Pawan Khera and the politics of narcissism

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.

Odds, trends

  • IndiaSpend, which has been doing some very good data-driven work around the elections, does a deep dive on voter priorities. The findings are eye-opening in themselves; they are even more of a revelation if you compare the concerns of the voter with what is being discussed on the stump. The top three priorities: Employment opportunities (46.8%), healthcare (34.6%) and drinking water (30.5%). This last is, as far as I can recall, a new entry in the list of voter concerns, and it speaks to the increasing stress, in both urban and rural areas, on water resources. But I’ll revert to the theme of water later — for now, stay with employment, the number one concern today.
  • The government knows this. It knows that the concern is widespread, that it spans geographies, and demographics, and it has been trying, as best it can, to defuse the angst. The official message (as in this example) seems to be that the government has created jobs by the millions, but it is just that the data is not available. Modi had previewed this argument earlier, when the job scarcity hit the limelight; he elaborated on that in yesterday’s “interview” with Arnab Goswami, and somehow made it the opposition’s fault.
  • The argument is specious. The first question that occurs is: When all these years we have had unemployment data updated annually, how did this big information hole materialise now? And related, what does it say about a government that has done nothing, if you take the no-data argument at face value, to measure such a crucial aspect of the economy, despite admitting that it is aware of the lacuna? (As Raghuram Rajan pointed out recently, jobs data is not only important in itself, but it casts light on the overall health of the economy.)
  • The thing though is, it is not a lacuna — the data exists, and has been systematically suppressed, as I’d pointed out in an earlier post. (This Twitter thread is interesting, in context). So this desperation to hide data, and to keep repeating the claim that jobs are available in plenty, merely understands the bind the government is in: It knows this is a crucial issue; it knows that this will resonate (more particularly with the young, with first time voters who in 2014 formed a sizeable chunk of BJP voters); it knows its record on this issue is abysmal — but short of Modi’s theatrics and the talking heads parroting the line about lack of data, it has no idea how to deal with this.
  • What is further underlining the BJP’s dilemma is that Rahul Gandhi appears to have shrewdly seized on this as a critical issue. In every interaction, he talks of jobs — starting, as far as I can see, with the townhall in Chennai’s Stella Maris College where he spoke of abolishing the angel tax in order to encourage young entrepreneurs, to as late as yesterday, when he drilled down further into the subject in course of his speeches, and put this out on his Twitter feed. Yogendra Yadav called unemployment a “silent killer” in elections and clearly, its shadow is now beginning to worry the ruling party.
  • In passing, a friend and I were discussing politics, and ex-RBI governor Rajan’s name came up. My friend’s argument was that Rajan’s recent vocal interventions were proof positive that he had been inclined towards the Congress all along; that this inclination had coloured his RBI stint and that, therefore, the BJP was right to be wary about him. As proof of his assertion, he pointed me to this story in Scroll, where Rajan says he had consulted with the Congress on the recently announced minimum income guarantee scheme. I guess it depends on how you look at it. If you had to pick between a guy who ignores all advice, doesn’t consult even bodies specifically set up for the purpose, overrides the RBI and announces demonetisation on a whim, or another guy who, according to reports, has been working on this income guarantee scheme for over two months, has consulted widely, and drawn on the expertise of acknowledged experts before deciding on a policy, which would you pick?

For personal reasons, this blog is on a break till Sunday. Have a nice weekend, folks. Meanwhile, go back to that IndiaSpend deep dive I began this post with — there is much in there that is of interest. And here is a telling cartoon to end this post with:

When smoke gets in your eyes…

LAST night, for the second night in a row, the commentariat went apeshit about #MainBhiChowkidar.

Is that the right response? Will it “resonate” with the people? Is chowkidar the 2019 version of 2014’s chaiwallah? Can the BJP expect to gain momentum because of Modi’s response?

