June 26, 2023 Sujeev Shakya

Seeking solace in personalities

It is unfortunate that our society worships personalities rather than collective effort.

Last week, I shared fellow columnist CK Lal’s column “Pathos of vulnerable narcissism” which discussed authoritarian behaviour. The point that I agree with him on is what is this confounded nationalism when 6,500 passports are being issued each day? I was trolled, and as I always receive after I write something about India-Nepal relationship—protest tweets! It is unfortunate to see that our society cherishes and focuses on personality worship more than building teams and institutions, as evidenced by the trolls and abuse on social media against Balen Shah’s criticism. 

For someone who created and worked in teams in different fields, the personality driven authoritarianism is complete opposite to what I believe in. There have to be healthy debates, and different view points should be accepted. Opinion pieces in newspapers exist not for people to shun their beliefs and believe in the writers, but to get an opportunity to get the other view (as my column is named). This also made me think about global developments and question whether autocratic figures across different fields are the flavour of the month.

Global trends

When we talk about Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter, we forget that it is a publicly traded company and there are other shareholders who own 21 percent of its stock. However, he has created a personality cult-driven environment where a company is identified with the individual, questioning the concept of corporation, corporate governance and corporate citizenry. When liberalisation boomed in the 1990s, companies were identified as a corporation rather than with an individual. IBM was never discussed in the context of owners. We even discuss Microsoft or Google with emphasis on the owners. I recall the business relationships I had in my earlier job with ITC in India, a faceless conglomerate. It is astonishing to see how Ratan Tata gets dragged into becoming the face of the Tata companies, many of which are corporate citizens. Twenty years ago, in the heyday of Ratan Tata’s silent crusade, he was not discussed so much as a person as the institution and legacy he continued to lead. 

In politics, it seems it was the rise of the Trump phenomenon that pushed towards the importance of individual identity in politics. Be it President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or President Vladimir Putin, it is always about individuals rather than the institution they belong to. When Modi decided to inaugurate the new Parliament building without even inviting the President of India Droupadi Murmu, it was seen as a normal day because that had become the norm. We should not forget that even Hitler was allowed to do all the things he did as a majority of his people believed he was right. 

In Nepal, the last local elections brought about the rise of two individuals—the mayor of Kathmandu Balen Shah and the mayor of Dharan Harka Sampang—who could question the status quo and bring about transformation that we rarely see in Nepali local governments. However, Kathmandu’s mayor continued to draw attention to his authoritarian style of operation and trust in a team that would not question him. Many have silently distanced themselves from him over time. I start recalling the days of the October 2002 takeover by King Gyanendra when hoarding boards sponsored by business people popped up welcoming the move. In February 2005, the king decided to go for direct rule and we all know what happened. His government fell in 14 months! I was working at the Soaltee Group at that time, and I recall the ways in which critics were silenced and only people who would not criticise would be allowed to hover around. However, our love for personality worship and autocrats continues. Be it KP Sharma Oli in the CPN-UML, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda in the Maoist party and Sher Bahadur Deuba in the Congress. They survive by keeping people who are not critical close to them. They believe that what they do is successful as no one close to them criticises them. If they do so, they lose proximity. Therefore, a cadre of sycophants exist who in turn do not want critics. If Girija Prasad Koirala had lived in the times of social media, we would have learnt a lot about his autocratic traits. 

Hero worship

In South Asia, where idol worship, worship of cult leaders and hero worship exist, it’s fertile ground for authoritarianism. When a self-proclaimed guru who golfs during his leisure time can sell high-priced front row seats to see him dance, we know how gullible we are! Rather than read the simple teachings of the Buddha, we worship SUV-hungry personalities as gurus who have made great fortunes after renouncing “material life”. We like to associate public institutions with individuals, be they publicly listed institutions or institutions with state or public money. In a country where the Buddha’s concept of commune and the social structure of guthis developed, it is interesting to see how we do the opposite of these concepts and constantly search for larger than life figures. 

Of course, there is some silver lining in the dark clouds. The Rastriya Swatantra Party celebrated a year of existence last week. It is one of the institutions that began as something synonymous with an individual, and in a year, it has developed a team where more than one person is important, and it is an institution in the making. Decisions are becoming more team-oriented than the verbose rant of an individual. This will perhaps make people think whether it is important to have autocrats who have no accountability or have teams that will provide checks and balances. History has enough stories to tell about the instances of destruction, including self-destruction, inflicted by autocratic megalomaniacs. It’s always important to get the other view.

Read the full article on The Kathmandu Post: https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2023/06/26/seeking-solace-in-personalities