Will the COVID-19 Crisis Compel Us to Reject Faith in the Notion of 'Strongmen'?

Abhijit Banerjee’s outright rejection of the strongman theory puts a question mark over the manner in which some prominent leaders choose to craft themselves and their images in popular perception.

Towards the end of his recent conversation with the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, economist Abhijit Banerjee made a pertinent observation that may be relevant for politicians at home, as well as those in other countries.

In the course of the interaction, Gandhi said: “What is being sold is that it requires one man to be in charge against the virus.” The Nobel laureate was unequivocal in his rejection of this often eagerly propagated – and equally swiftly accepted – solution based on the figure of a strongman. The idea is “disastrous,” Banerjee replied, stressing that this is the time to dispel any mistaken faith in the notion of a “strongman.”

“The US and Brazil are two countries that are messing up right and left. These are two ‘strongmen’ behaving like … pretending like they understand anything … But even what they say every day is kind of laughable. If anyone wanted to believe in the strongman theory, this is the time to disabuse themselves,” said Banerjee.

This was Gandhi’s second conversation with a leading economist. The Congress’s series of conversations around India’s economic crisis began when Gandhi interacted with Raghuram Rajan, professor of finance at Chicago University, and a former governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

The connection between strongmen

Banerjee was on the mark in drawing within the “strongman” paradigm a connection between the US and Brazilian presidents. Consider what the New York Times writers Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman wrote about the two leaders when Bolosonaro visited Trump at the White House last March: “it was something like looking in the mirror.” At a subsequent press conference, Trump observed that “Brazil’s relationship with the United States, because of our friendship, is probably better than it’s ever been by far.”

Also Read: Across the World, the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Become an Invitation to Autocracy

The US president has also repeatedly described Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “his friend.” Trump made the comment two years ago while celebrating Diwali with high profile Indian Americans at the White House. More recently, this past February, while addressing a gathering at Ahmedabad’s Motera stadium, the US president remarked: “My gratitude to an exceptional leader, a great champion of India, a man who works night and day for his country, and a man I am proud to call my true friend, Prime Minister Modi.” Within 24 hours of this statement, northeast Delhi was rocked by communal violence that accelerated over three days.

Rahul Gandhi and Abhijit Banerjee. Photo: Screengrab

Abhijit Banerjee’s outright rejection of the strongman theory puts a question mark over the manner in which some prominent leaders choose to craft themselves and their images in popular perception. We have seen this happen repeatedly during the current pandemic crisis. These leaders act and speak as if they are the primary, if not sole, deliverers of the masses from the current situation. Banerjee’s cautions against such projections should, therefore, be taken seriously at several levels.

A call to reflect

To begin with, the political class – particularly top ruling party leaders leaning towards a cultic culture – may do well to reflect on the qualities that separate a leader’s ‘inner strength’ from building a strongman image. A leader with inner strength conjures visions of a non-masculine, non-gesticulating leader. A leader who treats people and talks to them like they are legitimate stakeholders in a system of governance. Such a vision is vastly different from the vision of a strongman, who, at every opportunity, admonishes people or instills in them some fear of punishment.

The two personalities that come to mind in referencing leadership and inner strength (there are, of course, others) are Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Neither of these iconic men – their arcs of influence in the fields they influenced spanning national and international spheres – fashioned themselves in the mould of strongmen. They were invested with enormous inner strength and courage to reckon with formidable odds.

If any one historic action explicitly marked the difference, as well as contradiction, between inner strength and strongmen, it was perhaps Gandhi’s decision to walk through the riot-torn district of Noakhali in undivided Bengal in 1946. “Gandhi was already considering the possibility of dying there,” wrote Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, referencing that event. He quotes a letter where Gandhi said: “There is an art of dying … As it is, all die, but one has to learn by practice how to die a beautiful death. The matter will not be settled even if everybody went to Noakhali and got killed.”

Also Read: Gandhi and the Trial of Noakhali

Gandhi’s conviction in nonviolence moved him with rare durability. Rather than pitch him in a perpetual confrontational mode, it made Gandhi what strongmen would disparagingly describe as a pacifist. Or worse, feminine, as political psychologist Ashis Nandy has pointed out. A person who was willing to expose himself rather than others to danger. In his reflections, Bhattacharjee argues Gandhi believed that his “technique of nonviolence was on trial” in Noakhali. He felt that if nonviolence failed on that occasion, it would be “better that he himself should declare his insolvency.”

Tagore, for his part, manifested his inner strength by running against the popular sentiment of the day, the headwind of the Swadeshi movement. Even as they held each other in deep respect, both men – Gandhi and Tagore – shared serious differences of opinion around the Swadeshi and non-cooperation movements. Captured in a series of letters both men exchanged at the peak of the non-cooperation agitation, their divergent views were later condensed in the book The Mahatma and the Poet (compiled and edited by historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya).

Tagore raised “unpopular” questions around nationalism, asking whether the popular currency of nationalism was spawning an inward-looking and closed political culture. Instead, would nationalism not enrich itself by opening doors and windows to the wider world of ideas? What were the limits of nationalism? Was there any value higher than the freedom to exercise one’s intellect and mind without fear and coercion, the poet asked?

Rabindranath Tagore hosts M.K. Gandhi and Kasturba Ganhi at Santiniketan in 1940. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Unwavering conviction

It may be argued that the intrinsic strength displayed by Gandhi and Tagore in their distinct spheres of influence came from their unwavering conviction in humanity – in their desire to be humane and compassionate. The times that we are currently passing through seem to mark a decisive move away from such beliefs. Allied to the conventional idea of a “strong state”, the desire for a strongman draws strength from an image of power that seeks unflinching obedience from people reduced to subjects who unthinkingly execute wishes and orders from above.

From Brazil to closer home, this contract between strongmen and the people they preside over runs the risk of being welded into unmovable iron during emergencies like the one we are in the midst of. But compassion, often mistaken as a marker of softness and indecision instead of humanity, is difficult to find these days no matter where one looks.