Such tone-deaf discussions are de rigueur for the propaganda channels whose raison d’être is to help the government of the day deflect attention from the issues concerning voters – farmer distress, say, or unemployment, or the decline in manufacturing, the slowdown in the economy, all of which and more effect the quality of our lives. But after the likes of TimesNow, Republic and various regional channels had done their bit the day before, last evening it was Barkha Dutt, one of the exemplars pointed to as an antidote to the prevalent noise.

Dutt’s program “decoded” the latest slogan;  one panellist spoke of how it was a reinforcement of Modi as the guardian of the country; another felt it was preposterous; someone else explained at length why he chose to prefix chowkidar in front of his name; another worthy had thoughts on what slogan the opposition could use to counter this one (which, in case it’s all getting confusing, is itself a counter to something the opposition came up with); and Dutt meanwhile used her extensive Rolodex to learn from BJP sources that this was entirely the PM’s idea, and that there would be a ‘grand unveiling’, and so on.

To refurbish the whole program with a coat of irony, Dutt is one of the senior journalists who constantly, and vocally, lament the “noise” that the right-leaning sections of the media produce.

The episode made me think (yet again) of one of my all-time favorite political books, by an all-time favorite essayist. In 1988 the New York Review of Books commissioned Joan Didion to write a series of reported essays on the presidential election that pitted incumbent vice-president George HW Bush (Republican) against the Democratic candidate, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.

In these essays, since collated in the book Political Fictions, Didion argued that electoral politics was not a mechanism that enabled the citizens to make informed choices based on the real issues of the time, but “one designed by, and for, that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life”.

She argued, further, that the citizen no longer owns, or has a say in, electoral politics which has been gradually shaped to serve the interests of a “permanent professional political class” made up of politicians, their operatives, and talking-head journalists, who together concoct for our national campaigns “a public narrative based at no point on observable reality.”

Even a cursory read of political commentary and a few minutes with the TV remote suffice to identify this emerging narrative, and its disconnect with what Didion calls observable reality. The narrative is built around a few tired tropes and electoral pieties. As, for instance:

#1. Narendra Modi is a presidential figure fighting a faceless, amorphous horde.

In actual fact, the “mahagatbandhan’ is a media fiction, a strawman set up only so it could be demolished. At no time did the combined opposition come together to announce a coming together.

Observable reality is that the election was always going to be local – each state figuring out the best combination to defeat the BJP on its particular turf, with the question of government formation left for after the votes are counted and there is clarity about which party or group has the most strength in the 17th Lok Sabha.

But that reality, by definition, forces the BJP into a state by state fight, each battle focused largely on local rather than national issues – a contest that doesn’t suit the BJP whose forte is coming up with one central message and amplifying it through constant repetition.

So, the fiction of the “mahagatbandhan”, which can then be attacked as a “mahamilawat”, to force the election back into 2014 mode. Ironically, this storyline omits one important fact: the single biggest gatbandhan in the upcoming election by far is the BJP-led NDA, a motely conglomerate of 32-odd parties and counting – an inconvenient fact that the commentariat, which has sold itself on the narrative that a coalition government equals weakness, ignores.

#2. The BJP, negotiating from strength, has stitched together a formidable network of local alliances. The Congress, through hubris and arrogance, has failed to match the BJP in this regard, and is therefore falling behind.

In Bihar, in Tamil Nadu, in Maharashtra, the BJP has had to give up seats to the allies. Assume for the sake of argument that the NDA wins all 127 seats on offer in these three states – the upshot is that in the newly constituted Parliament, the allies will be in a better bargaining position when it comes to portfolios, and even when it comes to policy decisions. Simple logic, no? So why is this network of alliances celebrated so breathlessly?

In Assam, where the BJP experimented with its patented brand of communal polarisation by using the “Bangladeshi infiltrator” bogey to justify the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. Disgusted, its ally the Asom Gana Parishad quit the NDA, arguing that the bill was political suicide. Recently, the BJPs electoral compulsions led to the party persuading the AGP to rejoin the alliance. What was promised to make up for the angst relating to the bill. Will the push for the Bill still stand, or has it been given a quiet burial? Again, no one knows. But yay, alliance — and a further feather in the cap of the master strategist (If Amit Shah’s electoral record since 2014 is milestoned with more defeats than wins, that inconvenient fact is not allowed to disturb the perception.)

