Business Standard: The politician's tragedy - From hubris to nemesis

by Deepak Lal, Senior Fellow in Globalization (August 26, 2008)

Manmohan Singh is the sort of hero that Homer knew — a man of strength, courage and wisdom.

Observing the political scene two phenomena are notable. First, that academic political social science’s claims to be able to predict political outcomes through quantitative analysis are little more than statistical snake oil (see my April column). Second, that many political careers have the lineaments of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. This column is about this politician’s tragedy.

Political scientists as well as many historians remain sceptical of the role of individuals in determining political outcomes, relying instead on deeper social and economic causes. For them the Greek tragic sense, also embodied in Shakespeare’s tragedies, is an archaic and irrelevant form of explanation. It is useful to see how this has come about. There is no better guide than the eminent literary critic George Steiner, whose 1961 book on The Death of Tragedy I have been rereading.

The Greek tragic sense of life asserts that “the forces which shape or destroy our lives lie outside the governance of reason or justice" (p. 4). The Fates govern human lives. Amongst them is Lachesis, chance, the element of luck that a man had a right to expect. But, he can suffer from hubris: through offending the moral law or overweening pride. Such imprudent mortals were pursued by Nemesis — the divine anger — and destroyed.

This Greek tragic sense, Steiner argues, is alien to the Judaeo-Christian sense of the world, which sees Jehovah as just, even in his fury. Not only are the ways of God just, they are also rational — a view strengthened by the Enlightenment, particularly Rousseau. “The misery and injustice of man’s fate were not … the consequence of some tragic, immutable flaw in human nature … The chains of man ... were man-forged. They could be broken by human hammers" (p. 125). Marxism inherited this Judaeo-Christian and Enlightenment insistence on justice and reason. Marx repudiated tragedy. “Necessity," he declared, “is blind only in so far as it is not understood." Tragic [Greek] drama arises out of precisely the contrary assertion: necessity is blind and man’s encounter with it shall rob him of his eyes, whether it be in Thebes or in Gaza" (p. 4-5). The end of this Greek sense of tragedy in the modern world was replaced by the “rationalist" pretensions of political science and sociology.

Now consider how the Greek sense of tragedy still imbues some recent political careers.

The first is the fall of Margaret Thatcher, and the consequent banishment of her party to the political wilderness for over a decade. Her hubristic moment came with the introduction of the Poll Tax. This gave the opportunity for her political assassination by her colleagues. But, as in Julius Caesar, their resolve, self-belief and hold on power were undermined, as was Brutus’ by Caesar’s ghost at Philippi. Only with the retirement of that whole generation of Conservative conspirators has the party finally escaped the stain of her assassination.

The second example of hubris followed by nemesis is the embattled Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown. He achieved his life time ambition last June — albeit by a coup against his elected predecessor — and glowed for a few months in public adulation, as he dealt with Biblical style afflictions: floods and terrorist attacks. His position seemed so unassailable that every one thought he would call a snap general election last October, which he would have won, legitimising his ascent to the top of the greasy pole. But then like Hamlet, he prevaricated. Since then, his and his party’s poll ratings have plummeted. Conspiracies to assassinate him politically are rife. Watching him lurching, bruised at PM’s Question Time in the weekly joust with David Cameron, who like the legendary Mohammad Ali seems to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee", one forgets that as a young opposition politician he was a formidable debater. Though his claims to have abolished the trade cycle, and to being the greatest Chancellor since Gladstone, can be looked upon as tempting the Fates, he can hardly be blamed for Britain’s current economic woes. His current woes defy a rational explanation. It does seem like hubris followed by nemesis.

The third exhibit is Pervez Musharraf. Two years ago, his position seemed unassailable. He was triumphantly promoting his autobiography on the steps of the White House. He had deftly made himself indispensible in the US-led War on Terror, even as it now seems the ISI continued to be involved in promoting the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan. His moves for a rapprochement with India on Kashmir, and attempts to counter Islamist influences at home, seemed to augur well for making Pakistan a “normal" secular Muslim country like Turkey. His well-chosen technocratic economic team engineered an economic boom, albeit on the basis of large inflows of foreign aid. Then, inexplicably, he decided to sack the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the rest is history. No rational explanation seems to explain this change in his fortunes, except hubris followed by nemesis.

A final, but less politically weighty example is provided by Manmohan Singh’s coalition partners (in particular Comrade Karat), who have exercised power without responsibility. Having over-reached themselves on the US-India nuclear agreement, they find themselves on the way to being consigned to the dustbin of history. Hubris, bred of their sense of electoral indispensability, has led to nemesis: no more dining at top tables, or being wooed by the TV channels!

The Greeks, however, also believed in heroes. Homer saw the Greek hero as a man of strength and courage or one who was especially venerated for his wisdom. India today has such a hero — Dr Manmohan Singh. He has in his two terms of political office saved India from the economic, and (if the Indo-US nuclear deal is completed) the foreign policy morass in which India had been mired. Being an accidental politician he will, hopefully, not suffer from the politician’s tragedy.

Published in the Business Standard here

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