One day in the nineteen seventies, Leonid Brezhnev was in a town on Lake Baikal, attending a Politburo meeting. The Soviet Union was in its pomp, whereas the rival superpower was scarred at home by the scandal of Watergate, and abroad by the experience of defeat in Vietnam. Contemplating these events, Brezhnev was naturally feeling very pleased. The sky was blue and cloudless as he walked from the hotel to the conference venue. As he strolled along the lake, he was wished a respectful ‘Good Morning’ by a voice high above him. Brezhnev looked up, to find himself addressed by a great golden ball of fire. ‘Good Morning, Comrade Brezhnev’, said the sun. ‘Good Morning, General Secretary of the Supreme Council of the Soviet Union; Good Morning, First Holder of the Order of Lenin; Good Morning, Commander-in-Chief of the Patriotic Forces of the Great Soviet Fatherland; Good Morning, Glorious Defender of the Rights of the Working Class; Good Morning, Heroic and Selfless Leader of the World Proletarian Revolution!’

Brezhnev acknowledged these salutations graciously before proceeding, with ever lighter steps, to his meeting. That went well, with Gromyko and Andropov and other minions addressing him in the deferential terms to which he was properly accustomed. His work done, he walked back to his hotel. His mood was good—indeed it could not have been better—and the day was still cloudless. So benign was the Bear feeling that this time he chose to open the conversation. ‘Good evening, Comrade Sun’, said Brezhev, addressing the ball of fire above him. ‘Bugger off, you fat oaf’, came the reply. ‘Bugger off, you petty, pompous dictator’. Brezhnev was thrown completely off guard. ‘Why this, Comrade Sun?’, he asked with a mixture of bemusement and pain: ‘You were so kind to me in the morning. What has happened to change your mood so?’. ‘In the morning I was in the East’, answered the sun, ‘now, thankfully, I am in the West’.

This story was told to me, years ago, by the Nepali scientist Dipak Gyawali, who studied in the Soviet Union, before (like the sun) moving over to the West (he took a Ph D from the University of California, then returned home to work in Kathmandu). One of many such then current in the Soviet Union, the story underlined the contrast between the democratic countries of the West, where one could criticize one’s leaders freely, and the authoritarian countries of the East, where deference and sycophancy were the order of the day.

The Cult of the Great Leader was indeed widespread in the Communist world. Mao in China, Hoxha in Albania, Castro in Cuba, were all portrayed by their media as heroic, almost superhuman; as flawless and beyond (or above) any criticism. Alas, deference and sycophancy are the order of the day in this country, too, despite its own official standing as one of the established democracies of the world. Here, the clash is not between totalitarianism and freedom, but between feudalism and modernity. The representative of modernity is the press; if rarely fearless, it is at least free. Unlike in Communist countries, where the media is wholly state-controlled, here newspapers and magazines can write critically about the failings of politicians. Our advantage in this regard is nullified, however, by the backwardness of society at large, where ancient traditions predispose the people to venerate and deify their leaders.
Years ago, in his final, summing-up speech to the Constituent Assembly, B. R. Ambedkar had warned Indians about the unthinking submission to charismatic authority. Ambedkar quoted John Stuart Mill, who cautioned citizens not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions’. There was, said Ambedkar, ‘nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country’. But there were ‘limits to gratefulness’. Quoting the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, Ambedkar said that ‘no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty’.

This warning was even more pertinent here than in Ireland or England. For in India, noted Ambedkar, ‘Bhakti or what what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be the road to the salvation of a soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.’

This was spoken in 1949, a year and some months after the death of the most worshipped of Indian politicians, Mahatma Gandhi. Fortunately, Gandhi’s heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, took Ambedkar’s warning with some seriousness. He based his policies on procedures and principles, rather than on the force of his personality. Within the Congress, within the Cabinet, within the Parliament, Nehru tried to further the democratic, co-operative, collaborative ideals of the Indian Constitution. The judiciary, the bureaucracy, and the press were given full autonomy; there was no attempt to force them to do the Leader’s bidding. Here, Nehru was working against the grain of history, against the deep-seated feudal and hierarchical tendencies in Indian society. Indeed, his own party, his bureaucracy, his press, would still tend to sometimes treat him as if he had the attributes of the divine.

Nehru might not have entirely succeeded in building a democratic, non-hierarchical culture in Indian politics. But it is notable that he tried. Which cannot, however, be said for his daughter Indira Gandhi. Her first few years as Prime Minister were a time of searching, but by the time of the elections of January 1971 she had refashioned the polity around the desires of a single individual. The Congress was an extension of herself, and in time the country would be too. When a prominent artist celebrated her as Durga after the war of December 1971 she nodded benignly in approval, taking it as no more than her due—her father would at least have been embarrassed. She cultivated sycophants and sycophancy; to be of influence in the Congress or the Government what mattered was your personal closeness to the Prime Minister, not your official position or your sphere of competence. Mrs Gandhi’s doings in this regard contributed a new term to the Indian political lexicon: that of the ‘Congress chamcha’.

The culmination of this process was the declaration, by the Congress President Deva Kanta Barooah in 1974, that ‘Indira was India and India was Indira’. The next year, when a Court judgement went against her, and justice as well as decency demand that she resign the office of Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi instead declared the Emergency, suppressed the Press, and put the Opposition leaders in jail. Bhakti or hero-worship in politics had led, as Dr Ambedkar had long ago warned, to degradation and eventually to dictatorship.

Mrs Gandhi lifted the Emergency and called elections in 1977. Democracy in this form returned, but bhakti in politics was here to stay. It now revealed itself most forcibly in the provinces, where the likes of M. G. Ramachandran and N. T. Rama Rao attemped to create leadership cults that would have impressed Leonid Brezhnev himself. Their initiatives in this regard have been taken further forward by Bal Thackeray and J. Jayalalithaaa, who have used the bhakti of their followers in dangerously undemocratic ways. Those who disagree with them in public have every chance of being physically attacked, as has been the experience of journalists in Mumbai and lawyers in Tamil Nadu.

Loyalty to the Leader, in person, rather than to the policies of his or her Government—such was the legacy of Mrs Indira Gandhi, to be furthered and distorted by MGR, NTR, Jayalalithaa, Thackeray and by Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mayawati too. These all are (or were) non-Congress leaders, but now the disease of sycophancy has once more manifested itself within the Grand Old Party. Sonia Gandhi’s last birthday was celebrated at a well-attended function in New Delhi as ‘Tyag Divas’, with one speaker claiming that she embodied the virtues of the Buddha, Ashoka, and Mahatma Gandhi. Were this an ordinary Congress chamcha one might perhaps have disregarded it, but the person making these outrageous comparisons was the Union Home Minister, no less.

Building democracy in India was always going to be hard work. It involved the nurturing of institutions based on impersonal rules rather than on individual whims, on placing merit and transparency above the claims of caste and kin, on cultivating an ethic of interpersonal equality in a society steeped in hierarchy and deference. Democracy was a challenge that Nehru and Ambedkar, thinking of their country, were prepared to take on. Their followers and successors, thinking merely of themselves, have been content to be swept along with the flow.