Understanding the Psychology of the Cult of Modi
A cult is commonly defined as ‘a group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology. It has a belief system that has the answers to all of life’s questions and offers a special solution to be gained only by following the leader’s rules.’ And though it is unfair to label every group that is unusual or different ‘a cult’, there are some groups that, unfortunately, do fit the category.
Those who are mystified by the fact that Modi’s diehard supporters still venerate and support him despite eight years of steep social and economic decline would do well to understand the psychology of cults and the three main reasons why people join them:
1. Cults provide its members with a sense of purpose, however flawed. They lift people out of the drudgery of daily existence by offering them a more exciting story to be a part of (however fallacious). They help them feel like warriors in a great struggle between good and evil, where they are, of course, on the side of the ‘good’. The ‘hindu khatre me hai’ (the Hindu is in danger) narrative is a classic example, and provides the cult of Modi the noble opportunity to ‘protect’ Hinduism against its perceived enemies. So compelling is the narrative that it has managed to eclipse the rather obvious fact that Hindus comprise 86% of India’s population and couldn’t possibly be in danger from minority communities, especially not demographically.
2. Cults are comforting. They provide a sense of belonging, which according to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, comes right after food and shelter. Cults promise its members a community, but invariably fail to provide one over the long term. Cults are supportive as long its members do not question its hierarchies and social dynamics. Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s book, I Could Not be Hindu — The Story of a Dalit in the RSS, for example, traces the story of the author’s attraction to, disillusionment with, and eventual departure from the RSS.
Cults are also comforting because they provide easy (and shallow) answers to life’s most vexing questions. Critical examination of one’s worldview is never easy. Accepting dogma is much simpler, especially when surrounded by those who also embrace those dogmas. Incidentally, cult members don’t think of themselves as cult members. They genuinely consider themselves free-thinking individuals and get quite insulted if anyone suggests otherwise.
3. Cults have charismatic leaders who give voice to suppressed anger. Cult leaders speak to people’s anger (however misplaced), make them feel vindicated and feed binary (‘us’ vs. ‘them’) thinking. Modi has been accused of birthing anti-Muslim bigotry, but in all fairness, the bigotry was already present in Indian society. He has simply given it sanction, all the way from his infamous “hum paanch hamaare pachees” comment in the aftermath of the 2002 pogrom to the more recent “you can recognise them by their clothes” speech. It is also worth noting that the prime minister has still not condemned the call for genocide against Muslims given at the Haridwar dharam sansad.
Do cult members ever leave a cult? Yes, when it stops meeting their needs, eventually. When its dominant narrative starts losing its power, and when disillusionment with the leader sets in, members invariably start to exit (though often not with much fanfare, because it is embarrassing to admit one had been so wrong about so much for so long.)
Modi’s 2014 promises of vikas (development) and achhe din (happy days) sound like a cruel joke today. Massive bank scams, widespread job losses, rampant unemployment, rising petrol prices, the inability of his government to prevent Covid deaths in the deadly second wave of the disease, and repeated Chinese incursions into Indian territory, and, most recently, his government’s utter ineptness in rescuing Indian students from war-torn Ukraine, have cast a long shadow on Modi’s legendary musculature and his status as undisputed god-king of India.
The farmers camped at Delhi’s borders perhaps said it the best when they said, “Jab tak rozi roti par asar nahi hoga aur payt pe laat nahi padegi, tab tak inke hosh thikaane nahi aaenge” (It’s not until their livelihoods get affected will they come to their senses.”) — Prophetic words that are now slowly coming to pass.
So, when will the cult of Modi unravel and disband? The results of the elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab and Manipur will give us the clearest indication.