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The Saviour Complex

The Saviour Complex



Bobby Kunhu

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” ~ George Orwell.

This is an anti-ideological article – not post-ideological – to the limited extent that I am trying to critique grand narratives posturing to save the world. There is a much debated concept called “Saviour or Messiah Complex” discussed within psychiatric circles defined in the Psychology dictionary as a complex in which sufferers have a desire to redeem and save others, some sufferers have harboured the delusion of being a saviour of people. Though there are serious differences of opinion amongst psychiatrists as to whether it is a condition by itself and has been associated with varying disorders – from bi-polar disorder to schizophrenia. This is just a caveat to say that our discussion is not about people with mental illness – but about people who aim for immortality through saving the world, especially through grand ideologies.

It is a given that there have been no societies without hegemony. History for me is the stories of the people who negotiated and fought these hegemonies and is replete with stories of such people from Moses to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. But, history as it is practiced and preached is a strange beast that hides its jewels from Savitribai Phule to Barbara Smith – where the stories are either appropriated or even annihilated – if it can become a threat to the mainstream narrative of the evolution of civilization. But, that is not our concern here, what our concern is about people who are desperately trying to make their own space in what would eventually become history. And this enters public imagination regardless of extensive evidence to the contrary. A good example would be M. K. Gandhi – despite the fact that there is more than enough evidence about his racism in his own writing – he is celebrated as a saint.


While rummaging for a discussion that was happening on my facebook timeline, I discovered that a good friend of mine has not only joined the Lok Satta but is actively trying to promote the party, she obviously has every right to her political position, but I thought I should share a cautionary note from my experience. In the 17 odd years of my working life, I have had the opportunity to meet one anti-corruption crusader – Jayaprakash Narayan during my life in Hyderabad, work with a second, Arun Bhatia in Pune, get acquainted with a third, Harsh Mander in Delhi and Pune, and read and write a lot about a fourth, Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi.. and the similarities between the four are astounding.

All four of them were “upper caste” “male” civil servants – the first three IAS officers and the last an IRS officer – all of them resigned from the civil services citing sanctimoniously high moral ground. They all walked the single plank of corruption – except for Mander – (and of course patriotism), all of them used their resignations to bolster their visibility – and attempted to mobilize from their respective high horses with varying degree of successes. And the bulk of their support and success came from the yuppy young middle class who iconized them – because of their perceived sophistication, overt success and rejection of the same and an appeal to raw and ahistorical disillusionment of their constituencies. All of them – post sanctimonious resignations have also worked in different capacities with the government – at least two of them serving in the NAC (not that that should be held against them). And all of them run tight ships brooking no dissent.

dr. jayaprakash narayan

Their differences lie in the way each one of them capitalized on their support base. JP went about it in a clinical NGO way – using regular NGO language of development and good governance – slowly moving towards FDR and then Lok Satta – neither of them were people’s movements to start with nor did they use the “rights” language (except for RTI) – the former is a think tank and the latter evolved into the Lok Satta Party. My last brush with the party was just before the last Tamil Nadu assembly elections when I was forced by a group of friends to come in for a consultation of like-minded people and the party was looking for candidates that they could field in various constituencies.

The consultation, attended mostly by upper middle class people who knew each other turned out to be a monologue by an American returned IITian about transparency in politics and experiment with zero notes. After being questioned on the Party’s manifesto, he advised me to look up their website. Then came the qualification for candidature – and one of them was complete prohibition and therefore people with any ties with drinking alcohol or any related business or habit was not eligible. That prompted my second question – about whether that meant that toddy tappers as an entire constituency would not be represented by Lok Satta and the environment impact of prohibition of palm toddy tapping and the reduction of toddy palm trees. By then this man had enough of me and called the meeting to an end.

Arun Bhatia – of course, post-AAP, now seen in newsrooms increasingly  – tried a similar experiment in Pune. But I must admit that despite his headstrongness – his meetings were more heterogenous. I met him in 2002 just after he had quit his position as Commissioner, Tribal Research and Training Institute, Pune, Maharashtra, and was trying to experiment with politics and was trying to reach out to as many stakeholders as possible. But what put me off was the fact that despite all the representativeness that he projected – he always got his agenda pushed to the forefront. He first contested elections as an independent and then floated a party “People’s Guardian Party” and flopped both times and is now trying to align with AAP.

arun bhatia

Harsh Mander is perhaps the suavest of the four and of course the most pragmatic in terms of his political correctness which always remains intact, his contacts in place and most importantly making sure of his self projected role as a guardian of the “under-privileged”. Though from the MP cadre and on leave while working with Action Aid – he resigned from the IAS and the myth that made the rounds (regardless of who was responsible for it) was that his resignation was prompted by 2002 Gujarat riots (he wrote extensively about it) – was lambasted by the Hindu right and idolized by the liberals, seculars, left and muslim groups.