But the point should be self-evident – the BJP has been pursuing every possible alliance it can cobble together, cognitive dissonance be damned. That is the observable reality.

The narrative, though, is that the opposition is the one putting together opportunistic alliances even at the cost of forsaking previously stated positions. And the sizeable chunk of the media pushing this narrative seems completely oblivious of the cognitive dissonance of their position: On the one hand, you critique opposition parties for their opportunistic alliances, and in the very next breath you damn and blast the hubristic arrogance of the Congress and condemn that party’s failure to put together local alliances in various states. How does that work?

#3. The BJP has come up with slogans that resonate with the public; the opposition has failed to come up with a single resonant slogan.

Is the ability to come up with a catchphrase a testament to the ability to govern? Do people actual vote for a party because it has the better slogan? I’ve never seen any empirical evidence of this, but let that lie. The catchiest slogans in contemporary electoral memory — Roti Kapda Makaan, Garibi Hatao, Achche Din — have all singularly failed in translating promise to reality, but let that lie, too.

Anyone remember Acche Din? How about Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas? Now there is Namumkin Bhi Mumkin Hai, and its corollary Modi Hai To Mumkin Hai. Each of these was launched to considerable hype and extensive debates about effectiveness; most of them have been quietly shelved, and there is no telling what the shelf life of the latest formulation is.

But do even the most random scroll through social media, and you can fill a Rolodex with the number of “opinion makers” banging on about the effectiveness of the BJP’s slogan game, and the abysmal failure of the opposition – read Congress – to come up with a “winner”.

Yoked to this is the related thread about the ineptness of the Congress/Opposition on the campaign trail. This narrative goes: The BJP is everywhere; the Congress is nowhere. Modi is winning hearts and minds; Rahul Gandhi is absent and worse, Priyanka Gandhi has since her debutante ball at Sabarmati been making programs and cancelling them – why are they not campaigning, what are they doing, ohmygod how inefficient, maybe they don’t want to win…

It is nobody’s never mind that almost at the exact minute this conversation was going on, Rahul Gandhi was doing one of his town halls, this time in Bangalore with a group of small entrepreneurs. In this town hall, he among other things addressed the question of GST and discussed what the Congress planned to do if it came to power; he was asked about the angel tax on entrepreneurs and he said he would kill it if it became his call to make, and explained why… All of this is far more policy based statements than you have heard Modi make this year. But you can’t blame the commentariat for not knowing this because none of his events, or those of other opposition leaders, find air time on TV whereas every breath an Amit Shah takes and every trope a Narendra Modi fakes are covered live, then discussed in breathless detail during prime time.

You get the feeling, while reading the commentary and listening to these debates, that the media is no longer content to report what is in fact happening. They have fixed notions of how parties should run their campaigns, and they score the horse-race based on how well these parties execute the media’s idea of a good campaign.

But that is not even the point. It harks back to Didion’s thoughts – that electoral politics is not a mechanism to enable citizens to make informed choices, but a monopoly of “that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life”; a narrative “based at no point on observable reality”.

In all of this, who loses? The citizen, who has been systematically infantilised by a media that believes that she has no inclination to delve into issues; that her attention span is so limited that she can only consume slogans; that what the voter wants in the lead-up to what everyone says is the most important election of our lives is platitudes rather than policy; tub-thumping rhetoric rather than a nuanced debate on ideas.

It’s not just that we get the government we deserve — we also get the media, and the narrative, that we deserve.

