The images of Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington last month connoted numerous things, but many people, it seems, were struck by the man’s inherent cuteness.
It is not necessarily demeaning to say so. The more we think about it, the more that cuteness appears to be a shrewd, perhaps even deliberate, aspect of image making. Why is it that certain countries at certain times choose such cute leaders? Singh is not the only one. Both President Pratibha Patil and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee are extremely cute.
Cuteness generally connotes passivity, harmlessness, likeability. But in these cases, it would seem to mean something different, namely that India’s leaders are keen to give the impression of presiding over a reliable, status quo power. The same might be said of Deng Xiaoping, a revolutionary leader in his heyday.
The United States doesn’t have many cute leaders. It’s part of the American revolutionary tradition to look bold and visionary—like Charlton Heston, not Mickey Rooney. George W. Bush was an exception. Caricatures tended to make him look cute but nearly always in a perverse, childish, demonic way, almost like Kim Jong Il. Cuteness is too often seen in the American context as suffering from a deficit of gravitas. Just ask Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke.
Which is why Singh, Deng and even Andrei Gromyko, in his famous photograph where Ronald Reagan pushes him off the stage, are so interesting. They manage to combine cuteness with a gentle power. By contrast, we have the examples of de Gaulle, Castro, Khrushchev, Nasser. The usual “great leader” is the opposite of cute. He (or she, as in the cases of Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and, to a slightly lesser extent, Golda Meir) look determined, tough. They stand in contrast to their insecure, even weak or indifferent, nations.
For India, the contrast is especially striking. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the rotund prime minister who detonated the 1998 nuclear weapons, was a lisping poet, while Indira Gandhi, who grandly saw the rupee’s devaluation and an involuntary sterilization program, was perhaps post-war India’s meanest representative on the world stage. The picture of her standing upright by Richard Nixon—each thinking horrible thoughts about the other—is a reminder of the kind of posturing she could lead India into. Manmohan Singh, by temperament, is all politeness.
Just as the pre-invasion aura of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq was more overbearing than the reality, the cuteness of a nation’s image may conceal more durable strengths. No country demonstrates this more palpably than “pacifist” Japan. Even its weapons systems and “defense” doctrines are illustrated by adorable little cartoon characters. We are given to wonder whether the discomfort caused by Barack Obama’s recent bow there came as much from the “respectful” angle to which he bent as from the almost childlike cuteness of the emperor and his smiling empress. It would have been even more offensive, but more understandable, if he had patted them on their heads.
Cuteness as an intentional part of image-making can be confirmed from mascots for international tournaments. The five fu-wa that heralded the Beijing Olympics were petite and furry, and India’s mascot for the 2010 Commonwealth games is a cuddly tiger-maharajah called sera. The obvious counterpoint is Misha, the Soviet Union’s bloated bear mascot for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A mascot is part of a nation’s soft-power, and inevitably, an entire subdivision of marketing now flourishes under the name, “nation branding,” complete with annual rankings.
Given these associations, perhaps we may understand the reason the European Union recently chose such innocuous leaders. Neither Herman Van Rompuy nor Catherine Ashton is particularly cute. Or at least, not as cute as Nicolas Sarkozy and—on her better days—Angela Merkel. But this is today’s post-heroic aesthetic of leadership: innocuous, well meaning if not entirely reassuring. How well it succeeds is an open question.
Sahil Mahtani is a reporter with Dow Jones based in Mumbai. Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian based in Italy and author of “The Atlantic Century” (Da Capo)