A Demagogic Dilemma

Thackeray in front of the BMC building

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I recently saw the movie Thackeray, it reminded me of John Stuart Mill’s thoughts that democracy can be dangerous if a demagogue takes charge. The fact that a person, well equipped in oratory skill can influence the masses, often enough to change their mindset or thinking, can be a very dangerous signs for any democracy. It is the people that vote for such outspoken and charismatic leaders.

The issue with demagogues is that they are the starting point and often the ending point for many individuals. The demagogues has supporters that often follow him/her blindly and often step on the wrong side of the law while following their leader’s orders. The power held by demagogues is like a double edged sword, it reminds me of Lord Acton who once said ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Demagogues often think they are infallible and, therefore, often make decisions based on their individual thinking. This results in political violence in the name of religion, caste, ethnicity and class, creating a divide in the society. While these leaders test the law from time to time they are glorified in the media. Controversial figures like Stalin, Hitler and Ayatollah Khomeini were made TIME’s person of the year award, this shows that they were acknowledged by the global media press at that time.

It is not that demagogues are against the law or fall on the other side of the law, it just that they create a very thin line between the right and the wrong (as decided by the law). They are not afraid of testing the law from time to time, because they know they have the support of the masses rallied up behind them. They know that if they are convicted, people will rise to save them as had happened with Bal Thackeray in 2000 when he was jailed for inflammatory writings. It is true that when such a thing happens the leaders are often intoxicated with power and develop a complex of infallibility. Should leaders that possess massive influential powers be allowed to participate in the political process and even if they are disbarred from it does it really curtail there influential power? The answer is more complex, we have to remember that Mr Thackeray never held a public office, even when his party the Shiv Sena won the State elections of Maharashtra he appointed Manohar Joshi as the chief minister and called himself as a remote control. So disbarring a person from contesting for office may not be that effective.

It would be wrong for me to say that modern demagogues are evil creatures that aim for the destruction of those who don’t align with their thoughts or have opposing political ideologies. It is also wrong to assume that demagogues are selfish individuals who want power and money for themselves. Most demagogues are rational but they are individuals driven by emotions. These emotions make them what they are, whether it is joy, anger, hate or euphoria. It all starts out as a care for people or towards the protection of one community, however as the leader gains power he or she may be capable of bending the law to protect their community and beliefs. Soon, what started out as a particular political ideology may not remain the same with the passage of time. The Shiv Sena changed its political ideology from ‘Son of the soil’ (marathi manoos) to hindutva, the same can be said of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) where it’s initial ideology, Gandhian Socialism, was replaced by Hindutva after 1984.

Can film celebrities be compared to demagogues? The simple answer would no because film celebrities may have die-hard fans but they are not following the celebrity for a cause. Compare that to a political leader who makes statements and speeches that makes his or her followers feel good about themselves. One classic example is Thackeray’s use of the phrase ‘Hatao lungi, bajao pungi’ (Shoo the Lungi wearing South Indians and pave the way for the trumpet blaring Maharashtrians). Any Maharashtrian listening to such lines will feel good about himself/herself, they often see this person as a messiah who is making them aware of their rights, who is willing to fight for them, who stands out than other political leaders.

One might think that if such are the features of demagogues then they might get work done, achieve their goals quickly. However, we have examples from history that stand out in contrast. Hitler, for all his political charisma and rise in the political ranks, is globally hated and modern day germans are apologetic towards the jews because of his actions. The Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi had to step down after the Emergency and today we associate The Emergency as the darkest period in independent India. Similarly, when we compare Mr. Thackerays home turf Bombay (or as he liked to call it Mumbai) then we find that the marathi speaking population in Mumbai is 20–30 %. For all his call of giving marathi manoos the first priority in employment, cinema hasn’t really taken up to his liking. The biggest irony is that the man who plays Bal Thackeray in his biopic is Nawazudin Siddique, a North Indian and a muslim, both traits that Mr. Thackeray opposed publicly.

So what is to be done with demagogues if they are destroying the socio-economic fabric of the country, if they are testing the law from time to time. Fortunately the answer lies within democracy itself, Mill had said that although democracy may not be perfect but it is the best form of government as it allows for institutionalization of power or having a system of checks and balances of the power sharing process. This is the reason why even after being such a charismatic leader, Mr Thackeray saw that his party the Shiv Sena came in power (that too with a coalition) in 1995, around 50 years after the formation of the party. Even after Mr. Thackeray’s death the party may be in power but as a junior partner in the coalition to the BJP. It is seen that it acts more as an opposition then an ally. His legacy is a non-starter as his son and the current president of Shiv Sena has toned down the stance of the party. Mr Thackeray is remembered as the Hindu Hriday Samrat ( king of hindu hearts) but his legacy holds very little other than emotional memory for the Marathi Manoos.



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