Seeking Superman

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SummaryDipankar Gupta makes a case for larger-than-life individuals to steer the nation

When DC Comics launched Superman in 1938, it was the final acclamation in popular imagination of the concept of a superhero who could rid the world of evil that ordinary folks cannot handle. The naive idea, however, had already a rich history in the various streams of social sciences, beginning from the concept of Ubermensch of Nietzsche, but which rapidly flowered in the early decades of the 20th century.

Was it inevitable that a Superman culture would develop at that period? The world had entered the 20th century when, for the first time, there were hardly any ruling as opposed to reigning monarchs in major countries. Yet the population, for millenniums used to a procession of those, was possibly unsure of the new terrain. Democracy at its initial stages can be messy. Was that the reason why oligarchy seemed such an appealing concept to many of the thinkers?

Anyway, the pogrom by Hitler left the world quite clear where some of these concepts could lead up to. And so, except in comics, the fascination with Superman was over.

Subsequently, as more countries gravitated to the orbit of the democratic cycle, they have come to realise that this governance is often messy, leaders can be often more weak than anticipated and results take time to deliver. Yet it is still infinitely preferable to the demi-god status that Superman or an oligarchy imposes on the nation. Countries have painfully realised that to move ahead, an ordinary boss often scores better than a charismatic one.

For instance, despite coming through with a support that few presidents in the United States have enjoyed when moving into the White House, Barack Obama has had more failures than success. Even on a dour issue like raising the limit on US public debt, he has faced opposition that is possibly made larger by his persona, that a workmanlike president might not face.

But nearer home, despite such a century of experience, it would seem these thoughts have not vanished altogether. One of the clear residues the UPA governments, both I & II, will leave is to rekindle this demand for a superhero as a way out of the gridlock of inactivity the economy finds itself in.

Rather too many commentators on India are gravitating to a position of calling upon some sort of deux ex machina to solve several economic impasses.

Prof Dipankar Gupta makes a pitch for this line for argument

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