Each of the three addresses himself in the third person. Psychologists, in fact, recognise this as a “condition”. It’s called illeism.
It’s a stretch to talk about Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal in the same vein. The three of them are entirely different personalities. But there is one unusual and important trait that they have in common. Each of the three addresses himself in the third person. Psychologists, in fact, recognise this as a “condition”. It’s called illeism.
Play back Modi’s speeches in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha last Wednesday and rewind even to the 2014 campaign and afterwards, and you will find plenty of references where he’d say, “yeh Modi nahin karega, or yeh Modi hi karega” (“Modi will not do it, or only Modi can do it”).
Kejriwal is a master at it. During the Delhi campaign, his standard line was, “only Kejriwal” can improve Delhi. In fact, I have kept with myself for posterity a two-minute recording on my iPad at his rally in a poor, crowded and unauthorised west Delhi colony where he refers to himself thrice as “Kejriwal”, even telling BJP people that he knows even their children are sleeping on empty stomachs, so they should switch to AAP because “only Kejriwal can solve their problems”.
And we have seen Rahul Gandhi do the same thing. The first such clip that caught my attention was when, in December 2015, he was telling those displaced in the Shakurbasti slum that next time anybody comes to demolish any slums, they should immediately call “Rahul Gandhi” and “he (not ‘I’) will not allow any slum to be demolished now”.
This is a remarkable coincidence, the three most important players in our national politics referring to themselves in the third person with an air of grandeur. In my recollection we had never seen this in the past — definitely not in the nearly four decades that I have watched politics. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Sonia Gandhi, all mass leaders, never spoke like this. Nor did Nehru and Gandhi.
In fact, the only occasion when Vajpayee used the third person for himself was when he wanted to be self-deprecatory. Like, when his office had given me time to meet him at 3 pm once when fighting in Kargil was on — but I had to wait for an hour as he overslept in his siesta. I tried pulling his leg by asking how he could be asleep in day-time even as fighting raged in Kargil. He said, with mock, exaggerated alarm, “haan, haan, bring me a rifle, Atalji will go to the front, India has a paucity of jawans now!”
Does this point to the rise of egomania, and could it also be a reason our politics is broken and Parliament non-functional? Where our biggest leaders talk not to, but at each other, and where traditions of compromise, give-and-take have vanished.
I understand the perils of pop psychology, but this is too interesting a situation to not explore. A little research tells me that the practice of referring to yourself in the third person is indeed recognised by psychology and is called “illeism”. History has thrown up some interesting illeists, from Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte to (sometimes) Margaret Thatcher, American politician and once Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole (who was ridiculed for it) and, somewhat more endearingly, big-mouth wrestlers The Rock, our own Dara Singh (in his show-wrestling years) and Salvador Dali who, in one famous interview to Mike Wallace on CBS’s 60 Minutes, only used the third person for himself. These were all talented, successful people who rose to great power and fame. But none was known to be particularly reasonable, compromising or flexible, the three attributes currently absent from our national discourse.
This phenomenon has been discussed and analysed for centuries and sometimes compared with the royal “we” thereby making illeism a “prerogative of royalty”. Mark Twain didn’t miss a trick here, and said, “only kings, presidents, editors and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.”
Many experts have analysed this peculiar state of mind. Among the latest and more relevant that I find is a blog written by Bengaluru-based psychiatrist Shyam Bhat (yes, Deepika Padukone’s sensitive and articulate doctor). Reflecting on Rahul Gandhi’s much-discussed interview to Times Now‘s Arnab Goswami, where he referred to himself as “Rahul Gandhi”, at one point thrice in two consecutive sentences: “…you have to understand a little bit about who Rahul Gandhi is and what Rahul Gandhi’s circumstances have been and if you delve into that you will get an answer to the question of what Rahul Gandhi is scared of and what he is not scared of.”
“As a psychiatrist,” writes Bhat, “I find this fascinating. To refer to oneself in the third person (a phenomenon called ‘illeism’) points to an underlying psychological issue… Illeism is a symptom of discomfort with the self… narcissistic wounds are being defended by identifying with a grandiose false self while the true self is fragile…”
I shall leave the rest for psychologists to debate. The politically relevant fact is this denies a public figure basic humility and flexibility, attributes so essential to parliamentary politics. With such an exalted sense of self, you do not expect a person to accept he could be wrong. And if I can never be wrong, how can the other guy also have a point?
In an interview with me on NDTV’s Walk The Talk, L.K. Advani (in June 2008) said the one difficulty in dealing with the Congress was that it treated the BJP as enemy. Today, between three leaders with a grandiose (or insecure?) view of their own selves and of supreme contempt for their rivals, a vicious sense of enmity has become the rule. Narendra Modi thinks Rahul is a silly, spoilt baby and Kejriwal, a muck-raking anarchist. Rahul Gandhi sees Modi as a Hindu supremacist who got away with Gujarat and took national power that was his family’s entitlement. Arvind Kejriwal sees both Modi and Rahul as captains of rival gangs of thieves who should all be in jail.
The result is a politics that is now the most broken in our history. Laws were passed by this Parliament even in the five years when Narasimha Rao ruled without a majority and when V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral led shaky, short-term coalition governments on daily wages. Today we can’t pass them when a party has a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. Because the leadership of that party does not have the large-heartedness to accept that whatever the numbers, there is always going to be an opposition in a democracy.
Winner-takes-all is a feudal mindset and it was reflected in the BJP’s cussed denial of the Leader of Opposition (LoP) post to Congress, even if it fell below the minimum number of MPs needed. Similarly, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress is too arrogant to respect either the logic of the people’s mandate giving the BJP 282 seats in the Lok Sabha, or humility to accept the reality of its own 48. Kejriwal, with social media and TV prime time as his force-multipliers, functions with utter disdain of the other two.
In more conventional times, I would have concluded this by hoping some wiser minds, like Pranab Mukherjee or Advani would intervene, and calm the situation. But that looks tough now, given this remarkable coincidence of three similarly driven personalities dominating our politics. I am tempted — or perhaps resigned — to fall back on the acid-dripping lines from the brilliant stand-up political satire group, Aisi Taisi Democracy, singing, “is desh ke yaaro lag gaye hain (mildly translated, this country has had it)”. The next line, you better Google.