Modi and the sin of hubris'

The Biblical saying pride cometh before the fall applied equally well to Ravan, the great king of the rakshasas.

In the second quarter of 2016, India’s economy seemed to be near a point of inflection as the decline of growth was bottoming out. But suddenly on November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to go where angels would fear to tread. He ordered the precipitous withdrawal of 86 per cent of the cash, calling to demonetisation. Almost a year later, aftereffects are still being felt. The Indian economy is still plunging. After adjusting for the 2.2 per cent additional GDP growth bonus the government gave itself by national accounting legerdemain, growth must be around 3.5 per cent. It was entirely his decision. There was no discussion. Who would he discuss with anyway? The few, like the previous RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan, advised against it. Why did he do it? The answer is hubris.

The word hubris is described in the dictionary to simply mean “excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance” But it really means much more than that. In classical Greek ethical and religious thought hubris or hybris meant an “overweening presumption suggesting impious disregard of the limits governing human action in an orderly universe. It is the sin to which the great and gifted are most susceptible, and in Greek tragedy it is usually the hero’s tragic flaw”. In the Greek tradition the sin of hubris was punishable by a super Olympian law to which even Zeus had to submit. Aeschylus in his epic poem Persians about the defeat of King Xerxes’ great Persian army in 480 BC by a much smaller Greek force wrote: “For when misfortune’s fraudful hand/ prepares to pour the vengeance of the sky/ what mortal shall her force withstand?”

The sin of hubris has been a continuing theme that has captured the imagination of historians, philosophers and theologians alike. The Biblical saying “pride cometh before the fall” applied equally well to Ravan, 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. We, lesser Hindus, also know that it is not necessary to be a tyrant to attract the malefic attentions of the gods. Bali, the celebrated daitya, rose to such an eminence that Indra and the other gods had to seek the interference of Vishnu, who once again obliged devas by consigning Bali to patala or the netherworld. Bali, like Ravan, was guilty of hubris.

Shortly after John F. Kennedy became President of the United States, a plan was made to oust Fidel Castro, Cuba’s charismatic El Commandante. The plan called for a landing in Cuba of a force of Cuban émigré fighters armed and trained by the CIA. This force was then meant to storm its way in land releasing in its wake a popular upsurge that would topple Castro, just like he did the dictator Fulgencio Batista. A President in waiting was even kept ready in Florida. The invasion was a spectacular failure. Most of the invaders were killed before they even waded ashore as US warships watched helplessly. Kennedy realised that he was led up the path and rejected the CIA’s urgent pleas for US air support and 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 adviser, McGeorge Bundy, replied: “Hubris!”

In February 1961, Robert McNamara, a brilliant Harvard MBA and former president of the Ford Motor Company, took over as US defence secretary. He took with him an equally brilliant team of systems analysts who were to transform the way the US fought its wars in the future. The generals at the Pentagon were ready to snow McNamara under tonnes of detail to go about with business as usual. The briefing presentations went on forever and the new defence secretary studied each slide intently. He was quiet till he reached slide 700 and something when he cried, “Stop!”, and pointed out that this slide contradicted slide 50 or something seen the previous day. The brass lost the match at that moment and McNamara and his whiz kids took full control of the Pentagon.

The systems analysts quantified everything. Every weapon system ordered was subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Even military results were quantified in terms of “area pacified” and “body count”. When the US went into Vietnam these two result 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 defence secretary, totalled up all the “body count” figures of the war, he found that they 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.

In 1993, I met Robert McNamara at a seminar organised by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the US defeat.

I asked him as to how he 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 midwifed by 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 is a sad chapter in the Indian Army’s history. It even cost Rajiv Gandhi his life. The question that baffles is how is it that the Indian Army ended up fighting a group that was fostered and supported by the Indian government? And what made the Indian Army think that it will be able to wipe out its onetime protégé in just weeks, if not days? Hubris?
With the war on Iraq not going quite as easily as anticipated, the invasion of Iraq became Donald Rumsfeld’s war.

According to Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker: “Rumsfeld insisted on micro-managing the war. Rumsfeld’s faith in precision bombing and his insistence on streamlined military operations has had profound consequences for the ability of the armed forces to fight effectively overseas.”

The war went awfully wrong for both the Iraqi people and the US. According to classified US military documents released by WikiLeaks in October 2010, Iraqi and coalition military deaths between January 2004 and December 2009 were 109,032. Of this 66,081 were civilians, 15,196 were host nation combatants, 23,984 were enemy combatants and 3,771 belonged to the US military.

On the first night of the war a CNN military analyst, obviously ecstatic with the hi-tech communications system that gave the decision-makers in the Pentagon and White House a continuous stream of video data on the progress of the war, called it “God’s view of the war”.

That God, if there be one, should have been thought to have such a still limited and linear view of unfolding events itself is testimony to the arrogance of people in Washington. War has now taken a long-term residence in Iraq. It took the US a good part of a decade, several thousand dead and more than a trillion dollars up in smoke. What happened? Hubris.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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