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#BetterDemocracy: The Problem of Hero Worshipping in India

Narendra Modi is the new hero of India. From being admired for the way he has run the government in Gujarat, to becoming the face of the election campaign for the BJP, to being regarded as the messiah that India needs, he has gone from strength to strength. Pray, even his short-sleeved kurta has become a style statement, and there are medicines and tea leaves and items on restaurant menus that bear his name. And true to Indian-style hero-worship, there is now even a temple in a village that has his statue and where people chant the Modi Chalisa.

This type of hero worship isn’t restricted to Modi or politics. Personalities in films, sports, the arts in general, and even from the world of business have been elevated to the superhuman pedestal by fans and admirers. Nor is this phenomenon restricted to India. Music and movie stars in the Western world can inspire similarly intense reactions from their fans. What do we then make of this almost general human tendency to consecrate normal human beings?

In general, we all wish to be happy in our lives. To most of us, happiness is equal to having a great family, ample material wealth and means to fulfil ours and our families’ desires, doing work we enjoy, and being respected by our social circle and the society at large. The reality for many of us, however, is that something is always missing in this perfect equation. And whatever we sense, consciously or unconsciously as the missing link, is what drives us in our day-to-day existence. Another reality for most of us is also that there is always someone we know or see through the available media who seems to have it all. That individual and his or her story behind the success become our role model and inspiration. There’s nothing wrong in this process, up until this point. What happens sometimes is that slowly, we begin to replace the trust that we had in ourselves with trust in our role model. Their story becomes our guidebook to life, and their words become the pearls of wisdom that we must collect, cherish, and never question.

For Indians, for a long time, our gods were supplied by our mythology and culture. We worshipped individuals with purported super-human abilities who we were told existed millennia ago. Some had never even existed in human form, but had powers over our lives and existence. At least our scriptures said so, and we trusted that they spoke the truth. In the recent past though, through exposure to and influence of Western thought and culture, many of us began to dissociate ourselves mentally from this type of thinking. Indeed, anything purely Indian (for instance, local languages, local clothing, Indian education system) became synonymous with ancient and irrelevant, and anything Western became synonymous with modern and progressive. Our old gods thus got slowly discarded.

But seeking heroes is a basic human need. We are wired to desire grandness, and all our endeavours in life and work are to that aim. Experience of that grandness is what swells our hearts and makes us happy. And so we always need heroes, who show us how to do that; who prove to us that life is not mundane; that in the midst of our ordinariness, we’re capable of being extraordinary. We seek them in sports, where it is most common to see ordinary people transcend so-called human limits in pursuit of victory to bring forth flashes of the extraordinary. Spectacular goals, unbelievable catches, and amazing athleticism are what create fans of the sports we so love. We seek them in the arts, for the best creative expression is one that reminds us of the best in us and in Creation. The stories we love best are the ones about ordinary people transcending the chaos of ordinary life through courage and love, and create fans that throng theatres to experience what that could feel like. And we seek them in our leaders in business and politics, longing to see that it is possible to stand upright, hold our heads high, and manifest the best of human abilities, even when the temptation to do the opposite is formidable.

And so the gods of our mythology are slowly getting replaced by people we anoint as gods, because we need someone to fill that position. What this also means is that the slightest hint of a human weakness in the Anointed One leads to cries of horror and feelings of betrayal. Sachin Tendulkar could never in his career have failed in a match without that failure leading to cries for his sacking. Football players like Neymar, Messi, and Ronaldo are under similar pressure in this world cup.

It’s quite an oxymoronic situation. On the one hand, we long to be shown how awesome we can be and are quick to elevate people who show signs of that awesomeness to a pedestal. And on the other, we are always on the lookout for the slightest hint of weakness, which tells us that indeed, the possibility of human grandness is just a myth. It makes us feel better about our mundane existences, I suppose.

Let us therefore give Modi a chance, keeping in mind that he is no God. Situations will test his character as he lives the life of India’s Prime Minister, and inevitably, sometimes, cracks will show. We should be alert citizens, watching our government closely, but let us not, as is our wont, be quick to elevate and be even quicker to judge and pull down. Modi could herald a new era for the country, or be just another man who came along. How much room we give him may play a big role in which way it goes.

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