Regular-article-logo Monday, 29 May 2023

How the new gods are made

India should learn from the experience of countries with leaders who began on their own, sometimes with promise, and are leading their nations to suffering

Manish Nandy Published 03.10.18, 07:09 PM
A Hindu Sena activist in Delhi holds up a picture of US presidential candidate Donald Trump in October 2016

A Hindu Sena activist in Delhi holds up a picture of US presidential candidate Donald Trump in October 2016 File picture

We are now seeing a new fluidity of humans, rising to divinity and being free of the fetters that bind us to rules and norms of society. Leaders used to be held to stringent standards. No longer. They now brazenly display their clay feet or horned head, and still attain great power. They retain it too, for a long time.

The president of the United States of America and ostensible leader of the free world is now a man who declares he loves to pat the private parts of women, publicly caricatures and mocks disabled people, spits his disdain of a national hero, ignores aides’ briefing if it lasts beyond eight minutes, shows utter ignorance of all major national issues and lies with abandon to the press and public. Donald Trump did these things before his election and still got elected; he continues to do so, and still has the White House.


Rodrigo Duterte was the mayor of Davao City in the Philippines and tried to slash crime by setting up death squads to kill petty criminals, including poor children. He killed 1,400 people and boasted that he killed three himself, besides having shot a college mate for bullying him. People admired his machismo so much that they elected him president. In the last two years he has had killed 7,000 persons without any hearing or trial. Ignoring poverty and the petty crimes it spawns, Duterte says summary execution is “the most effective way”. An Australian nun, Jacqueline Hamill, was found gang-raped and killed, and in 2016, Duterte said he should have had the first right to rape such a pretty woman. In total contempt for human rights, he has promised to issue a hundred pardons daily for policemen who violate them and a grand one for himself at the end of his term for ‘mass murder’.

In Equatorial Guinea, the government arbitrarily arrests people, holds them in incommunicado detention, kidnaps citizens, imprisons and tortures them and kills them with impunity. In a bloody coup, Obiang Mbasogo deposed his uncle and became president 39 years ago, with the promise of an open society. He consolidated his power in successive fraudulent elections, crushed all opposition by torture and murder, and eliminated the free press. Billions from the country’s oil revenue goes directly into his account. Forbes estimates he has $700 million in US banks; in France he maintains mansions, wine collections and supercars.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has converted a functioning democracy into a virtual satrapy. He started off as a moderate and modernizing prime minister, a bridge between the West and Islamic countries, but slowly tightened his grip, manipulating elections, muzzling media and forcing his Islamist views on State-decreed secularism. He took advantage of a half-hearted coup attempt to purge the army and administration, jail thousands and retain only his fans. Erdogan is now converting his country from a Westminster system to a US-type presidential structure, with all checks and balances switched off.

There are other tyrants in the world, such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who starve, gas, bomb and torture their own people, but they learned their lessons at the feet of their fathers and continue to inflict those lessons on their hapless subjects. The divinities we focus on here are the leaders who began on their own, sometimes with promise, and are leading their countries to ruination and suffering.

There are lessons for India in these experiences in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas about how swiftly democratic institutions and practices can be subverted by a shrewd and unscrupulous leader. He can come with golden promises, show some organizing skills, leap on the bandwagon of economic growth, make a fanfare of economic stunts in the name of equity, shake hands and hug in shows of friendliness. But his unflinching goal is to gain power through the dominance of a single party and dispersion of a pernicious doctrine.

Why do we choose such people as our leaders? One answer could be that the people who elect them do not have access to the facts. But media outreach today is all-encompassing, with the written and spoken word penetrating the remotest village. Hardly anybody can be impervious to what is happening around us.

Could the answer then be that we don’t know because we don’t care to know? We can ignore realities, disregard the most outrageous lies and accept the most spurious explanations, because that is what we want to believe. What we want, in our own interest, is to satisfy our preferences and prejudices, and it far outweighs the interests of people around us, our community, even our country. A penny in our pocket or a buzz in our head we value far more than the good of our nation.

That paves the way for our New Gods.

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