What explains the absence of ideology in Indian politics? Why are Indian politicians so quick to shed ideals and values that appear to run deep in our polity? Across the country, a vote-winner is valued over the ideology he or she stands for. In fact, it seems to be the key. Ideology, a firm and identifiable plank, is a detriment in a diverse democracy like ours.

 A winner needs to divest himself or herself of party ideology if they are to build an aura that brings them repeated electoral success. Their partymen, happy to be taken along for the ride, are content to witness and even aid this undercutting of the same ideology that brought them to politics, in exchange for the pleasures of power.

A personality cult robs a political movement of its conceptual weight. Consequently, it has to depend on the all-commanding leader’s choices, even whims, to direct policy. In India, we tend to think of personality cults as a failing of our electorate – the elite believe that the common man is so easily duped, so eager to find a new ‘god’ to fit into their polytheist pantheon, that they create these cults around personalities. But that is to mistake the symptom for the cause.

b’Former J Jayalalithaa |Source: PTIxc2xa0′

Part of the answer, at least, lies in the political system, and the institutional subversion that has taken place under our noses. In India, the supreme leader always retains – and jealously guards – the power to grant electoral tickets. This means each of the legislators are directly dependent on them for their livelihood and prestige. This centralisation of the nomination process has been crucial in creating these personality cults.

Since the movement is no longer underpinned by ideology, intellectual or social accomplishments become demerits instead of merits – the leader of the cult sees such people as threats to their own authority, and removes them from the party. People talk often about J Jayalalithaa’s free television sets and Akhilesh Yadav’s free laptops, but the original relationship is between the legislators and their leader.

b’Akhilesh Yadav |Source: PTIxc2xa0′

This is where the first exchange of power for goods-and-services (in this case, unquestioning loyalty and a share of any accruals from corruption) takes place. These legislators then become the priests of the personality cult, encouraging supporters from their constituencies to produce ever greater acts of fealty to the supreme leader as a way of demonstrating their own devotion. So you see the acts of devotion to political leaders that so shock us: tattoos and self-mutilation and even suicide.

Take the long-serving chief ministers in India today. Naveen Patnaik has inherited the personality cult that centred on his father, Biju. He keeps a low profile, but after four barely-contested terms in office, it’s more than likely that the cult has transferred to him. Akhilesh Yadav’s father Mulayam turned one of the important Lohiaite socialist parties of northern India into a family-cult (tracked well by Gilles Vernier here). 

b’Mamata Banerjee |Source: PTI’

Mamata Banerjee’s absolute control over her party members is well known. But it was the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, who typified the personality-cult leader in the Indian imagination.

Stories of legislators prostrating in front of her and supporters mutilating and even killing themselves, will forever be part of Jayalalithaa’s lore. But she was also the perfect example of how personality overtakes ideology in Indian politics. The AIADMK is a Dravidian party.

 Both All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and its rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are supposed to draw deeply from Periyar’s message, which was distinctly anti-Brahmin. It seems bizarre that a Brahmin like Jayalalithaa could so successfully dominate an anti-Brahmin political movement, but there you have it.

The most successful cult in Indian politics today revolves around the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party, his party, is one of the few ideological outfits in the Indian political sphere. But even their strident message was dampened for the 2014 general election. The once-proud Hindu nationalist became instead a Hindu and a nationalist, an altogether cuddlier proposition. 

The BJP’s social and cultural interventionism somehow became the Milton Friedmanesque-Minimum Government, Maximum Governance. And he convinced the great majority of the population, through the force of his appeal, that he could lead India to economic deliverance, though he did not offer as much as a roadmap.

b’Narendra Modi|Source: PTIxc2xa0′

If the cult around Modi had not existed, if the BJP’s internal democracy had been intact, if institutions like the Cabinet were allowed to fully consider vital policy, demonetisation would not have been implemented in the shoddy manner it has. Modi believed he could pull it off because he has been elevated by subservient partymen and a compliant media in the way all our personality-cult-leaders are.

We think of personality-cults as a relatively new phenomenon in Indian politics. Indira Gandhi is often imagined as the first of such leaders. But it seems to date back further. In a speech in Pune in 1943, BR Ambedkar took sharp aim at the two personality cults that dominated Indian politics at the time. 

“We have on the horizon of India two great men, so big they can be identified without being named—Gandhi and Jinnah…It would be difficult to find two persons who could rival them for their colossal egotism…They choose to stand on a pedestal of splendid isolation. They wall themselves off from their equals. They prefer to open themselves to their inferiors. They are very unhappy at and impatient of criticism, but are very happy to be fawned upon by flunkeys…In addition to supremacy, each claims infallibility for himself…This feeling of supremacy and infallibility is strengthened by the Press…To accept a hero and worship him has become its [the Press’] principal duty.


“News gives place to sensation, reasoned opinion to unreasoning passion, appeal to the minds of responsible people to appeal to the emotions of the irresponsible. Never has the interest of country been sacrificed so senselessly for the propagation of hero-worship. Never has hero-worship become so blind as we see it in India today.”

Remind you of anyone?

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