We live in fascinatingly intriguing times, incongruous would perhaps be more appropriate, beyond the pale of one’s contemplation. US President Donald Trump’s infantile repartees with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on of all things a potential nuclear Armageddon seemed straight out of Ben Stiller’s master-spoof Tropic Thunder. “My button is bigger than yours,” thundered the world’s most powerful man visibly riled by the diminutive dictator’s provocations.
The Trump-Kim Jong-un Twitter exchanges were expectedly the butt of social media opprobrium, but pause and think for a moment what your mental constitution would be if you were a denizen of Seoul.
The prospect of being reduced to a dusty rubble on account of two irrational mavericks getting into a masculine ego war is distressing. The world needs to worry. It is one thing to mock the ridiculous exchanges as symptoms of inherent megalomania meets incurable stupidity, quite another to recognise the catastrophic consequences of the explicit threats being made. The world looks far from safe at the moment given the unpredictability of the hot heads occupying control of nuclear warheads. Whose "button is bigger" seems quite inconsequential given the risk of widespread destruction.
Donald Trump has fatally damaged the august institution that the Oval Office stood for once in the minds of billions of people all over the world. It could be an irreparable casualty of the preposterous tweets and baseless conspiracy theories that have emerged from the man in the White House. The awe-inspiring perception that the president of the United States once enjoyed (despite Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair and George’s Bushims) seems irretrievably corroded.
Trump has made America look like a non-stop reality-TV programme where everything eventually becomes an entertaining sideshow. The fact is that the world’s only military superpower and still the largest global economy impacts everyone from Mexico to Madagascar. The next US president will have some serious restoration work to do as 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue appears stigmatised. India has a similar predicament.
During election campaigns, it is considered prudent to allow for political accommodation of some hyper-rhetorical excesses. But during the recently concluded Gujarat Assembly elections, things took a rather ugly turn. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an allegation that India’s distinguished former prime minister Manmohan Singh, former vice-president Hamid Ansari, former Army chief Deepak Kapoor, and a smorgasbord of eminent retired diplomatic staff, journalists and intellectuals from both Pakistan and India were huddled together in a sinister conspiracy to impact Gujarat election outcome and install Congress leader Ahmed Patel as the chief minister. It was as bizarre as stating that Saddam Hussein was still alive and training the USA-led alliance surreptitiously. But it will be horribly wrong to dismiss Modi’s accusations lightly. After all, he is the country’s elected chief. And given the assured wall-to-wall coverage his speeches inevitably get, it maybe germane to assume that the stratospheric impact was intended.
Indeed, several media analysts believe that Modi’s “supari” remark against former diplomat and now suspended Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, paid electoral dividends for the BJP. This begs the question - can the office of India’s prime minister be belittled, dwarfed simply because we choose to turn a blind eye to the atrocious bluster emanating when acrimonious electioneering is on?
It was unprecedented that men of impeccable integrity were being branded as treacherous anti-nationals engaging in hush-hush secretive conversations to stymie BJP’s mammoth engine in cahoots with the Pakistani establishment. Manmohan Singh promptly refuted the absurdity from Modi, his indignation palpable, he asked for an apology. Singh said: "Sadly and regrettably, Modi is setting a dangerous precedent by his insatiable desire to tarnish every constitutional office, including that of a former prime minister and Army chief. I sincerely hope that the prime minister will show the maturity and gravitas expected of the high office he holds instead of concentrating his energy solely on erroneously conceived brownie points. I sincerely hope that he will apologise to the nation for his ill-thought transgression to restore the dignity of the office he occupies."
Modi, of course, has not responded to Singh’s strongly worded rebuttal, and neither has he formally apologised for his reprehensible utterances.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley made a lame-duck defence of Modi in Parliament, but it was at best an embarrassing spectacle, a travesty of truth.
Trump had made similar charges against his predecessor Barack Obama, even questioning his birth certificate. Neither Trump nor Modi have received a substantive pushback, although fact-checking sites have listed 2,000 lies stated by Trump. Modi’s count has still not been aggregated.
Both Trump and Modi have made post-truth and alternative facts their core political strategy. They indulge brazenly in a smoke and mirrors game, waiting for it to become a force multiplier. They are myopic leaders, who fail to comprehend the long-term ramifications of a dissipated reputational capital of their seats.
It is sad. Public memory is short, even if social media regurgitates their laundry list of incontinent gaffes (many are intentional). Either way, their haloed office, considered sacrosanct, stands diminished. They forget that someday the US will have a new president, and India a new prime minister. But the office they will inherit will have been grievously attenuated. They will need to "button up" quick.