The Seven Year Itch: Hubris and the Greek tragedy playing out in India today

Greeks had words for every frailty. Three of these words are of relevance to India today, namely Hubris, Hamartia and Narcissism

The Seven Year Itch: Hubris and the Greek tragedy playing out in India today
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Mohan Guruswamy

Hubris is described in the dictionary to mean “excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance”. Hamartia is usually an artifice in Greek drama that initiates a “movement of spirit” within the protagonist to commit actions which drive the plot towards its tragic end. Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s idealized self-image and attributes. The term originated from Greek mythology, where a young man named Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water.

In the drama of Narendra Modi, we see quite a bit of the hubris and overweening narcissism, both fatal flaws. The question is whether this is the moment of hamartia that will drive the plot to its tragic end?

The sin of hubris has been a continuing theme. The Biblical saying “pride cometh before the fall” applied equally well to Ravana, the great king of the Rakshasas whose long years of penance secured him the favour of Brahma, who rendered him invulnerable to the gods and demons alike. We know what happened to him.

On April 19, 1959 Fidel Castro made his first post-revolution trip to Washington. Following this meeting Vice-President Nixon appraised him thus: “…he has those indefinable qualities that make him a leader of men. Whatever we may think of him, he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and possibly in the of Latin American affairs generally.”


In October that year President Eisenhower authorised a CIA plan to topple Castro. Among the options was assassination, “possible removal” in officialese. On October 7, Senator John Kennedy running for president attacked the Republican administration for “permitting a communist menace to arise just ninety miles from the shores of the United States”.

All along the CIA was planning the invasion of Cuba. The plan called for a landing in Cuba of a force of Cuban émigré fighters armed and trained by the CIA. This, it was hoped, would be followed by a popular upsurge that would topple Castro.

Fortunately for Castro, the beach at the Bay of Pigs, the chosen place for the landing, was close to Castro’s favourite holiday home and hence had a Cuban military unit garrisoned on it. The shallow waters of the bay also concealed shoals that necessitated the landing force to wade ashore from a great distance, making them sitting ducks. Kennedy, by then the President, realised that he was led up the path. He abandoned the landing force to its fate. The few who survived ended up in Cuban jails. When asked what went wrong, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy replied: “Hubris!”

In February 1961, Robert McNamara, a brilliant Harvard MBA and former president of Ford Motor Company, took over as the US Defense Secretary. He took with him an equally brilliant team of systems analysts who were to transform the way the USA fought its wars in the future. The systems analysts quantified everything. Every weapon system was subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. Even military results were quantified in terms of “area pacified” and “body count”.

When the USA went into Vietnam, these two goals took an entirely different and sinister meaning. “Area pacified” became area cleared of all Vietnamese, innocent or otherwise, and body count became just the production of dead bodies. Since the dead tell no tales, they were all supposed to be either Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army.

When Clark Clifford, who took over from McNamara as Defense Secretary, toted up all the “body count” figures of the war, he found that it had exceeded all intelligence estimates of enemy combatants by over half ! When he asked: “Why are we then still fighting?”, Lyndon Johnson knew that he too was led up the path. Some years ago, I met Robert McNamara at a seminar at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. I asked him how he had got it so wrong. He replied with one word, “Hubris”.


In 1987 Indian troops went into Sri Lanka at the invitation of the two warring parties to impose an agreement mediated by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. When the LTTE reneged on it, the then Indian Army Chief, Gen. Krishnaswamy Sundarji assured the government that he would be able to eliminate or disarm the LTTE in just a few weeks. We know what happened. It continues to be a sad chapter in the Indian Army’s history. It even cost Rajiv Gandhi his life. What made the Indian Army think that it will be able to wipe out its onetime protégé in just weeks if not days? Hubris?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on January 28 this year,while virtually addressing the World Economic Forum’s Davos Dialogue, had declared India as one of the countries that had successfully controlled coronavirus. He claimed, “India took a proactive public participation approach and developed a Covid-specific health infrastructure and trained its resources to fight Covid.”

He went on to declare “mission accomplished” very much like George W. Bush famously declared atop an aircraft carrier off Iraq. Modi then went on to push his luck a bit further by claiming that India as the world’s largest vaccine producer will now assume the charge of saving the world! He even announced that this was a turning point in India’s economic history and that India was once again poised for greatness.

Was this his moment of “hamartia”? Will this take us to the denouement or the final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are resolved and the theatre ends?

(Views are personal)

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