Reading material:

  • A TimesNow poll finds, not surprisingly, that the NDA will return to power. What is notable is that this poll, in common with every single one thus far, gives the BJP no chance of replicating their 2014 performance and attaining majority on its own. In other words, the most optimistic of estimates is that we are in for a coalition government, no matter who wins.
  • Prem Shankar Jha believes Modi’s campaign is all theatre, and suggests that the Congress is not doing enough to challenge him on his lack of substance.
  • The most notable element in the DMK manifesto is the promise to do away with NEET, the cause of considerable heartburn among the TN student community.
  • Srinath Raghavan, one of the better-informed and sane voices on issues dealing with the army and national security, on why Modi’s desire to talk tough to impress his base has come in the way of good relations with China.
  • A Print report on how the JD(U) cut the BJP’s planned dalit outreach to size.
  • A Scroll investigation into how Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar took advantage of loopholes to hide the bulk of his fortune from electoral scrutiny. (The bits relating to the conflict of interest inherent in his defence deals is particularly noteworthy).
  • From The Wire, a piece that goes beyond the hagiography that inevitably accompanies a high-profile death, and examines the real legacy of the late Manohar Parikkar.
  • We voted a bunch of blokes into the 16th Lok Sabha. What did they do with this trust, with the time and money you invested in them? The Hindu has a nifty means of tracking the performance of individual MPs.

Yes, Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is unhappy, and he has good reason to be. No one responds to my ‘good morning’ messages, he cribbed at a meeting of party lawmakers the other day.

That’s fair. It is not about sycophancy, or the social media analog of kids jumping up and going ‘good morning Miss’ when the teacher walks into the room. It is about common courtesy, about basic good behavior. And decency, good behavior, these are important, yes, in any civilized society, in any culture?

Right. Meanwhile, in Parliament, Mr Arun Jaitley made an important intervention:

On Wednesday, making a statement in the Rajya Sabha, leader of the house and finance minister Arun Jaitley said: “The PM in his speeches did not question, nor did he mean to question the commitment to this nation of either former PM Manmohan Singh or former VP Hamid Ansari. Any such perception is erroneous. We hold these leaders in high esteem, as well as their commitment to India.”

Any such perception that Modi was attacking both his predecessor and a former vice president of India was “erroneous”, Jaitley said.

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It is not that the Delhi High Court dismissed Subramanian Swamy’s PIL seeking a court-monitored SIT investigation into the death of Sunanda Pushkar, though there is that.

It is not that an acerbic, and clearly annoyed, high court called out the PIL as a “political interest litigation” — though there is that, too.

What should make you sit up and take notice is this:

The court also said Swamy appears to have concealed data or information which he should have disclosed at the first instance. The central government, as well as the Delhi Police, told the high court that they did not subscribe to the views expressed by Swamy that the probe in the case has been influenced by Tharoor.

And this:

It was also observed by the Court that Swamy, on being specifically asked about the basis of his allegations, says that he shall file another affidavit regarding the same, thus admitting that he has information that was not filed before and which ought to have been filed.

Which is to say, having first filed a PIL where facts in his position relevant to the case were not disclosed, and having been pulled up severely by the court, Swamy now wants a do-over.

All that has been achieved so far, meanwhile, is that the new lexicon for a New India acquires another phrase: political interest litigation.

Update, 6:45 PM: Here in PDF form is the full order by the Delhi High Court. Elsewhere, predictably:



Fighting corruption by embracing it

#1. The 1995 winter session of Parliament was among the least productive on record (constant disruptions resulted in only 36% of the total time being productive, according to Parliamentary records).

The constant stoppage of play was led by the BJP, which was protesting the continued presence in the PV Narasimha Rao cabinet of Telecom Minister Sukh Ram, against whom charges of taking a bribe and favoring HTL in the awarding of cable supply contracts had begun to surface.

The BJP kept the pressure up — until, in 1997, he broke from the Congress and founded the Himachal Vikas Congress — at which point the BJP sought and obtained his support for the Prem Kumar Dhumal-led BJP government in Himachal Pradesh. Ram joined the government — and was persuaded to quit in March 1998 when charges were finally framed against him. The story of how he finally relented is a classic case study of realpolitik.

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