RECENT events had me thinking about Giulio Alberoni, who lived in the 18th century and who Wikipedia describes as an Italian cardinal and statesman.
To be honest, I had forgotten his name; I was reading Ramchandra Guha’s take on the Narendra Modi extravaganza at the Motera Stadium (and this conversation with Karan Thapar) when I tripped over a distant memory of some guy who had literally kissed arse to advance his own career. A few moments with a search engine and I found the story, which is originally sourced to the memoirs of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, and has since been mined and reproduced in several essays and books. Here it is:
Louis Joseph, the Duke de Vendome, was a highly-rated French general who was one of the top commanders during the War of Spanish Succession. He was also unbelievably arrogant — one of his ‘idiosyncrasies’ being to take his portable toilet into the room where he usually held court, and to park himself bare-arsed on the potty while receiving official visits.
One day, a bishop deputed by Francesco Farnese, then Duke of Parma, came to meet Vendome to discuss some official business. The general was, as usual, on his potty; while the ducal ambassador was speaking he rose, turned his back to the bishop, and wiped his arse.
The disgusted bishop walked out and told the duke that he would never go to meet Vendome again, no matter how urgent the matter. The duke asked him to find a substitute; the bishop nominated Giulio Alberoni, who had through assiduous use of flattery and the other arts of sycophancy risen from the position of bellringer in a local church to a position in the household of the bishop.
Alberoni duly went to meet Vendome, who as per usual was on his potty. During the meeting, Vendome got up, turned his back to Alberoni, and ostentatiously wiped his arse. At which Alberoni exclaimed: ‘O culo d’angelo‘ (Oh, the arse of an angel), ran forward, and reportedly kissed Vendome’s arse.
Unsurprisingly, Vendome gave Alberoni a place on his staff as secretary. Alberoni helped push the claims of Philip V to the French throne; he became a Count and a royal favorite at court (History does not say whether he had to kiss Philip’s arse as well, but it does record that over the years he rose to a greater position of eminence than the bishop who had given him his initial assignment).
How many Alberonis can you count in, say, the Union Cabinet?
CHANGING the subject completely (Not!), the recent events at the Motera Stadium, where the Gujarat Cricket Association organized a cringe-inducing celebration of ’75 years of cricket friendship with Australia’, the climax of which was BCCI secretary Jay Shah presenting Narendra Modi with a picture of Narendra Modi, is the gift that goes on giving. I’d chronicled some of it in an earlier post; since then, Gideon Haigh apparently went on a treasure hunt and unearthed the vehicle in which the two prime ministers had been driven on a “lap of honour”, and the members of the Australian press had a ball. Like, so:
Geoff Lemon, in The Guardian, is the latest to pour vitriol — deservedly — on the bizarre event. Sample passage:
For a leader who refuses to do interviews or press conferences, governing by video broadcast and by public appearance is the alternative. Kirribilli does not offer the star power of the White House, but Albanese’s visit is still an opportunity to show Modi as a statesman, a taster ahead of the G20 summit to be held in New Delhi in September. Indian airports are full of posters advertising this, some of them describing India as “the mother of democracy”. The Ancient Greeks might file a copyright claim.Geoff Lemon, The Guardian
I get the need for propaganda; I get why a party with nothing substantial to show for nine years in power and counting pulls out all the stops to peg its appeal on one man and why, therefore, that man has to be elevated from the status of soi disant ‘pradhan sewak’ to the latest and greatest entry in the pantheon of deities. (While on which, for someone who apparently has a visceral hatred of Nehru, it’s amazing how much he steals from India’s first prime minister — it was Nehru, during his first I-Day speech, who called himself the ‘pratham sewak’ of the country.)
So yeah, I get propaganda. And I get the regime’s modus operandi, which is straight out of the Joseph Goebbels playbook. The Nazi Minister for Propaganda, in his bullet-pointed masterplan, includes the following: (a) Ensure the constant visibility of the leader; and (b) Use rallies, slogans, symbols and icons (to which, add ‘inaugurations’ — as I write this, Modi is in Karnataka inaugurating a Mysuru-Bangalore highway, a section of which was already in use these last several months and other sections of which are still under construction).
The founding fathers of the RSS made no secret of their admiration for Hitler and the Nazi ideology; however, any reference to Nazis in the current context makes the BJP faithful see red. Why, though, when they so blatantly copy the Nazi propaganda playbook?
For example, take Modi’s deliberate avoidance of all open media interactions, and his refusal to utter a word about any of the real problems that plague the country. China? Not a yip. Adani? Mum’s the word. The economy, rising unemployment, skyrocketing cost of living, the country’s rapid fall in almost every single global index? Zip.
That is straight out of a well-documented Hitler tactic. Having elevated himself to the status of a deity, Hitler identified himself with his “miracles” (which, by the way, was a word regularly employed by the Goebbels propaganda machine to describe his successes). Thus, he strutted on stage during the spectacular reception organized in his honor in Berlin after the fall of France; but in the aftermath of Stalingrad, he kept himself well away from the public eye.
Or consider the ‘One Nation One Whatever’ slogans that have been proliferating of late — remember ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer? (Modi’s media managers have, in one of those rare moments of restraint, refrained from adding ‘One Leader’ to the many slogans beginning with ‘One Nation’, realizing that it goes without saying.)
