When Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera in a press conference referred to Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi as ‘Gautamdas’ before ostentatiously correcting himself, it was not a “slip of the tongue” as his lawyer claimed during a Supreme Court hearing, nor was Khera’s apology an expression of genuine regret.
It was a piece of political theatre, what the US press during fevered presidential election campaigns refers to as a ‘zinger’ – a moment that induces nervous laughter in the audience and provides a ‘byte’ for television channels and social media outlets; it was an opportunistic arrow aimed at the vertiginous, hubristic descent of Modi’s favorite businessman from recent stratospheric heights.
Pawan Khera’s essay in ‘mis-speak’ was an attempt to bring back into the public discourse recent disclosures about the opaque nature of Gautam Adani’s business ventures and the questions arising therefrom – questions that had been raised, and immediately redacted, from the proceedings of the recent session of Parliament, conveniently saving Modi from having to respond to specifics.
Khera’s comment was many things. What it was not, was a crime. Which is why the spectacle of paramilitary forces, armed to the teeth and standing in serried ranks on the tarmac of Delhi’s airport to arrest him, smacked of over-reach even for a regime and a leader that has industrialized over-reach.
Multiple FIRs have charged Khera under Section 153A (promoting enmity between various groups), Section 505 (making statements conducive to public mischief), 153B(1) (making assertions prejudicial to national integration), 295A (deliberate acts meant to outrage religious feelings), 500 (defamation) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace).
The Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and comprising Justices PS Narasimha and MR Shah, while providing Khera with interim relief from arrest, said inter alia, “We also accept that, taken on their face value, the spoken words do not lead to the sections invoked in the FIR” (emphasis mine).
It didn’t need the Supreme Court to state the bleeding obvious. Commonsense should tell you that Khera’s words don’t provoke enmity between various groups (unless ‘Modi sycophants’ is a recognized group), that linking Modi to Adani does not prejudice national integration (Modi is not a nation), that the comment does not outrage religious feelings (Modi is not a religion), and so on.
As for ‘defamation’ and ‘intentional insult’, that is a bit rich coming from, or on behalf of, a man who has made the intentional insult his political stock-in-trade. Modi has famously referred to the then leader of the Opposition as ‘Congress ka vidhwa’ and as a ‘Jersey cow’; slightingly referred to the then partner of an Opposition MP as a ’50 crore girlfriend’; publicly accused his predecessor of colluding with agents of a foreign power in a plot to assassinate him, before running away from the inevitable uproar in Parliament and fielding (the late) Arun Jaitley to tender an apology of sorts; and during an election campaign in the relatively recent past repeatedly used the ‘Didiiii…. O Didiii’ catcall commonly employed by Kolkata’s roadside thugs to harass passing women.
The above examples are merely a playlist of his greatest hits, not the entire catalogue.
The adjective ‘fascist’ has been thrown around in the wake of the Khera kerfuffle. The dictionary defines ‘fascist’ as someone who supports or promotes a system of governance led by a dictator who rules by forcefully, and often violently, suppressing criticism and opposition, controlling all industry and commerce, and promoting nationalism and often racism. Prima facie, the cap seems to fit the incumbent prime minister as neatly as the many silly hats he wears during his various election campaigns.
But chasing a thought, I went to the site of the Mayo Clinic to read up on a psychological problem commonly diagnosed as ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’. The textbook definition: NPD is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. They need and seek attention and want people to admire them… But behind this mask of extreme confidence, they are not sure of their self-worth and are easily upset by the slightest criticism.
The Mayo clinic provides a laundry list of symptoms of varying degrees of severity. As below:
- Have an unreasonably high sense of self-importance and require constant, excessive admiration.
- Feel that they deserve privileges and special treatment.
- Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements.
- Make achievements and talents seem bigger than they are.
- Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate.
- Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
- Be envious of others and believe others envy them.
- Behave in an arrogant way, brag a lot and come across as conceited.
- Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office.
