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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 45, New Delhi, October 26, 2019

The Culture of Sycophancy that is ruining Democracy

Monday 4 November 2019

by Arun Srivastava

Bhakti, devotion or hero-worship is an important element in Indian politics, unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country. If in religion Bhakti is the road to spiritual redemption, in politics it is the boulevard for attaining material and socio-political stature.

Leaders are to be admired. There is nothing wrong with it. Admiring a leader has been an old phenomenon, but in recent times it has acquired the vulgar character of sycophancy. The quality and stature of a politician is judged by the magnitude of sycophants he possesses. In early years  it was the credibility and stature of the leader that would bring admiration for him, but now it is otherwise; it is the quantum of the sycophants that brings the quality and stature to him. The primary task of these sycophants has been to strive for image- makeover of the leaders they worship.

The worst type of sycophants are the people from the feudal and urban middle classes. It is shocking to see even some senior bureaucrats resigning from government jobs and joining the ranks of sycophants.

In recent times a phrase is making the rounds in political circles; it is the emergence of a new India. But so far the protagonist of this idea has  not clearly underlined the basic idea and its components. But his chums have already started eulogising the phrase. They have even started claiming that it has already been transformed and we are in new India. The fact of the matter is that India continues to be what it was before 2014. No change has taken place.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the new India is worse than the old India.  Every aspect of the national life is on decline, whether it is the social and political aspect. The worst has been the economy of the country.

Hero worship is endemic in our country and personality cult flourishes. There is nothing wrong in admiring our leaders as heroes, but the risk is that in the process, the tendency is to entrust such persons with vast powers and uncritically accept the exercise of these powers, without insisting on accountability, which is a sine qua non of any genuine democracy.

It is a common perception that sycophancy, as a condition or term, is associated only with the Congress party. But this is not exactly the case. It took decades for the sycophancy to flourish during the Congress Raj, but during the last six years of saffron rule it has acquired the character of an institute which incidentally dictates the polity and governance.

It is alleged that while the Congress is run by the Royals and Nobles, and the BJP is the party of the poor and the saffron government is run by the underprivileged. Sycophancy is the basic element of Royalty and Feudalism. Obviously its existence could be felt in the Congress. But it is really shocking that the leaders coming from this deprived sections of the society, which is supposed to nurse antagonistic relations with sycophancy, have been patronising the nasty awful feudal culture of sycophancy!

Any person or leader striving to have his say and position in the Congress must show his or her loyalty to the members of the nobility.  This was the password for ascendance. But its popularity in the new disposition violently opposed to all things that the Congress believed in or followed only attests to its amazing success in India as an effective professional tool.

Sycophancy in the Congress and BJP has two different dimensions. The split of the Congress on the line of the Syndicate and Indicate and then evolution of the Young Turks underlines that the character of Sycophancy in those times was not like of Modi’s times. The Congress had a democratic functioning but Modi’s structure stands on intolerance, having an utter lack of democracy. There is one more important difference; Modi likes his ministerial colleagues to play the subservient role.

No NDA Minister could muster courage to dissent or speak out his mind independently.  They prefer to echo his words and narrations. A closer look at their functioning will reveal that they speak what is soothing to their boss; often they repeat the same line uttered by their leader. The bhakti of ‘bhakts’ is just about ‘positive sycophancy’ towards one man, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They demonstrate their loyalty by targeting symbols perceived to be standing in the way of such a non-Congress master-servant enterprise.

In their rush to make sure Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes history, his supporters are hell-bent on rewriting history as pro-pounded by him or his favourites. After Modi took jibes and denigrated Nehru and his family members, Indira, Rajiv and others, the  sycophants took upon themselves the onerous task of Nehru-Gandhi insinuation.

Unlike earlier batches of sycophants in positions of power who strove to keep their bosses happy, this current batch is not only content with performing this task but are also raring to change the history and culture to appease their masters  by doing ‘what is right’. They are too eager to pre-empt gestures that they believe will create conditions that their masters will appreciate, even though not specifically asked for.

The only sycophantic gesture to keep happy their master has been of deriding and insulting the noted historian, Romila Thapar. Since she is opposed to Rightist politics, they are after her to malign and throw her out of Indian academic circles. These  people have been questioning the academic credentials of a member of the Inter-national Historical Society. They have been insisting on re-verification of her degrees and also to evaluate her CV.

Essentially, what we are seeing is sycophants seeking to purge what they perceive in the larger scheme of things beyond scholarship, judiciary, media etc. These sycophants have indulged in a brazen display of sycophancy by conversing this issue in full domain. This must be appreciated as it would expose the conspiratorial sycophantic phenomenon.

The most strange case of sycophancy has been the BJP leaders’ and Ministers’ stance on the declining economy. No ministerial colleague of Modi or any senior BJP leader is willing to call a spade, a spade. While close Ministers of Modi have been highly critical of the NSO finding that employment is consistently on the decline, they are also not willing to accept the fact that manufacturing is dwindling and the purchasing power of the common man is declining.

It is worth mentioning that that even Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s husband and eminent economist, Parakala Prabhakar, had said that the Narendra Modi Government lacked an economic road-map and advised it to adopt the 1991 model evolved by then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and his Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, to address the current economic slowdown.

Prabhakar was polite in tone but scathing in content. He cited grim economic figures and said the government was in “denial” and was showing no signs that “it has come to grips with what ails the economy”.

“The party’s economic ideology and its articulation were limited to mainly critiquing the Nehruvian model from the fringes of the political spectrum. In economic policy, the party mainly adopted ‘neti neti (not this, not this)’, without articulating what was its own ‘niti (policy)’.”

Prabhakar, however, highlighted that the BJP never fought elections on the plank of an “economic road-map” and that the “economic direction the country needs to take” never figured as a “serious debate” in the party.

Yet another example of sycophancy has been the brightly-lit picture of a floodlit border. This underlines the government’s prowess in “border management”. But unfortunately for them it turned out to be more an exercise in image management since it had nothing to do with the floodlights installed along the Indo-Pakistan border.

This was a “goof-up”, the Home Ministry said. The picture being passed off as the illustration for Made in India border-control was actually the border between Spain and Morocco, through which African migrants often try to enter Europe.

Omar Abdullah tweeted in disbelief “How does Spain share a border with Morocco? Last I checked one was in Europe and the other in Africa with the Mediterranean  Sea  in  between!!!” That tweet led to a geography lesson over the social media, with people pointing out to Abdullah that Morocco and Spain do share maritime and land borders in the Canary Islands, along the Strait of Gibraltar and on the Alboran. This incident provides an insight into the changing character of sycophancy. How some officials are trying to keep their political bosses in good humour by resorting to non-sensical gimmicks... by distorting facts.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52[at]

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