The Strongman Illusion
Opinion

The Strongman Illusion

I was travelling to Deoghar- a small town located in the Santhal-Parganas division of Jharkhand. After reaching Patna-  the nearest airport, I boarded a train for Deoghar.

Trains in Bihar are a great leveller. People with or without reservation, share the same level of comfort or discomfort. It’s all really left to one’s perspective. To each his own. Keeping up with the tradition, I shared my berth with three others, who lucidly explained to me how the idea of reservation matters only when the sun relinquishes its hold upon the sky. I acquiesced.

The conversation began and meandered around many things until it came to the mainstay of conversations between strangers in India: Politics.

Who did you vote for in the last elections?” I asked to enliven the conversation a bit more.

Him only, who else?!”, answered my co-passenger, a hospital-attendant from Lakhisarai, in a voice burnished with the you-know-exactly-what-i-mean tone. He was brimming with faith, pride and conviction in a safari suit that had an intense-guy-inside written all over it. I smiled. He with his obvious expertise over the human body estimated it as an agreement.

See,” he went on to explain, without any trigger from my side whatsoever, “Lord Ram was born in Treta, right?  Who do we have now? We have only him, yes or no?!”

I smiled again.

When I think about it, now, it reminds me of Hanns Kerrl, the Reichsminister of Church Affairs in Germany. Kerrl dubbed Hitler as ‘Germany’s Jesus Christ’. Hanns Kerrl  was not alone. He was a member of a legion. Alois Spaniel, for instance, a regional Nazi leader, hailed Hitler as ‘a new, a greater and a more powerful Jesus Christ’.

Cults over time do get blurred. It’s attainable in a world where people are constantly looking to add values to their experiences.

The creation of myth is immensely helped by the mixture of conventional religious beliefs with political appearances through which the followers aspire to forge an emotional bond with the image of a supernatural they have always had in mind with the leader they have before them.

Make-up-myth and create-a-cult processes are at very core of the strongman design.

This is all the more catalysed  by a crisis at hand. The situation of distress, the breakdown of belief, the distortion of communication: these set the stage for them to emerge as an icon. They are ready in the eyes of the beholder to fulfil the Salvationist aspirations of an anxious society. To borrow Napoleon’s phrase —‘deal in hope’.

“There are times,” wrote Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw, “they mark the danger point for a political system when politicians can no longer communicate when they stop understanding the people they are supposed to be representing. The politicians of Weimar’s parties were well on the way to reaching that point in 1930.’

In the times of trouble, personality traits such as charisma, narcissism, and psychopathy exceedingly help them excel.

Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, in his writings on narcissistic leaders for the Harvard Business Review, observes “They are masters of impression management, and they seduce people as coming across as attractive and confident.”

The rest of this make-in-messiah process is left for their followers to perform who are anything but passive agents. Such as the one I met on the train? They sanctify, substantiate and magnify an already over-blown image pumped around them by an even more enthusiastic mass-media dying to institutionalise a cult.

All of this helps in a world where people’s voting behaviour is influenced more by gut-feeling than by logic. Confusion further adds to this the chaos. Confidence is seen as competence and humility as weakness. “What  it takes to get the job,” writes Professor Tomas “is reverse of what it takes to do the job.” We with an awe in our hearts and stars in our eyes for someone we think we always needed, start equating noxious personality traits with leadership abilities.

It’s not surprising therefore to see the strongman phenomena on the rise across the world.

However, is it healthy? The jury is out. They come with their own package. One that is fraught with dangers and risks.

The privilege of being a superman straight from a hit fiction series to follow, fills them with unnecessary over-confidence. It makes them follow instincts, not reason. There’s a literature on the blunders made by over-confident rulers: Napoleon’s march to Moscow, John. F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion, David Cameron’s decision to call for a referendum on the country’s EU membership are a few popular specimen from it.

The Strongman’s politics is centred around him and therefore it makes him spend a great deal of time and energy on his image. Hitler, for example, made more efforts on the management of his image than on the effectiveness of his policies. The Strongman hates critical discussions. He practices strong favouritism. Social division suits him, he ferments it. When dipped in Fascism, he indulges in glorification of war and violence, expansionism, among other things his followers ideally shouldn’t find pleasure in but unfortunately a large section of them do.

So, we must pause here and re-think.

Are our institutions a platform to perform magic shows in which we must provide the strongman an opportunity to put to use his proven capability of moving people with rhetoric or a place where serious work takes place which may even be boring but possibly helps push the country forward and is demonstrated by numbers that are not fudged?

We need politicians for governance and not spiritual transcendence. And it’d be a decent guess that someone spending more money on elections than we can asses, living in bigger spaces than we can walk in a week, flying in fancier jets than we have seen in movies, visible all the time on all the existing media and even on their prototypes  and asking for our votes to rule over us is not a prophet.  An act of voting for him, therefore,  should not be for us an act of faith.

There is more than enough evidence before us. We have experiences of people from past and from the present. And we have enough capability in us to be intelligent decision makers henceforth.

The most important thing in this game of deception is to remember a simple trick and that simple trick is to keep our eyes open!

And, who knows someday, someone would even google “humble leaders”, or make movies on them?

Someday soon, hopefully.

Chandan Karmhe is a Chartered Accountant and an alumnus of IIM- Ahmedabad. He tweets at @chandankarmhe

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