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Hollow men

world Updated: Dec 27, 2010 10:15 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

If little green men landed on Earth today and asked, “Take me to your leader,” the response from any thoughtful homo sapiens would be: “We don’t have one.” It is hard to think of a single prime minister or president whose popular standing hasn’t ended up in the cellar in 2010.

The heads of the West, mired in recession, one can understand. But even the heads of the Rest have fared poorly.

Traditionally it’s the Oval Office resident who wears the robe of the world’s paramount chief. But Barack Obama, for all the wow he still gets overseas, is being taken with a pinch of salt given a domestic approval rating that’s been below 50 points all year round. And let’s not forget the worst US midterm election result in seven decades.

Of course, he looks good once you cross the Atlantic. Europe is no longer looking for a leader to inspire the world. One which inspires a suburb of Brussels will do.

For example, Germany now wields more clout in Europe than it has since the Kaiser’s day. Amazingly, Chancellor Angela Merkel has converted this into antipathy for her both at home and abroad. David Cameron, newly-elected but trying to do unpopular budget cuts, is in the same league as Obama. Nicolas Sarkozy’s bottom-of-the-bouillabaise approval rating means his backing is down to the Carla Bruni Fan Club.

It says something that Alpha Dog Silvio Berlusconi gets a bigger thumbs up than almost any major Western leader. And why not? He hasn’t done any good all year, but then neither have all the rest, and he beats Monty Python reruns most weeks.

What takes the cake is how poorly the leaders of the countries not affected by the Great Recession are doing. China may now be number two in the world but its number one, Hu Jintao, is derided by home-grown intellectuals as sunzi, slang for “yes-man.” His lack of initiative aside, Hu has spent the year struggling to keep his faction on top as Beijing.

The annual World Leaders Barometer puts Hu as the third most unpopular leader in the world and – this must hurt just a bit – the Dalai Lama as number two. It’s surely only a difference of methodology, but the Chinese media has a different take on this.

India’s Manmohan Singh has had the worst year of his prime ministership. The yearly India Today-Nielsen pulse of the nation taken in August showed only one per cent of Indians felt he was the best man for the job, the worst rating an incumbent Indian leader has had since the unmemorable days of H.D. Deve Gowda.

And that was before India had the Commonwealth Games scam, the 2G scam, the Adarsh scam and a few other uplifting moments. No one raised an eyebrow when a CNN-IBN jury chose its Indian of the year from outside the ruling coalition – Bihar’s Nitish Kumar.
Sadly, no one should think the world thinks much more highly of India’s leaders.

A Gallup poll showed only Afghans give high marks to New Delhi’s leaders (and even that was only half of them). In countries like Cambodia and Indonesia, Indian leaders got ratings below 15 per cent. Africans were honest: most said they had no idea who ruled India.

The only world leader who held his head high in 2010 has been Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Unfortunately he won’t be in power after a few weeks. Nonetheless he was able to propel a hand-picked successor to the presidency. His approval ratings rose to a staggering 80.5 per cent in his last few months of office – and Brazil didn’t even win a World Cup this year.

For a perfect political 10, a leader should in theory be equally popular at home and abroad, and perceived to be a positive influence by a majority everywhere.

The world is a more difficult place than, say, in the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Governments are more constrained, the public more skeptical and civil society forces more powerful than before.

But even if you forgot about influence and just focu on the popularity stuff, no one made the grade this year. Obama was a big hitter overseas, a mess at home.

Vladimir Putin was the exact reverse. So it makes sense Time’s Person of the Year was Facebook whizkid Mark Zuckerberg or that the World Leadership Barometer had two spiritual leaders among its most popular top three. The buzz-personality, of course, was Wikileaks’ Julian Assange – the epitomy of an anti-politician.

As for being a change-maker: Askmen.com’s subscribers voted comedian Jon Stewart the “world’s most influential man.”
Which only proves the point. None of 2010’s winning personalities were actually leaders. They defined themselves by being the exact opposite. They lack legitimacy, they can only win internet polls, they can’t actually enact policy and majorly effect the way people live.

They are big because the global political class just spent 365 days in the doghouse. (Except Berlusconi: he spent the year in a different type of house.)

We could see a turn around next year. Obama has, to use the jargon of the equity analyst, the greatest upside potential. Stats show the US economy historically does best in the last two years of a US presidential term. If only if he can get his people to realize he’s an American.

Otherwise the world may just have to model itself after today’s Japan. This means a new top guy with each new season, a popularity of zero and no ability to get anything done. Maybe it’s time to put Lady Gaga in charge.

With input from Tim Hwang.