In this election season, I have been thinking a great deal about B.R. Ambedkar — about Ambedkar the theorist of democracy, rather than Ambedkar the emancipator of the Dalits. I have been recalling, and returning to, a remarkable speech he delivered to the Constituent Assembly of India on November 25, 1949. Here he uttered three warnings. One pertained to the dangers in eschewing constitutional methods for unregulated street protest, which he characterized as “the grammar of anarchy”. A second drew a distinction between political democracy on the one hand and social democracy on the other. With the Constitution, every adult Indian would have the vote, thus ensuring political equality. And yet, remarked Ambedkar, “on the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty.” If this disjunction between political rights and social disprivilege persisted, warned Ambedkar, “those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”
These two warnings remain pertinent. However, in the context of the present elections per se, it is the third of Ambedkar’s warnings that needs to be more urgently recalled. This asked Indians not to blindly and uncritically follow a particular leader. Ambedkar quoted the liberal thinker, John Stuart Mill, who had said that the citizens of a democracy must never “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or ...trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions”.
Ambedkar remarked that “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. As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no women can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty”. Then he continued: “This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. 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.”
Ambedkar was here uttering a generalized warning. But did he also have any particular individual in mind? Ambedkar had long been critical of what he saw as the excessive adulation of Mahatma Gandhi by his countrymen. Now, in the immediate aftermath of Independence, he could see the enormous prestige that men like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel commanded. 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. Ambedkar could see all this, and was worried about the consequences. 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?
As it happens, Jawaharlal Nehru himself was not unaware of the dangers of blind adoration. In November 1937, the Modern Review of Calcutta carried a profile of Nehru, which spoke of “intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and inefficient”. It noted that his conceit was “already formidable”, and worried that soon “Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar”. It was later revealed that the piece was written by Nehru himself, under the pen-name of Chanakya.
Nehru’s Caesarist tendencies were kept in check by his own self-awareness; and by the fact that he lived in an age of political giants. Within the Congress, Patel, Rajaji, B.C. Roy and others treated him with affection, not deference. The Opposition, meanwhile, had leaders of considerable self-respect and ability—such as Ram Manohar Lohia, S.P. Mookerjee, J.B. Kripalani, and A.K. Gopalan.
Unlike Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi had no ambivalence about being admired. In the years 1969 to 1974 she expressly positioned herself as embodying the spirit of the nation. Because she had abolished the princely order and nationalized the banks, and because she had led India to a famous military victory against Pakistan, she demanded that citizens venerate her. And many of them did. The devotion of the aam admi was compounded and consolidated by the devotion of writers and artists. M.F. Husain portrayed her as Durga. Deva Kanta Barooah, a poet of considerable distinction in his native Assamese, famously said that “India is Indira and Indira is India”. Less well known is a verse he composed, which ran: Indira teri subah ki jai, tere sham ki jai/ Tere kam hi jai tere naam ki jai.
The conduct of Indira Gandhi —and of her admirers — was a paradigm case of the dangers of Bhakti in politics. It led — as Ambedkar had warned, “to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”, as manifest in the jailing of her political opponents and the promulgation of the Emergency.
Indira Gandhi’s was the first personality cult in independent India. Regrettably, it has not been the last. In the decades since, several leaders have been the subject of total adoration on the part of their supporters. At various times and in different places, Bal Thackeray, M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao have been elevated to a sort of superhuman status.
There has also been a cult of dead leaders. Shivaji for the Maharashtrians, and Subhas Bose, for the Bengalis, have been subjects of blind bhakti. Sonia Gandhi has sought to promote the worship of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, naming numbers of schemes after them and encouraging ministers to take out advertisements at public expense on their birth or death anniversaries. And, ironically, there is even a posthumous cult of Ambedkar himself.
And now we have emergent the cult of Narendra Modi. Unlike the Indira and post-Indira Congress, and unlike regional parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Samajwadi Party, the Shiv Sena or the Biju Janata Dal, the Bharatiya Janata Party was never controlled or dominated by a single individual. It prided itself on its collective leadership. In the years when it rose to prominence and then to power — circa 1989 to 1999 — it regularly showcased three leaders. These were L.K. Advani, M.M. Joshi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, all of whom were accorded equal status in party propaganda. After Vajpayee became prime minister he was elevated above the rest, but only marginally —he was first among equals.
All this has now changed. In the run-up to the general elections of 2014, the BJP has increasingly subordinated itself to the will of a single individual. Modi’s PR machine steadily built him up as, first, the saviour of his party, and then, the Saviour of the Nation itself. The other leaders of the BJP have obediently laid down their liberties — and their critical faculties — at the feet of this one man. So have the party cadres. And now they ask that the rest of us follow.
There is, as one newspaper editor recently commented, a “mindless Modi monotheism” abroad. This cult of the One Great Leader has been nurtured and promoted by sycophantic writers and journalists, competing with one another to be to Modi what Deva Kanta Barooah once was to Indira Gandhi. They promise their readers that their Leader will clean up government, grow the economy by 10 per cent a year, take on Pakistan and China, and make India a Great Superpower. Even more aggressive are the band of cyber-hooligans who seek to express their bhakti not so much in praising their Hero as in abusing — in the most vulgar language — those who do not subscribe to the Myth of the Great Messiah.
Ambedkar would have been appalled. And so, perhaps, should we be.