Is there a cult of personality in the democratic world to rival Narendra Modi’s? Consider the pageantry of veneration consecrated to the Indian prime minister just last month. On Feb. 24, the world’s largest cricket stadium — built at a cost of more than $100 million and bearing the name of one of India’s most revered founding fathers — was unblushingly re-christened the Narendra Modi Stadium by the Modi government. (Comparisons are inexact, but imagine if Donald Trump had renamed Lincoln Center after himself.) Four days later, the country’s space agency catapulted a satellite bearing a photo of Modi into the heavens. In one week, Modi had his name monumentalized on Earth and his face exalted in the stars.
The glorification of Modi originated in service of a cause larger than the man. Its purpose, at first, was to ennoble Hindu nationalism by elaborately showcasing its most successful proponent. Bereft of respectable historical icons who espoused their creed, Hindu nationalists had been stigmatized for decades as ideological renegades in a country that identified itself as a secular republic. The men venerated by Hindu supremacists had spurned the inclusive struggle for India’s freedom from British rule pioneered by Mohandas Gandhi, eulogized Hitler, peddled race myths borrowed from the Nazis, rationalized the murderous persecution of German Jews as a “good lesson” for India, and vilified Christians and Muslims even as they collaborated with the Muslim supremacists who founded Pakistan.
The secular pantheon had Gandhi; Jawaharlal Nehru, the first popularly elected prime minister; and Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet who bequeathed India its national anthem. The Hindu nationalist hall of infamy featured Nathuram Godse, the chauvinist who assassinated Gandhi; VD Savarkar, the sectarian prophet who mentored Godse; and MS Golwalkar, the demagogue who considered the Third Reich the highest expression of racial pride. This baggage explains why Modi played down his ideology and campaigned as an inclusive, modernizing technocrat in 2014.