When leaders turn to monarchs, followers must take the lead
At a time when democratic leaders are increasingly behaving like monarchs, their followers, the citizens, need to learn from Samwise Gamgee, sidekick of the protagonist Frodo Baggin
Stephen Colbert, a diehard fan of Tolkien, could read and speak ‘Elvish’, the language of Elves. While I cannot claim a similar distinction, I recently read and watched JRR Tolkien’s fantasy tale ‘Lord of the Rings’ and was struck by the lessons it held for our troubled times.
This epic has many layers to it. There is the obvious battle between the good and the evil and the consequences of greed. But beyond what is evident, is the story of love that transcends culture and race. The story is also about sacrifice and the strength of bonds. In the times that we live in today, another facet of this story comes out – the role of followers.
The Lord of the Rings is also about Samwise Gamgee, Frodo Baggin’s friend, and his transition - from a simpleton accompanying Frodo - to becoming his brave conscience.
Over the centuries, the role of followers has not changed much but the function of a leader has evolved. Leadership is a natural phenomenon, developed to protect and pass on strong genes. In humans, it metamorphosed into institutions like the monarchy. This system ensured some form of social stability by creating lineages which served as a platform for the King’s ambitions and idiosyncrasies. It also made the ruler unaccountable.
Subjects were uneducated and looked up to the King for direction. They believed in the infallibility of the King because their wellbeing depended on it. In time kingdoms became nations, and which in many instances were democratised. Uneducated subjects transformed into educated and responsible citizens, and in this process the definition of leaders changed. Democratically elected leaders were now supposed to be empathetic, morally courageous and have the wisdom and the vision to take everyone along. Unfortunately, both leaders and followers are now backsliding to their ancient roles. This has far reaching consequences for the welfare of the nation.
For example, let’s look at Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom whose election campaign was based on a lie which everyone believed. Today, under his leadership not only is the UK unable to negotiate a Brexit deal but the country serves as an example of how not to fight the SARSCoV20 pandemic.
The US under President Trump highlights the results of supporters blindly following their leader, a known misogynist and liar with fascist tendencies. As per the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) there has been a spike in hate crimes during Trumps presidency, the last such spike was after 9/11. There has also been a proliferation of fake news and an undermining of institutions -everything from the intelligence services to the judiciary and the US Postal Service - which is jeopardising the safety of people and the country.
The Indian government is aspiring to make India into a global leader. Unfortunately, the country is an unholy mix of what one sees in the US and the UK. In its 2020 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has put India on its ‘Country of Particular Concern’. This is the first time it has happened since 2004. One can argue that it is a fine example of the pot calling the kettle black. But let’s not forget that Modi and Trump are pally enough for Modi to have proclaimed ‘Abki Bar Trump Sarkar’ at the ‘Howdy Modi’ rally in Houston. For India to be called out by a friendly country is a sign that things must be pretty bad here.
Nothing has been able to dim these leader’s halo, be it their country’s socio-economic state or their bungling of the SARSCoV20 response. In fact, the lack of demands for accountability from their supporters have emboldened these leaders - Johnson went off on a holiday; Trump continues to ignore Covid, now focusing on his re-election; while Modi organised a photo shoot with peacocks. While his Finance Minister placed the responsibility of India’s economic downturn at the feet of god. Which brings us to their supporters.
With democracy, subjects transformed into voters who supported and followed individuals and political parties. Democracy was a method to make leaders accountable because citizens scored their leaders every few years. However, today supporters link their wellbeing to their leaders to such an extent that they have become their zombie praetorian guards. Supporters have been fed on a diet of made-to-order fake news and the constant ‘call to arms’. They are unwilling to look at the threat their leaders present to the country and themselves.
Thus, the need for supporters to learn from Samwise Gamgee. The Ring set-off Frodo’s moulting. Samwise observed Frodo changing from an innocent Hobbit into someone whose gradual thirst for the Ring’s power would endanger Middle Earth and Frodo’s wellbeing. Recognising this, Samwise stepped up and protected Frodo from himself. Samwise became Frodo’s leader and conscience.
Would Frodo have done the right thing if Samwise had not recognised the situation and the importance, and duty of transforming into a leader when most required?
With their unquestioning support, followers are not just doing their intelligence and morals a disservice but are putting their leaders and countries in harm’s way.
Undoubtedly, recognising a leader’s fallibility and the condition of their country can shake a supporter’s trust in the individual. But there is value in this, because supporters realise their own responsibilities extend beyond the immediate blind support of their leader.
Like Samwise, it is time followers recognise their obligation and transform into leaders.