Remember the alpha male?

Like O. Panneerselvam, most legislators in Tamil Nadu, the men especially, possess the gift of shamelessness, the very reason why they succeed


A file photo of O. Panneerselvam greeting J. Jayalalithaa in May. Photo: PTI
A file photo of O. Panneerselvam greeting J. Jayalalithaa in May. Photo: PTI

O. Panneerselvam has a good bowing technique. When J. Jayalalithaa, the late Tamil Nadu chief minister, would speak to him, he would bend his knees, fold his upper body at his hips, hold his chest with one hand and cover his mouth with the other. This way he could stand in subordination as long as his boss needed to finish her conspiratorial whisper, his ears very close to her mouth so that she did not have to raise her voice and be audible to his rivals. No matter how close his face was to hers, his manner was always slavish enough to reassure her. And, no one could read his lips. When he bowed to her official vehicle, he had a slightly different deep bend. Some days he fell at her feet on all fours, some days he lay flat on the ground; it is not clear what made him choose one way of falling over the other.

Like him, most legislators in Tamil Nadu, the men especially, possess the gift of shamelessness, an unsung talent. They may seem unusual to many Indians but they are symbolic of a way of the world, which is today filled with Panneerselvams. Their flexibility is not always obvious, and they may appear far more dignified in plain sight than him, but they are, in private, as reverential and loyal as he was to Jayalalithaa. It is the very reason why they succeed. They are rewarded precisely for not possessing exceptional qualities. Edappadi K. Palanisamy, the man whom Sasikala V.K. picked as chief minister after she learnt she was going to prison, is of the same type. Dependent, hence loyal. In the heart of Tamil Nadu politics today is the battle of two newly liberated loyalists. Is the world outside very different?

The White House may disagree but the fact is that in many walks of modern life, the dominant and manly alpha, who once had evolutionary advantages, has no chance of competing. It appears that in the changing world, domineering qualities are inessential, even repulsive. But the crucial reason why the alpha has receded is in the innate flaw he always contained.

The powerful are wary of worthy challengers, hence they promote the obeisant and the meek over the special and the dudes. As a result, in many professions, the alpha type is killed very early, in the preliminary stages. The innately manly realize it and transform into something more agreeable. Most alphas learn when they are only boys that their careers depend on ensuring that old people do not feel threatened by them.

Also, beta men, like alcoholics, attract more friends than the strong do because men find the frailties of other men comforting and endearing. And what the strong and solitary realize very late is that success is so often a reward given by friends. Also, the practised flexibility of the betas, who can bend, crawl and slither, and absorb the daily humiliations of being subordinate, makes them great survivors in the treacherous world outside their homes. In homes, too, the alpha has vanished. Men who could do anything they wanted and remained unchallenged at home, who could belong to the night, who took mistresses, who never knew the exact ages of their children and who never entered the kitchen.

As to what ended the golden age of such men, people would point to the rise of women. But there is another, underrated reason—sons who observed their fathers carefully and chose not to be like them. The world is transformed not only by revolutions, but also by children who do not wish to be like their parents. Sons who eventually become decent men, family men, men who know the names of maids, men who transfer food from large bowls into small bowls and put them in the fridge.

It was inevitable, though, that the increasing domestication of men would create a caricature, the farcical modern men who say what is noble and admissible, who lurk around holding labels like “sexist” that they can stick on other men, who claim to be feminists without the experience of being women, who claim to be more aroused by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak than Sunny Leone, who flog their emotions as proof of their modernity, and talk about how they cry as though it is an achievement, and how all men should cry; men who take political correctness to such absurd extremes that the journalist Tina Brown, as she recently said, is often relieved to meet some honest rogue males.

The association of betas would promote other likeable betas, further shrinking the prospects for the alpha type in almost all subjective fields of human activity, including academics, literature and politics. The stray political strongmen who have risen in several parts of the world are fascinating exceptions; they are beneficiaries of a string of extraordinary accidents and aberrant conditions. Their victories, as in the case of Donald Trump, are not evidence of alpha prospects but only show how ridiculous such men look in the modern world. A problem with the alpha, who is preoccupied with the stiffness of his backbone, is, to borrow from the late Margaret Thatcher, that his spine does not seem to reach his brain.

It is not that the alphas are going extinct; just that in a softer, more collaborative modern society there is no place for a man to begin his career as a fiery formidable ape. It is something he can become later when the time is right. He must bow until he need not. Like Panneerselvam, who asserted himself only when there were no more feet in Chennai that he would have to kiss.

There are many strongmen in Indian public life who started out as pliable humble men with no air in their chests. In politics, such agreeable men can be seen often as deputies bent reverentially in front of their chiefs—whispering. A fascinating character of Indian politics is the frequency of stage whispers. Why do the chief and his sidekick often whisper to each other on the stage as though the matter cannot wait until the function is over? It is not a lazy coincidence. This is how the deputy ensures that he is seen by the public, and seen as having the ear of the chief. Narendra Modi, now prime minister, and Arvind Kejriwal, now chief minister, too have been there, as humble deputies listening or whispering to old men in full public view. Then a time comes when the deputies suddenly become dominant, formidable men and eclipse their chiefs. And they cautiously appoint agreeable betas, who do not threaten them, at least for the moment.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness of Other People.

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