Consider, also, Modi’s fondness for the cameras, and the innumerable pictures of him that pepper both mainstream and social media. Again, Hitler — who personally approved all paintings and photographs of his which made it to the public domain. In 1936, over 2.5 million copies of an album titled Adolf Hitler: Pictures of the Life of the Fuhrer were published, containing images of Hitler and tributes written by Nazi leaders (There was also The Hitler No One Knows, a collection of photographs of Hitler in his “private moments”, which reminds me of Modi with his mom, Modi meditating in a cave that contained only a palette bed and a photographer, Modi feeding peacocks…).
(In a precursor to the “interactivity” that is the holy grail in today’s social media age, those who bought the Life in Pictures album could add to it by collecting and pasting the Hitler images that were given away on every purchase of a packet of cigarettes — mercifully, Modi’s propaganda team appears to not have read that chapter yet).
Heck, the BJP even borrowed the Nazi idea of deifying the leader through motion pictures. Here, if you can stomach it, watch Leni Riefenstahl’s remarkable film that showcases the 1934 Nuremberg rally and then watch the Omung Kumar-helmed Vivek Oberoi movie titled, with a total absence of subtlety, PM Narendra Modi. (Oh, and the latest addition to a packed Evernote folder titled ‘sycophants’ is this entry from today)
What the Nazi party sold then, what the BJP is selling today, is a cult centered around an individual whose main characteristic is infallibility (Modi ne kiya hai toh sahi hoga). Hermann Goring, in a speech in 1941, said “We National Socialists declare with complete conviction that for us, the Fuhrer is infallible in all political and other matters that affect the people’s national and social interests.”
I used the word “cult” deliberately, because what we are witnessing is the creation of a cult centered around the myth of an infallible leader, a demigod. And that is no accident, but yet another page borrowed from the Nazi playbook. Speaking to party propagandists in 1926, Goebbels drove the message home about the need to create a messiah: “You will never find millions of people who will give their lives for an economic program. But millions of people are willing to die for a gospel – and our movement is increasingly becoming such a gospel.”
I’m indebted for some of these anecdotes to the book Bending Spines: The Propagandas of Nazi Germany and The German Democratic Republic, by Randall L Bytwerk. Alongside Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works and Edward Bernays’s Propaganda, Bytwerk’s book is a must-read if you want to understand what is happening in, and to, this country and its people.
And we are all willing (or, at best, unwitting) partners in this exercise. Bytwerk in his book draws on the earlier work of French philosopher, sociologist and professor Jacques Ellul, who made an extensive study of propaganda and who defined it thus:
Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulation and incorporated in an organization.Jacques Ellul in Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes
Ellul made the point that propaganda is not only manifest in the obvious devices — rallies, posters, etc — but also in a wider social context that includes education and the arts. And this, he argues, would not be possible without the consent of the consumer, the propagandee.
The propagandee is by no means just an innocent victim. He provides the psychological action of propaganda, and not merely leads himself to it, but even derives satisfaction from it. Without this previous, implicit consent, without this need for propaganda experienced by practically every citizen of the technological age, propaganda could not spread. There is not just a wicket propagandist at work who sets up means to ensnare the innocent citizen. Rather, there is a citizen who craves propaganda from the bottom of his being and a propagandist who responds to this craving. In other words, propaganda fills needs both for the propagandists and the propagandees.Jacques Ellul, quoted by Randall Bytwerk
Think back to late 2013-early 2014. Remember how we all moaned about how “weak” Dr Manmohan Singh was, how India in its hour of destiny needed a “strong leader” who could lead the country to its rightful place on the world stage? The fault, dear Brutus…
Tailpiece: For the second time in a row, this is not the post I originally intended to write (that one is on the upcoming Karnataka elections, and I’ll get to that sometime this coming week). The prompt for this one came while I was going through my collection of clippings, and saw two clips in fairly close proximity to one another.
The first is an analysis of the suspension of the FCRA license for the think-tank Centre for Policy Research. (By the way, for a party that keeps banging on about the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, the BJP is no slouch when it comes to using the tools Gandhi had forged — the FCRA came into being in 1976, as the then prime minister’s response to her apprehensions that the “foreign hand” was interfering in India’s internal affairs).
And the second clip is about a new think-tank that has suddenly sprung up from out of the blue. It is called The Centre for Narendra Modi Studies — and its website is well worth spending some time on. Its ‘About’ page begins with this promising gambit:
The sun gives light to the world without soliciting. The moon illuminates the lily without asking. No one asks, still the clouds produce rain. Similarly, a sage-hearted man is always ready to help others without show-off.From The Centre for Narendra Modi Studies website
You don’t need to be told who the “sage-hearted man” is, right? Read on, if you have a strong stomach. Then go through the publications. Don’t bother with sections such as New India and Nation First — those pages are blank. The database and the Namo Kendra, though — go see for yourself, I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
Also noted — that the Delhi police recently denied permission to hold a seminar on fascism
I’ll leave you with a link, and a chart below (I found this in my Evernote folder, but I seem to have not noted down the attribution, sorry) which you will find useful as a lens to view contemporary headlines thru.
4 thoughts on “The cult of the strongman”
Thank you for educating yourself with Nazism and sharing some insights. We, the propagandees, willingly or unwittingly participate since it is impossible to ignore.
Which is what the citizens of Germany thought at the time, too, actually. But then again, maybe we can do something about it — and as always, solving a problem begins with recognising that there is a problem. No?
Just checcked the NamoStudies.com .. and the ‘Minorities’ section is complete!
**It is empty.. just like Nation First and New India sections. So, in my book, that qualifies as work complete.
The empty sections of that site tell a story — as, come to think of it, do the ones that have “content” in them.
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