October 2022.

Consider how the avatar theme as an instrument of sycophancy is fast catching within the BJP hierarchy. And the BJP’s national executive took the lead in the flattery:

• Like Lord Shiva, Modi bore the opposition’s onslaught on the party and became the ‘supreme and most popular leader of India and the world’, the BJP’s national executive resolution said.

• People consider Modi an avatar of Ram and Krishna, said Tirath Singh Rawat while he was Uttarakhand CM. If he was removed within three months, it was due to acute faction fights.

• PM Modi is the 11th avatar of Vishnu, BJP spokesperson Avadhut Wagh said, and quoted the Sanskrit verse ‘yada yada hi dharmasya’ (‘Whenever dharma declines, God appears as an avatar to lift the world’).

• BJP leader Kamal Patel described Modi as the incarnation of God born to end an “atmosphere of despair”.

• PM Modi has “traces of God in him” and he is “superhuman”, said Shivraj Singh Chouhan when he was the Madhya Pradesh CM.

• For a change, a Himachal minister hailed Modi as an avatar of Shiva.

• In Gujarat, they have started worshipping Modi in gold bars.

• Endorsing the avatar role, Modi says: God has chosen me to empower women.

Also read: There’s Nothing ‘Inevitable’ About Narendra Modi’s Return in 2024

Temples for this avatar

Since Modi is an avatar, there should also be temples where his devotees could offer him prayers and pay their obeisance. And aspiring leaders have raised temples with Narendra Modi as their deity. Here are some of those Modi temples.

• Favour-seekers of the BJP in Rajkot built a temple with Modi as its presiding deity and an idol reportedly costing over $3,000. After it got bad publicity abroad, Modi expressed his displeasure. This was in his early days as prime minister.

• There is another temple in Kaushambi in Uttar Pradesh where Modi was reportedly worshipped alongside Shiva.

• An aspiring BJP leader built a Modi temple in Pune with a poem dedicated to him prominently displayed alongside.

• A temple with a 100-foot Modi idol on a five-acre plot at an estimated cost of Rs 10 crore was reportedly coming up in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh.

• Like at Jan Aushadhi outlets, there was also a move for Modi portraits to be displayed at PM-GKAY ration shops in BJP-ruled states.

Welfare schemes are another vehicle for the Modi build-up. The names of more than two dozen schemes carry a ‘PM’ prefix, like the PM Awas Yojana and the PM Kisan scheme. Other examples are the PM SVANidhi Scheme, the PM SHRI scheme, the PM Gram Sadak Yojana and the PM MITRA Parks initiative.

P. Raman is a veteran journalist.

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