He continues to be a hero amongst his constituency but has very pragmatic ambitions in terms of his immortality, which as of now is definitely not electoral politics. I have had exactly two interactions with him (have met him more often) and both the times have left a bad taste in my mouth. The first was immediately after Gujarat pogrom – since the Government of Gujarat was not doing much for the victims and money was in much need – a small group in Pune patronised by people like Anu Aga called Pune Citizen’s Collective decided to have a fundraiser with him as the main speaker, especially since he was anyways visiting Pune for another program. Till the last minute, he refused to commit to the event. And then some of us had to rush and sell the tickets for the dinner.

Since it was a fundraiser it was on a tight budget with every penny accounted for and the man lands up with one of his relatives without informing any of us and to top it delivers one of the dullest speeches I have ever heard. Fortunately, late S. P. Sathe was presiding and saved the day. The second time was when I was trying to organize a closed door workshop around auditing of institutions of governance – coinciding with the release of the first Citizens’ Report on Governance and Development. I tried getting in touch with him to invite him for the workshop as the Director of Action Aid and never got past his Secretary.

dalai lama harsh mander

On the day before the workshop, Action Aid International announced the appointment of my then Boss and good friend John Samuel as the Asia Director. As soon as the news became public I got a call on my personal mobile from the man himself asking me to accommodate him in the workshop. I had to refuse because we were filled. And John had switched off his phone throughout the day of the workshop. The man must have called me at least half a dozen times through the day to set up an appointment with John. I finally had to be rude and tell hm that I was not John’s secretary. Despite that, he was one of the first guests to arrive at the public release function of the report and sat right in the front row. Unfortunately for him, we had an appointment with the President of India the same evening and had to rush to the Rashtrapati Bhavan just as the event ended.

The fourth – I have written more than enough about him and his brand of politics disgusts me as much as his blatant arrogance so I shall not give him too much space. Though I must grudgingly admit – whether he and his party fizzle out or make it – he has achieved his immortal martyrdom at least amongst the psyche of a section of people. And he with his non-ideology has managed to rope in people with ideologies.

The note of caution is this – that in all my interactions with these crusaders – it is personal ambition, goals of achievement, that is cloaked in language of saving the world that drives them. As they are most often without a clue about the intricacies of the world – except in very reductionist terms – flirting with them is dangerous not only in a social sense, but also in a personal sense. If one wants to be Christ – there is a hefty price to be paid, the pain of crucifixion and solitude – I don’t believe any of them have paid that price or will be willing to pay that. I would not know whether the fault lines in their political being is inherited from the bureaucracy that they come from, but what I definitely know is that it comes from a location called identity.

Finally, a friend of mine sent me a personal message saying that I was diminishing the standard of the discourse by taking names. On the contrary, it enriches the debate – and is also required – for on one side are individuals talking agency and seeking space on behalf of others (and these are the individuals who are being spoken about) while on the other side are those very people whose agency has been appropriated and invisiblised. Well, one can only talk about people who have names! To quote Barbara Smith: “This invisibility, however, means that the opportunities for creative research are infinite.”

ambedkar civil servant

P.S: This is not a generalization of all civil servants who want to contribute to society – there are people like Aruna Roy on one hand whose work has had tremendous impact – or those friends who continue in civil service and whose names I cannot disclose since they are in service who try to reform or subvert the system within the paradigms of their ideology. I have seen this kind of passion mostly amongst Dalit and Adivasi civil servants. The best example would be K. R. Narayanan who also incidentally turned to politics and ended up being the President – and the best in my opinion in the history of the Republic.

Of course there was one civil servant, whose name I can safely reveal – though he was not part of the Indian Civil Service and only the Baroda Civil Service and that too for only 11 days – who had a much larger than life vision.



Bobby Kunhu is a human rights activist and lawyer.

Drawing by Unnamati Syama Sundar.

Pictures courtesy: the net.