Although I am not at all politically inclined, like most of us, I would like to believe that I understand politics a fair bit However, the happenings a few days back outside the precincts of the Delhi airport left me a bit baffled and fairly entertained.
The occurrence was actually quite mundane and uneventful. The PM had gone abroad to the United States to attend a routine UN meeting and also a meeting of the Head of States of the recently ‘getting assertive’ QUAD. The trip had materialized after a fair delay due to worldwide Covid restrictions.
Well, he addressed the United Nations like he had to, met the QUAD and US functionaries including the US President and the Vice President as was planned, besides some business leaders as well.
To be honest, this was not the first time that a Prime Minister of India had addressed the United Nations. Moreover, knowing the limitations of the United Nations, saying something on that forum does not really transform into anything substantive beyond stating your obvious geopolitical stand.
The QUAD needed assertion and a bit of formalization; therefore the in-person meeting of the Heads of states. Since, the PM was in the US, given the newly-found bonhomie, it made sense to meet the US president and other functionaries. What military/ business understandings were reached behind closed doors is known only to the dealing bureaucrats accompanying the PM.
Of course, knowing fully well that the Americans have only their own self-interest upper most in all dealings, the quality of reception is generally proportional to the size of the potential military sales and business deals that are in the offing.
All good till now. Visit went of as planned and the PM comes back safe and sound. All purposes achieved and all tick in the boxes made. But nothing earth-shattering really happened.
However, what was amusing was the massive ‘Welcome back’ or ‘Abhinandan’ rally planned by the senior functionaries of the ruling party at the airport. The PM’s trip was touted as a landmark visit and major strategic victory for the country. Some even went on to term it as ‘historic’, kind of almost short of a START II initiative. Also, not to forget that our Western neighbour had been shown the door! Finally or one more time, I kept wondering?
While the flattery-laden speeches addressed to a paid crowd were not fooling anyone, the number of shawls that were offered to the PM were not even funny. He was indeed wise enough to remove them from his neck, lest a bad case of spondylitis sets in.
Ah! I forget the XXXL Size, ‘16 feet in circumference’ garland which was brought out in which four other guys tried to fit in besides the PM. A quick Photo op and the garland was pushed to the background. One full garden must have been ravaged to provide the flowers for the pythonic garland. I guess if nothing else, it provided a fair amount of employment to a number of gardeners in these hard times.
Sycophancy, the favourite tool of the courtier was on full display. Frankly, you don’t mind it as long as it is subtle, but this one really took the cake.
For a long time, I kept wondering about the real intent behind this farcical and ludicrous show. The PM has a fine image as it is. Was the purpose to impress the international media? Definitely not. They understand these kind of optics better than anyone else.
Image building in front of the domestic audience? Or a pre-emptive clarification that the PM had gone out during these days of Covid restrictions not for a fun trip but a visit for something really strategic and achieved something quite massive?
Reminded me about a South African politician who ran a campaign, “Vote for John and no tax on wool”. The truth was that the government had no plans to introduce any tax on wool. But the oft-repeated campaign made it look like that the government was planning something on these lines and John was the only candidate who was opposing such a measure.
He won hands down. So if we say it over and over again that it was a strategic victory (don’t worry over whom?), maybe a large populace will believe that the PM who is on back-slapping terms with every US President had indeed altered the country’s economy like never before with his visit and our stature in the world had unimaginably altered.
Or were we back to Roman days? The victorious Roman Generals on returning to Rome after their conquests used to be accorded massive celebratory parades to mark their victories. Their riches captured from foreign lands on display used to justify the huge Roman expenditure on its military and a provide a euphoric sense of “all is good” within the empire. This justification seemed more likely.
History however also provides an interesting bit of information about these Roman Generals. After a major military victory, the triumphant military generals were paraded through the streets to the roars of the masses. The ceremonial procession could span the course of a day with the military leader riding in a chariot drawn by four horses. There was not a more coveted honour. The general was idolized, viewed as divine by his troops and the public alike.
But riding in the same chariot, standing just behind the worshipped general, was a slave. The slave’s sole responsibility for the entirety of the procession was to whisper in the general’s ear continuously, “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!”
“Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!”
The slave served to remind the victor at the peak of his glory that this God-like adoration would soon end, while the truth of his mortality remained.*
The purpose was to keep the General grounded so that he should not start believing everything that was being said about him during the distribution of accolades. And also not to forget that maybe in the next war, destiny may not be equally kind.
Like millions others, I am neither a Govt baiter or a batter. Just a concerned observer that’s all. I also have the deepest respect for the Indian Govt and the PM for their untiring commitment and the immense amount of work they are doing for the nation. I also do understand that politics is about image, hopes and narratives.
But then they say, always beware the phony people who surround you, more so in public life. What they say, first you detest, then you accept and later you digest. Then a stage comes when you start loving it and the dangerous part is when you start believing it.
How I wish there was someone around to tell the PM that such ridiculous vanity-ridden attempts at image building through hollow-chest beating by his associates do more harm than good to his established persona and aura of a world statesman?
And probably, next time he will just go home directly from the airport to a well-deserved rest to get over the jetlag. Not that appointing a brave junior minister to mutter “Momento Mori” once in a while will do any harm.
After all, the world’s slowest and surest poison is vanity.
First published at seekmediation.com on 29/09/21
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*Kind courtesy: https://dailystoic.com/history-of-memento-mori/