At the same time, the clinic’s crib sheet says, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they view as criticism. They can:
- Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special recognition or treatment.
- React with rage or contempt and try to belittle other people to make themselves appear superior.
- Withdraw from or avoid situations in which they might fail. (As, for instance, open press conferences – this bit in parenthesis mine)
- Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, humiliation and fear of being exposed as a failure.
The cap, I thought, has a bespoke fit to it. But recent experience with a bad viral infection, exacerbated by diagnosis-by-internet, has made me a bit wary. My GP, exasperated when I finally went to him about a week after I first evidenced the symptoms, was scathing: “Google did not clear the MBBS exam!”
So I chatted up a psychiatrist I know. His response to my query was: “Want to see a narcissistic personality? Go look in the mirror.”
His point is that there is a narcissist in each one of us, that we will show signs of some or all of the symptoms listed above, and that this is not a problem per se. Personality disorders of some kind or other are common. Most times, we don’t even realise we have issues; in some relatively virulent cases, the problem becomes apparent to those in our immediate circle, with whom we interact on a regular basis. A belief that we know best, that those giving us advice or suggestions are not as well-informed as we are, coupled with a corresponding intolerance of criticism could for instance manifest in the workplace, and our colleagues will likely brush off all but the most extreme cases with “He is difficult to work with” (In extreme cases, it becomes an HR problem).
The real problem is when narcissism, in its malignant form, is allied to unbridled authority. An unreasonable sense of your own superiority and a corresponding intolerance of any form of criticism is not dangerous in and of itself, but when it is allied to the ability to harness the entire powers of the State – its investigative agencies, its police and paramilitary, its judiciary, its diplomatic missions, even its exchequer (after all, those cardboard cut-outs, choreographed photo-ops and full-page advertisements touting illusory accomplishments have to be paid for) – in the service of one person’s ego that you have a problem that can – and will – metastasize and threaten the fabric of a flawed but still functioning secular democracy itself.
The Pawan Khera fracas is not the first, or only, symptom of this danger; it is merely one more line item in a growing list. We live in a time when the economy is in the doldrums; when flashpoints serially ignite in various states and among various constituencies; when the honeymoon is officially over and the international community has begun to take an increasingly critical view of events on the ground; when scams and scandals of various stripes proliferate and skeletons believed to be buried deep have begun tumbling out of sundry closets – all this, in a year pockmarked with elections to nine state assemblies as runway to the general elections of 2024.
The air of inevitability, that automatic assumption of TINA – there is no alternative – has begun to erode around the edges. William Shakespeare was the first to articulate what happens when this happens — when an outward expression of overweening superiority goes hand in hand with a deep-seated internal sense of insecurity. Remember?:
Those he commands move only in command,
Nothing in love. Now does he feel his title
Hang Loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.
When Modi, having adroitly gotten all awkward questions about his relationship with a beleaguered billionaire redacted from the parliamentary records, thumped his chest and, to the accompaniment of fevered desk-thumping by his sycophantic partymen, said “Desh dekh raha hai, ek akela kitno par baari pad raha hai”, he spoke truer than he perhaps intended to.
PostScript: Of all the bizarre sights I’ve seen in recent times, none more jaw-dropping than this: As Modi’s speech in Parliament reached its chest-thumping peroration and his voice rose by several dozen decibels as he rounded into the ‘ek akela’ bit, all elected MPs of his party – filling out the treasury benches in response to a party whip mandating their presence – rose en masse and enthusiastically thumped their desks in appreciation.
Appreciation of what, though? Of being told, to their face, that they are all irrelevant and that there is only one man who matters – Modi himself?
(The writer is not a qualified medical practitioner or even Aayush-certified, and the column above does not purport to be a clinical diagnosis)
NB: This column was written for a website — which, after an initial expression of enthusiastic acceptance, had second thoughts and decided that it could not publish the column as written. So I decided to post it in my own space — and I also realized that it is time I got back to writing in my space. So, stand by.