Of Statues and The Personality Cult
KOLKATA: J.P. Singh, a retired engineer and an ardent supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to construct a temple in the name of the leader.
The temple will have a 100-feet tall metal statue of PM Modi. It will be built on the Meerut-Karnal highway in Sardhana area of the district. It will also have statues of Lord Vishnu and goddess Laxmi in the sanctum sanctorum. This was a small piece of one-column news in the inside pages of national dailies this week. The approximate cost of the statute alone is expected to reach Rs.10 crores to be collected through donations. Really?
PM Modi’s wax figures have already come up in Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok with a fourth expected any time in London. But these are wax statues and form part of the exhibits of Madame Tussauds which, as everybody knows, has franchises across the world like any other commercial enterprise so it has statues of everyone ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to Madhuri Dixit, from Sachin Tendulkar to Katrina Kaif that spells out an egalitarian spirit in every sense.
It does not recognize hierarchy among the wax statues in terms of their contribution to the nation, or, their span of fame or consistent performance in their chosen agendas. This is surprising because in 2015, PM Modi had expressed his displeasure over a temple in Gujarat in Kotharia village near Rajkot which had had his bust installed but was later demolished because he had not approved of it.
But this is different. Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India. He is the leader of the nation and has miles to go before he sleeps. Creating a temple and a statue while he is alive and active and heads the largest democracy in the world is almost like signing the death warrant of his contribution because this is based on the assumption that his days, as PM or as a party representative or as a man, are over.
This is a concrete symbol of what is termed “the personality cult” that deifies and iconizes an individual while he is still alive. It is therefore, not a memorial to be looked up to and remembered like the statues of Babasaheb Ambedkar the Dalits look up to as a special messenger.
The first official statue of Ambedkar was set up in what was then Bombay in 1962, at the Institute of Science crossing (the former provincial assembly). In 1966, another bronze statue of Ambedkar was set up in front of the national Parliament in New Delhi. The Ambedkar statue phenomenon literally mushroomed after the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party coalition came to power in Uttar Pradesh in December 1993.
It was 1994 that marked an unprecedented number of “Ambedkar statue incidents,” according to French anthropologist Nicolas Jaoul in his paper Learning the use of symbolic means: Dalits, Ambedkar statues and the state in Uttar Pradesh (Ashwaq Masoodi, The Mint, June 07, 2017.) The first statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar came up six years after his death in 1956. A statue in his memory carries a different implication for Dalits.
As Masoodi rightly states: “With increased Dalit unity created around these symbols and a rising consciousness of constitutional rights among the unprivileged, assertion and political mobilization have also become stronger in the community. So, while for some these installations might be a way of keeping themselves and their leaders alive in public memory or honouring them, for Dalits, insertion of such memorials in public spaces and hence popular consciousness, is a way of showing they also belong.”
But statues of living leaders in different political regimes spell out a different story never mind whether they belong to the Dalits or the upper castes. They spell out the psychology of the personality cult, which, ironically, was once one of the fundamental features of the sacralization of politics in other communist regimes after it was abolished in Russia under Stalinism.
These countries applied the Stalinist model and often surpassed it in the megalomania of deification. In her well-researched book Politics as Religion, (Princeton University Press, 2006) Emilio Gentle writes: “The establishment of the cult of the leader was not everywhere immediate following the conquest of power and depended on several factors concerning the present of a charismatic personality, power struggle between the regime’s leaders and the attitudes of the masses.”
PM Modi did not have much charisma when he was CM in Gujarat. He acquired ‘charisma’ through deliberate design perpetuated through a lot of propaganda among the masses across the media virtually in his control in programmes such as Man Ki Baat and the highly publicised Swachh Bharat programmes.
Indian examples are many. Bahujan Samaj Party supremo and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati has around 200 statues of herself and BSP symbol elephant in Lucknow and Noida. A Congress leader in Andhra Pradesh had built a temple for party President Sonia Gandhi in January, 2014. Leaked images revealed Sonia Gandhi as the officiating deity in the temple built by Shankar Rao, a legislator from Andhra Pradesh. Dismissing accusations of sycophancy, Rao said the temple for the Congress president is his way of showing gratitude to the Congress President for creating a separate Telangana state. No one knows what her reaction was, or is.
A dedicated devotee (read ‘lunatic’) known only as Hussaini, a sculptor and archery teacher of Chennai built a bust made of 11 litres of frozen blood of late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa that was unveiled on her 65th birthday in 2013. The blood was donated by him and 32 of his students. This was his way of thanking his favourite political leader for being the “most sports loving CM of India” and for her support to his archery association. No one knows how Jayalalithaa reacted to this sycophantism at the cost of human blood.
However, the personality cult pursued almost desperately by a political leader may be the consequence of the affirmation of absolute power by a dominant personality who succeeded in prevailing over his rivals within the new regime and crowned his victory with his own conservation as the unchallenged leader and a living myth. One example of this personality is Nicolas Ceausescu of Romania who did not have a charismatic personality at all, yet introduced a personality cult a few years after gaining the highest position in the regime’s hierarchy following the death of its founder Gheorghiu-Dej.
The story goes that the Romanian dictator was influenced by the idea of the “personality cult” after a visit to North Korea where he was stunned by the spectacular cult of Kim II Sung. As founder and dictator of the communist regime in North Korea since 1948, Kim II Sung adopted the Stalinist model for setting up a personality cult after eliminating his rivals.
Statues, idols, monuments that are massive, and took a great deal of human creativity, industry, commitment and dedication to create, are not merely decorative showpieces made to adorn the marketplace. “They regulate, control, calm and tame the unruly mind, swayed and swerved by emotions,” says retired management professor R.V. Chari.
Perhaps, this applies more specifically to antique works of art like the Bamiyan Buddha or the Taj Mahal and not to statues of alive and active political leaders who have enough political arrogance and clout to allow this sycophancy to go on in a country where two-thirds of the entire population lives below the poverty line. Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan called the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas as “the de-Islamisation of Islam.”
This statue-building to venerate a living political leader marks a transition from the sacralization of the party to the deification of the leader. This silent acceptance of sycophancy also signifies a sense of insecurity in the leader concerned because he/she is not sure of whether he/she will remain in power long enough for a statue to be built. And after the person passes away, a statue would mean nothing to him or would make no difference to his pride and his arrogance. These statues are not memorials, they are symbols of temporary power, and sycophancy, here today, gone tomorrow……