The Sycophantic Belief in the Actions of “Great Leaders”

Length Estimate: Long (words > 1000)

As Indian parliamentary democracy approaches the seventieth year of its existence, it has come to be typified by two dominant motifs that are reflective of a deep malaise in its relationship with its constituents. The first is an enduring faith of the voting public in the actions of the mythical “Great Leaders” – defined as those at the apex of the political hierarchy either at the local or national level. The second is a vague but persistent dissatisfaction that manifests as inchoate calls for “changing” the “system”. The linking together of these two sentiments – especially by the advanced, politically conscious part of the public – is at best a misguided articulation of good intentions and at worst a sycophantic excuse for inaction.

The emergence and consolidation of the first tendency is neither altogether surprising nor peculiar to the Indian context. It is manifest everywhere where the political action of private individuals and civil society is limited to periodical vote casting and the consumption of, instead of real participation in, democracy. The faith in the power of the benevolent ruler is as much a feature of American society under Barack Obama (and now, for better or worse, Donald Trump) as it is of its Indian counterpart under Narendra Modi.

Nor is the dissatisfaction with the system as presently constituted so exceptional. The developed world is currently grappling with the decisive revolt of substantial sections of its population that have been truly left behind by the neo-liberal consensus of the last thirty years. Brexit and Donald Trump are merely the worst symptoms of this existential crisis of the status quo and many more convulsions are yet to come. The exploitation of this repudiation of the ruling ideology by opportunistic right-wing populism is simply a consequence of the neutering of genuine progressive movements, deliberate or otherwise. Thus, it can be argued that the emergence of these symptoms is nothing more than the turning of a regular cycle of political discontent in well-established democracies.

However, India is somewhat unique in that its democratic system has institutionalized the combination of this faith in messianic leaders and a collective feeling of powerlessness in the face of a corrupt, reform-resistant “system”. This leads to the paradoxical situation where a Chosen One is identified with the performance of the apparatus he/she helms, but at the same time, is exempt from the failings of the same apparatus – so long as he/she maintains a largely self-created positive image. Hence arises the truism that honest, well-intentioned people should never enter politics, for they will either be corrupted or spit out. But at the same time, people desperately want to believe in exactly that sort of individual – someone whose moral perfection and superhuman political skill makes institutional and organizational reform irrelevant.

This kind of thinking leads to a sort of non-achieving fatalism that only perpetuates the cycle of duping the public that has been honed to high art in Indian politics. In this case, parliamentary democracy has in fact devolved into what Lenin tersely described as “the oppressed being allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament!”. The structure of power in our society, in any liberal democratic society, is so defined that there can be no radical “change” to the system that curtails the privileges of the elites who benefit from it. It is absolutely amazing to me the number of otherwise hard-nosed, street-smart people who genuinely take at face value the lofty proclamations with which the current administration has garnished the excrescence that is the Great Indian Demonetization. The realism and cynicism with which the average educated Indian approaches day-to-day life is replaced by an unqualified deference to revered authority figures that would make R.K. Dhawan blush.

The proponents of textbook civics will intervene here and say that it is precisely the need to preserve power through electoral majority that ought to compel political actors to act in the public good. This argument fails on both theoretical and empirical grounds. In a real, existing society with innumerable divisions and conflicts of interest and cultural heterogeneity, there is no reason to presuppose that pursuit of a common public good is necessary for electoral victory. The logic of vote maximization under temporal and financial constraintnecessitates the selection of the most efficient method, which inevitably boils down to symbolic gestures that have incidental, if any, meaningful impact on the material lives of the masses. Furthermore, it incentivizes such underhanded tactics as creation of captive constituencies, manufactured civic discontent and vote suppression, all of which are decidedly deleterious in their nature and impact. This is not to say that this will always be the chosen strategy, but to pretend that the simple existence of democracy by universal suffrage will logically lead to only good public outcomes is incredibly naïve. There are too many empirical examples that disabuse this childish belief to list here – any general history of modern India will suffice in bringing out the point. That most observers of modern Indian political history have only the maintenance and “deepening” of democracy to cheer in the face of poor governance, widespread excruciating poverty and increasing inequality is itself indicative of the relative autonomy of “democracy” from those other “good” things – equality of opportunity, rule of law, social and economic justice – that are meant to accompany it.

