Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the Indian community in Australia at Sydney’s Allphones Arena (Photo: http://pmindia.gov.in/)
There is a new Bhakti movement underway in India and among the global Indian diaspora. The recipient of its devotion is Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
After notching up close to 20,000 gushing admirers, fans and devotees at New York’s Madison Square Garden (MSG) barely two months ago in September, the prime minister was greeted by some 16,000 equally star-struck camp followers at Sydney’s Allphones Arena today.
Modi is in the throes of unyielding adulation that any Hollywood or Hindi movie star would kill to get ten percent of. That he is a politician and a prime minister are becoming incidental to his rising nebulous stardom. My sense sitting in the Madison Square Garden’s media enclosure was that the thousands in attendance were more captivated by the idea of Narendra Modi as they had formed in their minds rather than the man himself. It was as if they were individually projecting their personal aspirations and dreams on him.
Think of Modi as the green screen on which his admirers overlay their personal utopian vision. The chroma keying is limitless and highly individualistic. They see on the green screen whatever it is that is playing out in their minds. It is not my case that a majority of Modi’s admirers fall in that category but there is a substantial number of new and young camp followers who do. There is the core base of supporters that the prime minister enjoys in America among Indian Americans which would be, by a reasonable guess, 80 percent. Going by the media reports out of his current visit to Australia, the numbers seem comparable.
Out of some 450,000 people of Indian origin living in Australia there are some 35,000 Indian students at Australian universities. According to a media backgrounder of Australia’s immigration department, the median age of Indian-born migrants is 31.3 years which is nearly six years below the general population. It is in this age group that Modi has managed to capture unprecedented support and imagination. Of course, Modi won half the battle by merely showing up because he was the first Indian prime minister to visit Australia in 28 years. The late Rajiv Gandhi was the last prime minister to visit in 1986. That said, there is no denying Modi’s mass appeal across age demographics and, in some ways, even political persuasions.
I began the piece with the rise of what I think is a new form of the Bhakti movement. The Bhakti movement refers to a period in Indian history starting in the seventh century CE and stretching all the way to the 17th century in one form or another. It was a movement whose core belief was that salvation is assured individually and offered a personal equation between an individual and a deity. I say half in levity and half with some measure of seriousness that the prime minister has managed to stir up a peculiar kind of uncritical devotion where the devotee feels personally invested in him. Whatever the idea of a good life that the individual might have has been projected on Modi.
While the Bhakti movement was informed by the philosophy of devotion for the sake of it, in this case there are enormous expectations attached it. Those expectations were created by Modi himself in the run-up to the general election in May and he has continued to do so after winning. The reverence for the prime minister that was on display at the Madison Square Garden was discomfiting for someone innately detached.
Watching the Sydney event online, it was obvious to me that the scene was no different. The MSG event created a template which his admirers used in Sydney. No one should be surprised if the organizers in Australia coordinated with those in America to put up their event. It could well be that there a permanent team that is tasked with hosting such events. Local political heavyweights were called on the stage before Modi’s address as if to open the main act. The prime minister entered the arena to the beat of Indian drums. Not that the audience needed it but the drumbeat created in the arena a cue for them to cheer in unison.
The good thing about any form of Bhakti movement is that the devotees need neither a cause nor a prompting to express their devotion. They are in a state of perpetual devotion, uninterrupted by any reality. This a huge and unrivaled resource that the prime minister has been gifted by a convergence of circumstances that he would do well not waste or squander away. The thralldom that he is in the midst will inevitably begin to wear off with time because unlike the real philosophical Bhakti movement and its adherents, its political variant demands quantifiable rewards. I am sure no one knows it better than the prime minister.