What kind of Strongman does India need?

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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The strong leader was a beguiling idea, and Modi was hovering over India, reminding us of the price we had paid for tolerating a weakling for ten years
The strongman concentrates the political mind today, not to speak of his domination of the headline. It’s as if the limits of democracy have become so detrimental to the ascent of man that a few of the boldest among leaders have taken upon themselves the job of rescuing us from the pit. In Ankara, Recep Tayyip Erdogan thinks he, not the restless and the romantic at Taksim Square, knows better. There is stability by the Bosphorus; the economy is no longer in a rut; the military, once the proud, secular legacy of Kemal Ataturk, has been put in its place by elected civilians; and secular fundamentalism has to a great extent been replaced by religious inclusiveness (read Islamic supremacy). National commitment of such a proportion is not without its side-effects: instincts of democracy may have to be curtailed for the sake of happiness, which, as so many of his types have told us before, is incompatible with questions; certain ethnic minorities and nosy journalists may find the place a bit dangerous; and an Orhan Pamuk may spend more time elsewhere than in Istanbul. Erdogan has company. In Moscow, czarist nationalism is in vogue, and Vladimar Putin is unstoppable in his mission to restore Russian glory. His extra-territorial domination (Ukraine being the latest example) is matched by domestic autocracy. In Putin Country, the constitution is subordinated to the will of the leader; and elected regional governments are as disposable as the inconvenient oligarch. But for many Russians, Putin the Terrible is a necessary manifestation of the strong leader their history is so familiar with, stretching from the czar to the commissar. There are more, and the cult of the strongman thrives in dictatorships as well as democracies. Egypt is on the verge of getting one after the fiasco of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi.

Is it now India’s turn to be swayed by the strong leader? The rise of Candidate Modi was generally attributed to India’s yearning for focused leadership after the anodyne decade of Dr Manmohan Singh. Modi, in his self-portraits and in the words of many who admired him, was the leader born out of the despair of a nation unled. He could get things done, and his back story as Chief Minister of Gujarat was an exceptional piece of yes-we-can-do-it in the political lore of India. Good governance rhymed with strong leadership, and comparisons were easily drawn between his style and Indira Gandhi’s. The argument for a strong leader was inevitable for two reasons. One: the crisis in democracies was ever more pronounced, re-igniting the debate about the limits and flaws of the system itself. It was never the best, even if it was better than any other system of governance. Second: the crisis went even deeper in the world’s largest democracy, accentuated by a regime that undercut India for its own survival. An undergoverned India suddenly became the worst case of a democracy undone by its own freedoms, its own waywardness. The strong leader was a beguiling idea, and Modi was hovering over India, reminding us of the price we had paid for tolerating a weakling for ten years. Candidate Modi was a three-dimensional projection of the leader as redeemer, deliverer and protector, with iron in his soul and in his fist. It worked. Is Prime Minister as Strongman of India what the nation needs now?

If you have read the new book by the venerable Oxford don Archie Brown, the answer will be ‘no’. As the title itself suggests, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (The Bodley Head) is a forceful argument against the strongman-who-knows-better, whether he is a democrat or revolutionary, autocrat or tyrant. Brown bases his argument on an unshakable presumption: ‘It is, nevertheless, an illusion—and one as dangerous as it is widespread—that in contemporary democracies the more a leader dominates his or her political party and the Cabinet, the greater the leader. A more collegial style of leadership is too often characterized as a weakness, the advantages of a more collective political leadership too commonly overlooked.’ So it is not the imperious or overpowering variety of strong leader, or those larger-than-their-historical size carnivores from the back pages of communism and fascism, that impresses Brown. Modi too is unlikely to fit his prescription for ideal leadership. There is something more than strength and weakness to the making of effective leadership. Qualities such as ‘integrity, intelligence, articulateness, collegiality, shrewd judgement, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, flexibility, good memory, courage, vision, empathy and boundless energy’.

Brown’s argument makes immense sense in the age of Putins and Erdogans, and apocalypse junkies in Delhi have already started crying ‘totalitarianism’. But strong leaders, even Brown would admit, can be popular leaders too. Invariably, they are born out of the desperation of an impatient country. And they are charismatic. Brown leans on the Weberian concept of charisma—which is value- neutral—to tell us that the charismatic is not necessarily the ideal. Hitler was charismatic, so was Martin Luther King, and they were, well, different. ‘To a large extent,’ writes Brown, ‘it is followers who bestow charisma on leaders, when that person seems to embody the qualities they are looking for.’ The career of Winston Churchill was a cautionary tale: the legendary war hero embodied the aspirations and anxieties of a people, and the historical context contributed to the making of his cult. Yet, charisma did not win the post-War election for him. A similar trajectory can be found in the rise and fall of that most charismatic of Indian leaders, Indira Gandhi. ‘Charismatic leadership can be won and lost, and is not generally a lifetime endowment. It is often dangerous, and frequently overrated,’ writes Brown.

The more useful categories of leadership, argues Brown, are the ‘redefining’ and the ‘transformational’. The first is about ‘stretching the limits of the possible in politics and radically altering political agenda’. Redefining leaders ‘aim to alter people’s thinking on what is feasible and desirable. They redefine what is the political center, rather than simply accept the conventional view of the middle ground at any particular time, then placing themselves squarely within it’. Transformational leaders, in Brown’s definition, are those who bring out systemic changes at home and abroad. They change the world, but, Brown clarifies, they are different from revolutionary leaders, who too could be transformational but the change is accompanied by blood. Sounding more realistic than idealistic, Brown argues that democracies are not conducive to the growth of transformational leaders. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Lady Thatcher were redefining leaders; De Gaulle, Gorbachev, Deng and Mandela were transformational. He could have added Gandhi too.

So who’s the leader the world, particularly the democratic world, needs today? Brown quotes the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: ‘A leader is best when men barely know he is there, not so good when men obey and acclaim him.’ This kind of perfection is hard to find, and it may not be the kind of perfection a modern- day leader can try to achieve. Still, Brown says a collective style of decision-making is better than the follow-me diktat of a supreme leader. Most of Brown’s examples in this context are from America: The big decision of the Harry Truman presidency was taken by his Secretary of State George Marshall. But the Marshall Plan—the post-War European recovery programme—had the president’s full backing. That said, ‘there has not been a transformational American president since Abraham Lincoln.’ In that vein, shall we ask: has there been a transformational Indian leader since Gandhi? Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Of the leaders in power, Nehru and Indira could still be counted as redefining leaders, and the latter had all the attributes of a strong leader that Brown doesn’t approve of— especially the Napoleonic impulse. ‘Given that it is reasonable to expect leaders of political parties in a free and pluralistic political system to have a prior commitment to democracy as such, and granted their need to connect with the wider electorate, it is dangerous if they regard the rank and file membership of their party as little more than a necessary evil,’ writes Brown. And his closing words are a warning: ‘Leaders who believe they have a personal right to dominate decision-making in many different areas of policy, and who attempt to exercise such a prerogative, do a disservice both to good governance and to democracy. They deserve not followers, but critics.’

Modi has got both— followers as well as critics. The strongman from Gujarat stood apart in a polity of ditherers and delinquents, and got things done. India doesn’t need a Putin, and it is not easy to be one in a democracy like India. But it certainly needs what Brown calls a redefining leader. Modi has already stretched the possible in politics, but to shift further the calcified pillars of Delhi, India may still prefer a strong leader who is not a ‘me- alone’ leader.