Why deify leaders in a democracy?


In 2007, the first birth centenary of shahid-e-azam Bhagat Singh was celebrated. There was a spate of lectures, seminars and conferences in the north western India to commemorate the martyr’s birth. No doubt he was a great martyr, as all martyrs are. A martyr by definition has to be great. How does one classify them as more great or less than others? I am neither against the person of any martyr nor slighting the significance of Bhagat Singh’s sacrifice. He was a person definitely different from most of his contemporaries but what disturbs me is to raise him to a super-human level, a sort of a ‘divine’ being. I am sure he himself would not have thought so great about himself as we are making him to be in academic exercises.

Why special status?

Such practice singles him out from the fellow martyrs, Rajguru and Sukhdev, who also underwent the same sentence as him, who also lost their lives, whose lives were equally precious to them, their families and friends. Why should their martyrdom be slighted? Their marginalisation would have been legitimate had they survived or escaped martyrdom. But that was not the case. Then why eclipse them? In seminars we make him l’homme extraordinaire for doing anything uniquely and superbly. Prove him to be a near ‘divine’ personality though he himself was an ardent atheist. It is very likely that given the charged milieu of the times Saunders could as well have been shot by another person and the bomb too could have been thrown in assembly by his ally. So why make the person of Bhagat Singh so great? This defies the spirit of democracy.

Primitive people did not have ‘divine’ men among them. They were practising a near perfect equality of men and materials. Chiefdom was not a bed of roses for them. One who could not deliver the goods was replaced by a deserving one. Subsequently, despots became the rulers who distinguished themselves from the people. They posed as sons of their gods, hence acquired a special status of being the sole proprietors of human and material resources. People were made to look at them with awe and reverence as godly men.

The French Revolution smashed structures of inequality to set up new social and political institutions. It threw up slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity now adopted by all political systems. But the mindset of political leaders or the people has not changed. The leaders are projected and promoted by their political parties who assume office for vested interests, be it Saddam Hussein or George Bush.

Erroneous trends

In the post-colonial developing societies, the political elite project themselves as special persons who alone can deliver the goods to the people. They are not interested in institutionalising democratic values in politics or society. They approach godmen for patronage and legitimacy. What role should intellectuals play?

Should they fall in line with the political elite and media barons, identifying towering personalities from the present or the past and glorifying them? Should they project them as persons possessing extraordinary if not extra-terrestrial, traits? Should they provide intellectual legitimacy, even if indirectly, to the present-day leaders?

To my mind, intellectuals should not make mortal beings super-human. In a democratic society, a leader should not be idolised. She/he is always one among many who has contributed to the success of a movement.

I am not negating the role of a leader but only suggesting that it should not be blown out of proportion to the detriment of democratic structures. A leader is like a pied piper — who may kill the rats but drown the children as well.

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