On 1 March 2021, ISRO launched the nanosatellite PSLV-C51 from Sriharikota.
Its payload included 18 Indian satellites and one — Amazonia-1 — from Brazil. Of the 17 Indian satellites, one — Satish Dhawan SAT or SDSAT — was built by Space Kidz India, a Chennai-based startup that aims to promote the study of space science among students. It had some special features.
SDSAT had some unique features. A digital copy of the Bhagawad Gita in an SD card was part of the payload. The names of ISRO chairman Dr K Sivan and scientific secretary Dr R Umamaheshwaran were engraved on the bottom panel.
And — this is where it gets really special — a photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was engraved on the top panel, with his name engraved below the image for anyone out there in outer space who may not otherwise recognize the visage of the Vishwaguru.
“This,” an SKI statement at the time read, “is to show solidarity and gratitude for his (Modi’s) Aatmanirbhar initiative and space privatization.”
A few days prior, on February 24, the then President of India Ram Nath Kovind presided over the renaming of the refurbished Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium (more commonly referred to as the Motera Stadium) in Ahmedabad, which would henceforth be known as the Narendra Modi Stadium.
The Modi Stadium today witnessed India’s PM Modi and Australia’s PM Anthony Albanese taking a “lap of honor” — for what accomplishment, we have not been told — in a specially decorated vehicle before the start of the fourth and final Test of the ongoing series. Video embedded below, because why should I be the only one to squirm at the sight of those stumps and cricket bats? (Seriously, though, who designs the backdrops for Modi events — Vivek Agnihotri’s set designer?)
And then came this: A beaming Narendra Modi receiving a picture of Narendra Modi from a beaming BCCI secretary Jay Shah at a function organized in Narendra Modi Stadium. (According to the BCCI, Shah gave Modi the “artwork” to “celebrate 75 years of friendship with Australia through cricket”. I swear you can’t make this shit up!)
When I pointed this out to my camera-shy wife earlier this morning, she tried devil’s advocacy. “Modi wouldn’t have asked for this, no?” she said, arguing the case that this was the over-the-top work of a more than ordinarily zealous sycophant.
Maybe. Then again, maybe not — prime ministerial events are planned down to the last detail and all appropriate approvals are obtained ahead of time, and that is particularly true of this prime minister. And I do mean every last detail. Remember this?:
So, no, I don’t think this was Jay Shah being overly obsequious. But even if that were the case, my wife’s argument misses the point while making the point: sycophants do what they know will please their authoritarian overlord.
So having suggested just the other day that Modi suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, am I now diagnosing him as an authoritarian?
Given the times we live in, there is a book that should be mandatory reading: How Democracies Die, by Harvard professors Steven Levistky and Daniel Ziblatt. Published in 2019, the book argues that democracies don’t always get extinguished by coups; that in modern times, a democracy is more likely to die the death of the thousand cuts, beginning with the election of an authoritarian leader who goes on to abuse governmental power and to use the instruments of the state to totally decimate the opposition.
In the first chapter, the authors refer to German-born political scientist Juan Linz, who as Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale made a name for his seminal work on authoritarian political regimes.
Linz in his book The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes proposed a litmus test to identify authoritarians but never got down to actually creating that test. Levitsky and Ziblatt fill that gap and, in their book, provide a chart to help identify authoritarian behavior. Here it is:
Keep the chart handy as you trawl your go-to news sources, and decide for yourself how many of these boxes the Modi-led government ticks, or not.
PostScript: This is not the column I intended to write today, but it will do while I do some digging to unearth the dots I mean to connect. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with two reads. The first is by Shankarshan Thakur, and fits the ‘nothing succeeds like excess’ theme of this post. Here is a clip:
Modi is the master of populist subterfuge; we often behave like a slavish confederacy of dunces. He has amplified a routine turn at a multilateral table into a thing of rare recognition and reward and we have allowed ourselves to turn even headier in Modi worship. The official theme of India’s presidency year is: ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. The way we are meant to read it is: ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future, One Leader — Vishwaguru Modiji’. Onward to 2024 on a new global high! Who cares that the G20 is a torn and tattered entity in India’s presidency year? What matters is who chairs those tatters. Internationally, G20 lies torpedoed by differences; domestically, it has been turned into a cracker of a campaign slogan for Modi and we are in the throes of celebration.Shankarshan Thakur in The Telegraph
The other is a piece in The Australian by premier cricket writer Gideon Haigh (unfortunately, behind a paywall) titled Why Are We Tolerating The Intolerant? Clips:
India’s Gujarat being a dry state, you won’t be able to avail yourself of a beer at the fourth Test in Ahmedabad. But if you like your cricket with a side serve of fascistic ostentation, the climax of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Ahmedabad will be right up your alley.
Passing through the atrium of Modi Stadium, one gazes up at giant images of Modi and Shah, in their familiar double act as narcissist and enabler. They are quite the partnership, and this Test, and this stadium, play to their strengths in staging spectacles of power.
The pair have also honed the time-honored repertoire of political strongmen everywhere: intimidation of rivals, subversion of institutions, falsifications of history, manufacture of conspiracies, and the pretence that criticism of their rule is a wound to national pride…
Needless to say, Modi takes the same attitude to the media as Tommy Docherty: “There’s a place for the press but they haven’t dug it yet.”
I’m not sure I should have quoted from a just-published piece at such length, but this is a piece I wish everyone could read. In it, Haigh asks a simple question: Why is Australia pandering to the ego of a narcisstic authoritarian? (The simple answer is, of course, trade — where the balance is heavily weighted in favour of Australia. But then, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that the champions of freedom and democracy in the West turn a blind eye to Modi’s more reprehensible actions because it suits their self-interest — Haigh, I suspect, was asking the question rhetorically.Gideon Haigh, in The Australian
Right, see you back here in a couple of days.
PPS: Shortly after I posted this, I noticed that several folks have shared screenshots of Haigh’s full article on Twitter. So, here: