Three important democracies have thrown up leaders who conform to a tried-and-tested template that is a telling comment on the state of the democratic world and on our times. This template excites the common people but shocks civil society and intellectuals struggling with stress inflicted by state power. The three leaders will have a profound effect on politics and society in their respective countries.
Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson come from different sections of society in terms of financial status, family background and standards of education. (Their personal lives have been dissimilar. But in Indian politics personal life is anyway irrelevant – commentators do not discuss abandoned wives or live-in partners.) Boris and Trump, unlike Modi, come from wealthy families. Boris is highly educated, unlike the other two. Boris shows off his dishevelled self, Modi is always well-groomed, ever ready for a fashion parade. Boris inspires a cartoonist to dress him as a joker standing in front of 10 Downing. Trump can afford to dress better than a British aristocrat but his dress sense invites ridicule. Modi’s expensive sartorial elegance causes cognitive dissonance as one sees no trace of the persona of a former tea-boy.
And yet because of some political familial likeness – in the context of demagoguery, divisiveness, populism and a macho burlesque – they can be called triplets. None of the three believes in St. Francis of Assisi who prayed: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth…” All three love confrontation and use it as a tool of political progress. They are masters in the art of sharpening divisions and inspiring hatred. They command cultish loyalty and they lead cultural wars.
They have created the “Other” and promise to save the nation from it.
They have created the “Other” and promise to save the nation from it. They find devotees among the misinformed, WhatsApp, university-educated citizenry who ensure that reason is drowned in an engineered din and no serious issue is taken seriously. They lead dedicated troll armies who modify facts and twist every statement in order to malign the leader’s opponents.
They make extravagant promises and sell the dream of a Fantasy Land. Each one knows how to work the image-machine. He delivers pithy statements that sound like advertising jingles. He remains unflustered by the stringent criticism appearing in the few remaining independent newspapers. He knows his lies and unscientific statements will be ignored and follies and disastrous decisions will cost him no votes. His blunders and pitfalls, highlighted even in a diminished democracy, do him no political harm.
Playing the strongman
His solid support base cheers him whether he appears in a gold-embroidered suit or in a monk’s robe. His achievements are magnified to project the image of a superman out to save the nation from its enemies. Large sections remain enamoured of their political hero, always prepared to threaten the dissenters. The more the leader plays the strongman, the more his devotees adore him.
All three leaders, like some in other countries, reflect the move towards the Right and extremism. They have learnt that moving further in that direction improves their political prospects. They bank heavily on hyper-nationalism and identity politics.
They bank heavily on hyper-nationalism and identity politics.
India’s new normal
Take the case of India where anti-minority violence is rising. Caused by sectarian hatred, it has become a new normal. Many citizens feel perturbed but dare not speak out. The academics, writers, painters, artists and activists who protest face attacks by pro-establishment forces including a captive media. Some concerned retired bureaucrats issue joint statements but their letters to the Prime Minister hardly cause a ripple. The leader overwhelms all reasonable argument and pertinent inquiry.
The leader makes a few dog-whistle statements to pit one community against another. He keeps quiet about the ghastly incidents of mob-violence and inflammatory speeches by his party men. If the Opposition raises a hue and cry, he belatedly issues a sanitised statement. Thus, his extremist base remains happy while civil society gets even more concerned. His followers follow up, intensifying religious polarisation to land a political windfall.
If the Opposition raises a hue and cry, he belatedly issues a sanitised statement.
History shows that a populist dictatorial leader, bathed in mass adoration, leaves a trail of lasting damage to the nation. But why blame the leader alone? A leader is produced by the people and Indians today have come to need and appreciate a leader who can talk tough and rough. They are willing to let civil liberties be diminished for the sake of imagined security. Just as had happened in America.
V S Naipaul once remarked with contempt that only a peasant society needs a “strong leader”. Modi understands Indians and India’s social fault lines very well. He publicised his impressive chest size. He thundered that he would kill the enemies by “entering their homes”. This was seen as a reference to Pakistani terrorists. But then in the new India, popular imagination has also conjured up internal enemies who can be defeated only by a virile leader. During Modi’s first parliamentary election campaign, many voters told this reporter that Modi as the Prime Minister would fix “them”! “Them” meant the newly-minted “Other”.
As to the external enemy, the Indian TV channels are making a concerted move to raise a generation of Pakistan-haters. Modi, unlike Margaret Thatcher, did not have to win a war, but an eve-of-the-poll surgical strike against Pakistan in response to a terror attack in Kashmir handed him an outstanding poll victory. The Prime Minister’s announcement of that surgical strike to screaming “nationalist” TV channels enthused the rowdies to test out on the streets an individual’s love for his nation by making him shout slogans hailing the motherland.
India has caught up only now with such dangerous global trends that have surfaced much earlier in some mature democracies. Those nations had fits of mass fantasy that distorted the political culture. Nationalism and faux nationalism were promoted there not just by the leader’s clarion call but also by an enslaved media and the film industry.
India’s case is not unusual. A British Conservative leader once called for the “cricket test” to certify the citizen’s loyalty to his nation. He specified that only the national team should be cheered by Britons of Indian or Pakistani origin! In India today there would be uncontrollable mob violence on the cricket ground even if one spectator is caught cheering the Pakistani team! In Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, there were some reminders of the jingoistic pantomime of the Victorian Music Hall. British journalist-writer Philip Norman highlighted the impact of Thatcher’s conduct during the Falklands war and its marketing. “Even the football thugs who smash up Europe carry Union Jacks and evidently believe, in some addled part of their brains, that they are ‘an army… doin’ it like Maggie done it in the Falklands’.”
In India not thugs but normal young men regularly form vigilante groups in order to protect cows or Gods or girls through violent street action. The self-styled nationalists are constantly fighting the “anti-national” elements. Many mob attacks result from social media rumours spread intentionally by miscreants of one community or the other. An independent and still-sane TV anchor keeps warning his viewers against raising a generation of murderers.
Anyone saying that cow protection should not be used as an excuse for mob-lynching is called anti-national, anti-Hindu and worse. Millions have viewed an uploaded musical video in which against the backdrop of Lord Ram’s image, a saffron-clad group sings that those who do not say “Victory to Shri Ram” should be buried alive. One BJP leader perhaps kinder showed some kindness towards an eminent film-maker when he only asked him to migrate to the moon! Another BJP spokesman said in a TV studio that such people never object to an Islamic terrorist organisation using the name of the Prophet. He could have cited the war cries of the Christian Crusaders in an earlier century!
Without Trump as the President, the White Supremacists would not have become so active and the religious or ethnic minorities or women would not have faced such public hostility. Without Boris Johnson’s rise to fame, anti-European and anti-immigrant sentiments in Britain would have remained under check.
Without Boris Johnson’s rise to fame, anti-European and anti-immigrant sentiments in Britain would have remained under check.
In a way, the arrival of Modi and Trump has been part of the democratisation process. It was a revenge by the ill-educated as two fresh entrants barged into the circle of privilege and power. Modi and Trump rose in the political firmament, posing as outsiders coming to dethrone the traditional elite. They went hammer and tongs against the established political elite against whom they fuelled hatred. Ironically, it was the elite who furnished leaders who popularised and nurtured democracy during a difficult phase!
Modi played the victim and degraded the brand value of his traditional opponents blessed with a decent upbringing, good education and culturally refined background. He keeps deriding them and fuels mass envy in order to turn his weaknesses into virtues. Intellectuals with their educational achievement and refined manners are portrayed as the privileged who harm the interests of the unprivileged! “Elite” has been turned into an abuse. The common man’s respect for the intellectual elite has vanished. The revolt of the plebs against patricians has given Modi the desired result.
Trump had an additional advantage because Americans admire moneyed men despite their dodgy reputation. Trump, with his uncouth manners and intemperate language, barged into politics from his real estate business, wearing the mask of an outsider in Washington DC and won the support of those wanting a change.
The New York Times published thundering editorials against Trump but ordinary Americans ignored their logic and enjoyed Trump’s abusive counter-attacks! They applaud the President for putting the media elite in its place. So here is another leader who can “fix”. Trump and Modi have set a general pattern of heavy counter-attacks in a democracy bereft of dignity and decency.
Unlike the two other leaders, Boris Johnson, the new British Prime Minister, came from the educationally privileged class. But he did not let a good education get in the way of endearing himself to the ordinary citizens by his odd behaviour, ruffled hair and a tumultuous affair with a woman. At his bidding, the ordinary people blamed the foreigners for their economic misery. He raised the national flag and projected himself as the prime defender of British interests and reminded his countrymen of Britain’s imperial glory. As an anti-European Brexit campaigner, he spoke their language. So, refinement, logic, balance and moderation were no longer necessary for a leader. In any case, British voters have long been accustomed to MPs behaving badly: they see them to be “like us”.
Similarly, Indian voters have got used to the rising proportion of the elected legislators accused of crimes. They are not outraged if candidates elected on one party’s ticket defect in order to gain money or office. All this a far cry from the early years of Indian democracy when an elected legislator thought twice before defecting and betraying his voters. The people then looked for a different kind of role model in politics. Then rival candidates would compliment each other in campaign speeches, highlighting only their “differing political ideologies”. That was another era.
The shared belief in populism reflects another common familial trait. The three leaders talk of the decline of their nations and promise to restore the lost glory and to undo the damage done by the earlier “incompetent” leaders. In this endeavour, Modi has to travel the farthest back in time. The voters are always reminded of the Vedic Age when India was Vishwa Guru, teacher to the world! Mythology is raised to the status of history.
The three leaders talk of the decline of their nations and promise to restore the lost glory and to undo the damage done by the earlier “incompetent” leaders.
Modi and others in his party recall with nostalgia the ancient age when Indians flew in golden chariots and did head transplants. Astrology is introduced as a serious subject for higher studies and the miraculous medicinal properties of the cow’s urine are investigated by state-sponsored research. Some BJP leaders insist that the Theory of Evolution does not apply to Indians as their earliest ancestors were the most evolved beings in the creation!
Modi’s critics say he is trying to drag India back into the medieval age! Some true democrats will be happy if Modi took Indian democracy just a few decades back to the fifties. There were more illiterates then but Indian democracy was much healthier. Politics was of a different kind and politicians were infused with idealism not limited to just one or two parties. One reads glowing articles about that kind of political leader and the memoirs of the leaders of that age of innocence.
Future historians of democracy will have to record the progressive decay of democracy and explain how the authoritarian grip of a strong leader was tightened with the help of the state as well as non-state actors.
Modi, Trump and Boris have made their mark in a weird decade when the political arena resounds with filmscreen battle cries and freedom of expression is crushed by official agencies helped by telly goons and digital warriors. The three leaders play stellar roles in an absurd political play with a gigantic setting in which things were never what they seemed and words do not mean what they meant! It is feared that democracy will die. Democracy is not dying. But it is being bludgeoned to death!