The human emotional need for a hero is a ubiquitous one and can often bring out the best in people…

Although much, perhaps even too much, has been spoken and written about the momentous mass movement the whole nation has been witness to for the last few weeks, I cannot help adding my mite on the subject. The anti-corruption movement has fired the imagination of most citizens of urban India. It's been truly extraordinary to see youth as well as people several decades older come together for a common cause and express their anguish and anger with the kind of discipline that's rarely evident in any other aspect of contemporary urban living. Like every other Indian, I do have my views and opinions on the politics of the events that unfolded over the last few weeks. However, this is not the forum for me to express these, but what I would like to do in this space is to explore the ubiquitous human need for a hero or a champion to bring out the best in people.

Why now?

It is not as if corruption in public service is a recent vice. So, what made the Indian middle class break away from its famed apathy and assert itself in so resounding a manner? I believe that, more than any other factor, what really tilted the balance was the emergence of a champion — a hero who was acceptable to a cross-section of people, who are not necessarily on the same page on a variety of other parameters.

Interestingly, the Jan Lokpal movement is not one that developed out of whipped up frenzy, which is probably why it remained disciplined to the end. Ostensibly, the champion did not set out to create a mass base to meet personal or political ends, but only to address a burning issue in his own distinctive style. Obviously his process resonated with large numbers of people who wanted to empower themselves but did not know how. And having found themselves a champion of unimpeachable integrity, they all coalesced around him and anointed him a hero.

There are some essential differences between heroes and leaders. A hero is typically someone who we can closely identify with and even admire, sometimes to the point of feeling that the hero embodies our own identity (remember the ‘I am Anna' slogans?). A hero gives us hope that our aspirations will be realised. A hero appeals to our hearts, our emotions. On the other hand, a leader, whether political, organisational or religious, is someone who appeals more to our heads and less to our hearts. A person in whom we vest great responsibility for our future deliverance. Someone whose shadow gives us comfort and security and whose achievements make us progress as a group. All leaders are not necessarily heroes, for, sometimes they have to take unpopular decisions. And equally, all heroes are not necessarily leaders, for, the two require different skill-sets. Of course, many heroes do become leaders and many leaders are also heroes, but the ones we generally have more rational expectations of are our leaders, for, it is to them we have hitched our wagons for the long haul.

Our own ideal

Do we really need heroes to champion our causes? Not always, but without doubt, a hero helps to energise and inspire us to rise above ourselves. In truth, a hero is the embodiment of our ego ideal — an internalised image of the ideal we strive to become. Which is why any interaction with our hero makes us feel empowered. What we don't always appreciate is that the ones we have chosen as our heroes rarely correspond exactly with our ego ideal. They are simply who they are, doing what they believe in. It is we who vest on them qualities and attributes that they may never have claimed to possess. It is for this reason that our expectations of our heroes may not always be rational. And since we are not conscious of having projected our own ego ideal on to them, we often end up hero-worshipping, idolising and deifying them, all of which can make for potentially turbulent situations, since heroes, by virtue of being human, are liable to fall on their faces every now and again, leaving us feeling disenchanted. However, if we realise that our emotional identification was actually with the hero within us, then we can have a more balanced approach to our heroes, seeing them as essentially human with some special qualities and use them as inspirations to move forward.

The other tricky issue about the Anna Hazare phenomenon has to do with the heterogeneity of the people who have come together around him. The only thing binding them together is the fight against corruption. Often, in the case of spontaneous movements, once the initial victories have been won and once the euphoria dies down, differences between the constituents start to surface. To keep the momentum going, adroit leadership is critical. One hopes that this transition from heroism to leadership does take place. However, even if it doesn't, the fact that such large numbers of people have contributed to the victory is what will keep it from becoming pyrrhic, for, it's bound to have increased their self-belief and given them an opportunity to experience their own ego ideal. And this can't be a bad thing, can it?