How Do You Pick a Perfect Republic Day Chief Guest in the Time of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro?


How Do You Pick a Perfect Republic Day Chief Guest in the Time of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

When I was a little lad, still a beneficiary of the golden age of Cartoon Network, I thought politics was a serious, complicated thing. It would involve dedicated people working out extremely nuanced policies with all sorts of motivations that I would never understand. At least, that’s what I thought. As I grew older and more aware, some of this started making sense. But now, we’ve reached a stage where the actions and words of some of these leaders seem nonsensical, even to the 10-year-old me.

Indeed, the heads of some of the world’s most important countries not just behave like the worst elements of a school yard, but also operate similarly – driven by ego, pettiness, vengefulness, brute force, and, of course, flocking together with birds of their own feather. In a world full of strongmen, how do you pick the perfect Republic Day chief?

This year gracing our 70th Republic Day celebrations is Brazil’s controversial President Jair Bolsonaro. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bolsonaro have a lot in common. Both have pitched themselves as “man of the people” leaders, both claiming to empathise with people long suffering under traditional politicians. They won on the back of a nationalist agenda with the veneer of development and ousting of incumbent corruption. They are masters of public speaking, often using the stage to vilify opponents, from Brazil’s environmentalists to India’s “tukde-tukde gang”.

Given how derided Bolsonaro is on the world stage (except, strangely, among the names I’ve mentioned here already), it’s very telling that he should be invited to a stage once graced by Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, by a PM who cares about optics more than anything else. It speaks volumes about how the like-minded  just wanna hang with each other.

But here is where the commanility ends and the differences begin. Modi is credited to be a great orator, Bolsonaro however is the master of political incorrectness. He is disrespectful to women. In 2014, he told a fellow woman legislator, “I won’t rape you, you don’t deserve it.” Despite facing backlash, he didn’t stop at that. After Congresswoman Maria do Rosario said that comments encouraged sexual assault, Bolsonaro said in a newspaper interview that Rosario was “not worth raping; she is very ugly.” Critics expected him to mend his ways once he was elected president but not much has changed. The far-right leader has encouraged the destruction of the Amazon and last year, he said NGOs were behind the forest fire surge and dubbed the media deceitful. A climate-change denier, a media hater.  It comes as little surprise then that he is called the “Trump of the Tropics”.

Modi is credited to be a great orator, Bolsonaro however is the master of political incorrectness.

The Tangerine Turd that occupies the White House is of course the poster boy for all the corrosion. In this position, Trump has done everything you’d associate with a dangerous bully – made fun of dead veterans, mock the disabled, racially abused immigrants from “shithole” countries, threatened war, self-aggrandised even at funerals and school events, make terrorism casualties about himself, attended anti-abortion rallies, and called white supremacists “good people”, all while building his own facts along the way. While he is the most visible and easiest to extrapolate to juvenility, don’t worry, there’s plenty of expired milk in this dairy.

Firstly, there’s Trump’s more erudite version across the pond: Boris Johnson of the UK. While his goofy demeanour is just an act, it doesn’t do much for the optics of the position itself – Trump-lite is not a good look for a head of state. Heck, even Trump is a bad look, as we’ve all learned over the last four years.

Another fruit that has fallen from the Trump Tree is someone geographically further away: Scott Morrison in Australia has seen his country burn but denies climate change with flimsy arguments. Knowing the coal industry holds the keys to the cookie larder of exports, he defends it in a manner that would even seem extraordinary on some childhood shows: brandishing a piece of coal in Parliament and saying, “Don’t be afraid!”

I can think of several other examples where world leaders’ motives, when distilled down, makes them seem like Powerpuff Girls villains. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman of “I don’t like what Jamal wrote, chop him up” fame. Russia’s Vladimir Putin who poses shirtless for annual calendars and got back  at Hillary Clinton using a sophisticated misinformation campaign (so yes, Trump is the US President purely because of Putin’s spite – the sort of thing the most evil kid in class would do).

Rabble-rousing and mocking is not just petty, but in the wrong hands, it could lead to disastrous consequences. There are proxy wars being fought in Syria, Libya and Yemen in the past decade which have killed thousands, led to a massive refugee crisis, and the birth of the Islamic State. For instance, Bashar-al-Assad in Syria gleefully allowed extremists to join the rebels who were against him (in 2011-12) so that it would be tougher for foreign powers to side against him. What’s worse, Iran and Russia send thousands of troops, which makes the war deadlier, just to show Saudi Arabia and the US respectively who could be the boss in the region. Ultimately, this petulant ego tussle cost thousands of lives.

This rash of immature leaders has made the erstwhile apathetic class wake up and smell the coffee.

More recently, Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan convinced Trump to get his troops out of Syria, betraying US allies who proceeded to get slaughtered. There were no threats, no trade negotiations, nothing; just a simple “get out of the way” (Trump’s Republican party colleague’s words, not mind) to which the president basically said, “Yeah sure, there’s nothing but sand there anyway”. And after a semi-admonishing letter from Trump came, Erdogan reportedly just threw it in the trash. Honestly, I’ve had more sportsmanlike fights in grade school.

If you need more examples, think of North Korea’s Kim-Jong Un, whose danger comes not only from his access to nukes but his absolute unpredictability, which leads to him doing everything from impulse-building expensive ski resorts, to unflinchingly executing anyone who dare not clap for him, and even threatening those he sees as rivals (like that one time he forced his uncle to watch an execution). It’s reassuring to know that we could be blown up any minute now because a sulky leader read a nasty tweet, or stubbed his toe, or was displeased with the final season of Game of Thrones.

There is however, a silver lining. This rash of immature leaders has made the erstwhile apathetic class wake up and smell the coffee. Looking at the youth activism around the world and our own student-led protests, I feel they’re the ones who are going to get us out of this mess. Coming back to the worrying traits of the current batch of luminaries in charge of running things, wasn’t it always a ragtag group of spunky kids that takes down the bad guys?

If you think about it, the leaders we spoke about here quite represent the spectrum of evil: You have the farcical variety (Trump, Johnson), the silent, cat-stroking, Dr Evil types (Putin, Erdogan), the rockstar crowd-pullers (Bolsonaro), the enigmatic mysterious ones (Kim-Jong), the sinister “kill him” ones (MBS, Assad) and possibly a master villain who we haven’t even spoken about here, China’s Xi Jinping. Phew, that’s quite the roster of baddies. Maybe, once the world retains its senses, someone will make an animated series out of how the world united and defeated them. I’d watch that.