The problem with the “Great Leader” belief has to do more with the gap between theory and practice than any logical or theoretical contradictions. In theory, a leader’s need to build political capital with a significant enough portion of the population should imply meeting the articulated needs of that portion of the population. The problem is that in practice, political capital comes much easier than the action necessary to justify it. For example, Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao was an ostensibly redistributive and pro-poor program and, simultaneously, a product of rank political opportunism. Had it been even partially implemented, it would have both improved the living conditions of India’s poor and fostered Gandhi’s reputation as a socialist champion of the poor – a win-win. Unfortunately and predictably, the latter happened but not the former. Without a mechanism of militant accountability under civic auspices – i.e, lacking the corrosive intention of political opportunism – leaders can walk away with ill-deserved reputations that endure at least in the short term. Ten years from now, when demonetization and Make In India are just hazy memories, Narendra Modi will probably be remembered as a muscular statesman who tried to bring good governance to a dysfunctional system. Mission accomplished.

To summarize: above I have tried to argue that the restriction of political activity to mere electoral participation outsources the “job” of politics to a select few, who then become the objects of our admiration or condemnation, depending on our perceptions of their performance. The faith in this “elite” is in part due to a cultural deference to larger-than-life, charismatic figures and in part due to the opaqueness of the “system” these individuals are elected to operate, whose depth and complexity no common person can even fathom. That the “system” is often an obstacle to the implementation of the best-intentioned policies makes it an easy scapegoat for both opportunistic politicians and the body politic, allowing for the devolution of tough, reformative work into grandiose, symbolic gestures.

Hence, the politico-administrative apparatus becomes akin to a terminal patient surrounded by some who wring their hands in despair hoping for the better, others who have long given up hope but are still present because appearances need to be kept, and still others who, in their zealous “due diligence”, have already consulted the requisite experts about life insurance, hospital bills and possible provisions in the will. Eventually, enough time will pass and everyone will just end up staring at their watch and humming to themselves, impatiently awaiting the imminent death. Meanwhile – to stretch an already taut metaphor – those in charge of improving the patient’s condition, i.e., the doctors, emerge periodically recommending this or that test and treatment and constantly reassuring that the patient’s recovery is only a matter of time. They also just as assuredly tell the family to ignore the bill racking up because, after all, what is money when they would do anything – some would even give their lives – to save this person?

What is the solution? The idea is not to repudiate effective leadership but to encourage it by eschewing this sycophantic reverence of a benign leadership that doesn’t really exist. Any pursuit of a solution must begin with the realization and internalization of this basic fact: short of the complete breakdown of politics and centralized government, it is imperative to capture political power in order to facilitate any radical break with the status quo. To this end, we must not discourage the well-intentioned from political participation and we must not wish for the subversion of the political apparatus by a superhuman authority figure. The first leads to decay and the second to fascism. Democracy is a fragile, precious thing, which when guided by the will of an enlightened polity, is the only form of political organization that contains an internal logic towards better outcomes. The point then, is not to turn our face away from democratic politics but to get even more deeply involved – and to bridge the gap between the state and society that our leaders have been content to let persist for so long. The challenges we face today – climate change, resource depletion, gross inequality, and widespread poverty – have severely constrained the time horizon of status quo incrementalism.

In conclusion, here is something Niccolò Machiavelli, mistakenly better known for the realpolitik of the Prince, had to say in his  Discourses on Livy under the chapter The Multitude is Wiser and More Constant Than a Prince*:

I conclude, therefore, contrary to common opinion that says that peoples (when they hold power) are variable, changeable and ungrateful, affirming that in them there exist no other sins than exist in particular princes. If anyone were to blame peoples and princes alike, he might be telling the truth; but he would be deceiving himself by excluding princes, for a people that exercises power and is well organized will be stable, prudent and grateful no differently from  a prince, or better than a prince, and will even be considered wise; and, on the other hand, a prince freed from the restraint of the laws will be even more ungrateful, variable and imprudent than a people.

*Machiavelli, Niccolò€. Discourses on Livy. Trans. Julia Conaway. Bondanella and Peter E. Bondanella. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

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