From Byword- India Today (September 23)
The best doctor for the cure of pontification is surely the Pope. The best political Popes understand this. When Mikhail Gorbachev was asked at Harvard's Kennedy School what would have happened if in 1963 the Soviet supremo Krushchev had been assassinated instead of American President Kennedy, he took a grave look at the audience and replied, "I do not think Aristotle Onassis would have married Mrs Krushchev." If Gorbachev's predecessors had possessed a sense of humour, and come down to earth from the high walls of the Kremlin at least occasionally, Soviet Communism might, just might, have survived. You can't afford to be pompous when the potatoes have run out at your signature store across the street from the Kremlin. More empires have died of pomp than circumstance.
It's bad enough when the Pope thinks he is God. What happens when God thinks he has been demoted to a mere Pope?
Of the many imponderables in contemporary Indian politics, there is one thing that stands out as certain. We now know the identity of the person in Chennai who hates P. Chidambaram the most. His name is R. Kumaramurugan. On September 16, the home minister's 66th birthday, he plastered Chennai with huge posters adulating Chidambaram as the modern Lord Krishna. Kumaramurugan, who is a "senior member of Tamil Nadu Congress", does not believe in metaphors. He is a literal man. His portrait of the Lord had all the requisite accoutrements of a calendar Krishna, including a pointy crown, bracelet, armband, garland and lipstick, but just in case there was any misunderstanding, the Lord's face had been refitted with that of Chidambaram. This was the first Lord Krishna in history to wear spectacles.
Kumaramurugan is not a man who believes in making mere claims. He offered three reasons why Chidambaram had become divine at the age of 66. I quote: "You disbursed educational loans...You are the one who can save the country from terrorist attacks...You are our God." Fair enough. Anyone who can provide school loans and save us from terrorism (except of course if you happened to be at the Delhi High Court in the same week) is clearly miles ahead on the road to divinity. Kumaramurugan also put other Congress divines into perspective. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were there, but looked like mere postage stamps on this huge celebratory envelope. In Delhi, the Gandhis get pole position in any poster or advertisement display. But we now know who is who in Chennai.
Obviously Kumaramurugan despises Chidambaram and wants to destroy him. He could not have created this poster out of love and admiration, could he?
Chidambaram cannot be blamed for the sins of his sycophants. The bizarre nature of Tamil Nadu politics, in any case, encourages hyperventilation from fans. Kumaramurugan may not actually next finance a temple to his Krishna, but embarrassment is not his problem. He flaunts ownership of the poster, and expects due reward in the form of a party position, or at the very least, public proximity to his personal god. What the Kumaramurugans do not understand is the difference between the culture of loyalty in a democracy and its alternative, dictatorship.
Adulation in a dictatorship tempts rulers away from reality, and ends up making tyrants out of leaders. A Gaddafi or an Assad genuinely begins to believe that he is indispensable to the nation, and criticism becomes either a foreign conspiracy or treachery. The police and the armed forces shift their focus from defence of the realm to defence of a megalomaniac. One of the more astonishing images to emerge from the people's uprising across so much of the Arab world was the sight of Syrian army units exulting with high fives in front of cameras, behaving as if they had just wrested the Golan Heights from Israel. All they had done was killed hundreds of unarmed Syrians in Homs. Assad has probably distributed hundreds of medals to honour this atrocity.
In a democracy, pomposity has only one destination: towards the sketch pad of a cartoonist. A caricature does not exaggerate, or it would not work; it captures the man the leader thinks he is, and then pricks the bubble with a sharp and painful nib. Kumaramurugan's Lord Chikrishna poster achieves the near impossible: it makes caricature unnecessary. Life has left art far behind.
A good politician knows how to make a cartoonist irrelevant. He understands that a sense of humour, like charity, begins at home. He laughs gently at himself long before others begin to laugh at him. Mikhail Gorbachev was a democrat trapped in a dictatorship. He would have done well in India, though.