A man who had fought and was jailed for India’s freedom struggle (in 1930, 1941, and 1942), went on to become an editor, a member of the Constituent Assembly in 1949-51, had held Ministerial, Speakership and Gubernatorial appointments, etc, would intuitively be expected to be a dyed-in-the-wool Constitutionalist. Except, DK Barooah wasn’t in historical infamy for a most counterintuitive, inglorious, and unconstitutional statement, “Indira is India and India is Indira!"
The telling omission of ‘r’ in the deliberately conflated expression of obsequiousness has institutionalised a regrettable legacy of cult-like deification that has haunted Indian politics across all parties of national and regional persuasions.
That metamorphism of Indira Gandhi from the uncharitable taints of ‘Goongi Gudiya’ to that of a ruthless usurper of power and cult-like charisma of ‘Iron Lady of India’ or even, the more sexist ‘only man of her cabinet’ was aided immeasurably by the echo chambers and chanting by likes of DK Barooah, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Rajni Patel, etc.
Such times and ecosystem don’t even spare affliction to the highest offices and the proclamation of the Emergency decree owing to the purported ‘internal disturbance’ by Rashtrapati Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed under Article 352 is a grim reminder of the consequences of make-believe infallibility in politics.
Indira Raj and the Ban Culture
Basically, Indira Gandhi had outmaneuvered her rivals (within her own party and in the opposition), diminished all institutions of ‘checks-and-balances’, murmurs of changing the Constitution had gained credence, and the practice of sycophancy had started getting normalised.
The ban culture of movies deemed unflattering to Indira personally or to her political impressions were imposed on Aandhi, Kissa Kursi Ka, Yamagola, and Nasbandi, etc. Voices of dissent against her autocratic and illiberal streak were left to those who were safely outside her reach like Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul or even independent media channels like the British Broadcasting Channel (BBC).
Indira Gandhi had invoked the time-tested formula of nationalism to ban the BBC. Rhetoric like, “The BBC never missed an opportunity to malign India” and that it filled “notoriously anti-India stories” ruled the waves. One amongst the list of ‘anti-India’ stories (besides documentaries like Phantom India and Calcutta) was the coverage of the 1969 Ahmedabad communal riots.
Hitendra Desai of the Indian National Congress had been the Chief Minister—later Justice Jaganmohan Reddy Commission of Enquiry had questioned the slackness of the police for the first few days of the riots when maximum damage was inflicted on the minority community.
Clearly, Indira Gandhi didn’t appreciate the airing of such damaging reportage to her personality or her party. A melee of desperately ingratiating and toadying colleagues like DK Barooah had helped create a cult-like fervour that led Indira to genuinely believe in the divine destiny of ‘Durga’ (ironically bestowed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee) or as the ‘Empress of India’ by The Economist.
That the fawning eulogies to political authoritarians have never ever been sincere since time immemorial was squarely lost on Indira Gandhi. Irony died a thousand deaths with not just Atal Bihari Vajpayee attacking her later, or that The Economist slamming Indira Gandhi in many subsequent articles – but with even the most genuflecting and vocal DK Barooah who abandoned Indira Gandhi and joined another rival faction when Indira Gandhi’s ship started sinking, apparently.
It was the first deliberately curated Indian political cult which was destroyed almost as soon as it was created, but it was not just Indira Gandhi who had suffered personally, the tenor, impulse and preferences of Indian democracy had got infected and corrupted irrevocably.
Modi Phenomenon in Indian Democracy & BBC Controversy
The phenomenon and urge of cults survived Indira Gandhi’s tragic assassination on 31 October 1984, though later date Prime Ministers like Rajiv, VP Singh, Chandrashekar, PV Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Vajpayee or even Manmohan Singh could never really craft or match a comparable cult-like image to that of Indira Gandhi.
Each tried desperately to carve constituencies of power but were left to limited appeals of regional, social, intellectual, or ideological cuts but none came close to a pan-India appeal of Indira Gandhi that has mystified psephologists to date as to how she romped home with two-third seats in the 7th Lok Sabha on the sheer power of her cult, and not necessarily of her party!
The ecosystem of cult era is riddled with missteps and her hubris had led to seeding turmoil in Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir etc. India paid dearly for many of her decisions borne out of the cult culture.
Cut to 2014, and a powerful new force emerged on the national scene that also cleansed itself of all possible and probable alternatives by packing the septuagenarian and geriatric ranks to a quaintly called ‘Margdarshak Mandal’ (literally, Board of Directors who incidentally haven’t convened since) and more importantly, got rid itself of the decidedly gentler, more moderate and intellectual names like Arun Shourie, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, BC Khanduri etc.
The age-old religious allusions of ‘Durga’ would return albeit with robotic chants of ‘NaMo’ which befittingly means obeisance or bow in Sanskrit. Since then, the international and independent media have raised multiple concerns on the cult-like intolerance to criticism, and like in the Indira days, faced with ‘anti-India’ counteraccusations. Eerily, the narrative and even some of the names of the ostensible ‘enemies’ are the same – that the dispensation in power is from the forces that fought tooth-and-nail to restore democracy from the clutches of Emergency, is quixotic.
The air at venues of important meeting places (including the Parliament) rouse with the gladiatorial chants of the leader’s name and the essential import of the same is unmistakable. This ecosystem and culture are not discouraged as many other things are and dutifully adhered to by the mesmerised (or beholden) audience, the acceptance of the same is both suggestive and foreboding.
American author Robert A Heinlein's wise words, “Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so,” is instructive and worthy of a recall to the imminent dangers of cult to the survival of Constitutional India, as envisaged by the founding fathers, as had got threatened with Indira Gandhi decades back.
In a curious case of very familiar names, albeit jumbled for context by vicissitudes of time and circumstances, Journalist Coomi Kapoor noted in The Emergency: A Personal History, “The National Herald, founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, supported the Emergency throughout, and cautiously removed the quote ‘Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might’ from its mastheads”. Only names and fates have changed, since.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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