Ramachandra Guha Gives George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture

November 14, 2022

An overflowing crowd gathered at Luce Hall on Thursday, October 6th to hear historian Ramachandra Guha, Distinguished University Professor at Krea University, deliver the George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture in International Studies on “Personality Cults and Democratic Decline.” Guha, who is the author of acclaimed books including a two-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi and the bestselling India After Gandhi, was welcomed by Steven Wilkinson, Nilekani Professor of India and South Asia and Vice Provost for Global Strategy. Guha opened with a few remarks that highlighted his long relationship with Yale. 

When Guha first came to Yale in 1986 as a “trailing spouse,” he said James Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science, told him “there is no South Asia at Yale.” Reflecting on the crowd and gathered faculty, Guha noted that this was no longer the case—and joked that “Yale also saved my marriage” by allowing him to take up a visiting position at the school while his wife, Sujata Keshavan ART ’87 was completing her Master of Fine Arts.

Turning to the body of his presentation, Guha offered a history of personality cults that traced the origins of the term to remarks by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev about his predecessor, Joseph Stalin that it was “foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person.” Nonetheless, Guha said, most post-World War II personality cults have emerged in socialist or communist countries, with the “greatest for the cults” emerging in China around Mao Zedong. To reinforce his point, he read from an editorial published by a journal of the Chinese Communist Party in 1967, that said, among other florid phrases, that “Chairman Mao is the most outstanding, greatest genius in the world.” The praise, Guha said with a laugh, “makes a Hindu godman seem very pedestrian indeed.”

Turning from communist autocratic regimes to the pre-World War II personality cults of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy, Guha made a sobering argument: “the cults of Hitler and Mussolini emerged in settings that were at least partially democratic in contrast to the cults of people like Mao and Stalin.” Jump forward, Guha said, and “the world is witnessing the rise of authoritarian leaders in countries with some sort of democratic history.” These include figures such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the focus of the talk, Narendra Modi, in India (in addition to politicians like Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom).

Guha explained his focus on Modi by emphasizing three points: that he knows India best, that India will soon be or already is the most populous country in the world, and because Modi’s cult of personality has emerged in a country with robust and longstanding democratic traditions. But, Guha added, Modi’s personality cult can only be understood by understanding the personality cult of Indira Gandhi first. 

Briefly outlining the conditions of her rise to power and popularity, Guha also offered a criticism of her enablers. Dev Kanta Barooah, a famed Assamese poet and president of the Indian National Congress during Gandhi’s premiership, was one of them. Best remembered for coining the slogan “India is Indira. Indira is India,” Barooah composed numerous other writings in support of Gandhi. One of these, read out at a rally in her support, was the couplet Indira tere subah ki jai, tere sham ki jai; tere kam ki jai, tere lam ki jai [Indira, glory to your morning, glory to your night; glory to your work, glory to your army.] Fast forward to Narendra Modi’s 71st birthday in September 2021, Guha said, and the same sycophancy can be seen in an opinion piece published by J.P. Nadda, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Times of India, the world’s best-selling English daily newspaper. Poking fun at Nadda’s prose, which read in one sentence that Modi’s “only aim is to make India a vishwaguru [world leader],” Guha argued that the article was symptomatic—alongside events like the renaming of a cricket stadium after Modi and celebrating Modi’s birthday by releasing African cheetahs in India—of the cementing of Modi’s personality cult.

Guha then offered six reasons for Modi’s popularity and pervasive cult.

  • Being poor and hardworking, from an underprivileged background, and constantly thinking about how to “get to power, remain in power, further his power, consolidate his power,” which is represented as being devoted “24/7” to the nation of India.
  • Being a brilliant orator who is “absolutely magnetic when he speaks” and “has a gift for crisp one-liners.” Guha praised Modi’s ability to exalt and taunt in sequence and his compelling rhetoric in both Hindi and Gujarati.
  • Being favorably compared to the “lazy, entitled, 5th-generation dynast” Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the Congress Party, as Indian elections have increasingly become presidential-style personality contests.
  • Being “seen as the great redeemer of Hindus and Hinduism… as Hindu majoritarianism increasingly takes hold.”
  • Being at the helm of a massive propaganda machine, the financial resource of both the BJP and the Indian government, and 21st century technology.
  • Being a politically shrewd and clever autodidact with the ability to absorb information and shape narratives to suit himself. “Compared to Modi, Bolsonaro and Trump and just ordinary, street-level demagogues.”

Guha highlighted the enduring consequences of the personality cult by arguing it has been helped by and furthered the collapse of five Indian institutions: the party, the parliament, the press, the civil service, and the judiciary. Highlighting the BJP’s ideological circulation around Modi, the speed with which Modi’s legislation gets passed, the subservience of popular media, the use of tax investigations to prosecute political opponents, and the judiciary’s cooptation, he said “capture is much more thoroughgoing in India than it has been in other places.” He also stressed two common dangers of personality cults in partially democratic regimes. The first, punctuated by a cricket reference, used the naming of the two ends of Narendra Modi Stadium after Indian billionaires Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani’s conglomerates to make the point that “elected autocrats tend to promote a form of crony capitalism.” The second, Guha said, is that personality cults in partially democratic regimes tend to promote religious and ethnic majoritarianism, as they have in India. While Modi’s cult is one of many political personality cults in India, Guha stressed that it is the only truly national-level one: “Indira Gandhi on steroids.”

Guha neared the close of his lecture by searching for answers to how personality cults can be resisted, offering two possibilities: the lessons of history (with reference to Germany), and “stoutly and stubbornly maintaining the independence of democratic institutions.” He also offered warnings from prominent Indians of the 20th century. Reading from a speech given by B.R. Ambedkar, framer of India’s Constitution, in 1949, he said “in India bhakti or what might be called the part of devotion or hero worship lays a part in its politics unequaled by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world.” Guha then read out a letter to Indira Gandhi written by Indian activist and politician S. Nijalingappa in 1969 that said “the history of the 20th century is replete with instances of the tragedy that overtakes democracy when a leader who has risen to power on the trust of a popular wave, or with the support of a democratic organization… becomes a victim of political narcissism and is egged on by a coterie of unscrupulous citizens who use corruption and terror to silence opposition and attempt to make public opinion an echo of authority.”

“History has very few lessons,” Guha concluded. One of them is that “there are no permanent winners and losers.” Another is that “personality cults are always bad for the country that fosters and encourages them.” With that, he took questions.

Daevan Mangalmurti, SASC Student Fellow