Iron in the soul

A strong leader’s capacity to tolerate dissent is more crucial than his beliefs.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: March 7, 2014 10:44:34 am

A strong leader’s capacity to tolerate dissent is more crucial than his beliefs.

In the blame game over Vladimir Putin’s actions in the US, there is a reminder going around that George Bush once claimed to have seen inside Putin’s soul and found someone he could do business with. Bush may not have been the wisest judge of character. But there is, nevertheless, an interesting question of how to form expectations of strong leaders. Strong leaders pose a special problem for political judgement.

By definition, they direct more than they are directed; they control institutions rather than being controlled by them. That is their appeal. So in addition to the normal checks and balances, cutting strong leaders slack requires trusting their sense of self-restraint. The only force that can, in the final analysis, restrain them is themselves.

So a judgement of the personality of strong leaders matters even more. In a democracy, when such leaders come to power, they often ride two contradictory waves. Some vote for them because of who they project themselves to be: strong, decisive, ruthless, capable of even nasty decisions. Others vote for them for different reasons. There is a genuine recognition of the fears a leader may pose. But there is also great confidence in the protean side of leaders.

In this view, leaders are characterised by a capacity to change. They may have posed risks in the past, but one of their qualities is the ability to sense a political occasion and live up to it. If the context is right, they can change and do the right thing.

In a way, much of the Narendra Modi surge has elements of both of these impulses. There is a yearning for authority. But there is also often the faith that democracy has in its own power and experience. After all, the canonical view of politicians in a democracy is just that they are all too amenable to change. This might be seen as opportunism.

But this is also the great faith a democracy has in itself: its ability to transform devils, to change opinions, to mould its leaders as much as it is moulded by them. Democracy takes risks not because it condones authority, but because it believes in its own power to tame authority. Sometimes this belief works, sometimes it comes to grief.

But how much can politicians change? One measure of change is a change in beliefs or policies. This is often the easy part: even an artful demagogue can grasp the demands of the moment. They can skilfully meet an audience’s expectations, and appear to conform to their beliefs. But this genuine success in inducing change, making radicals moderate, only exacerbates the challenge of judgement. As an astute observer like Plutarch noted, character is much harder to change; it persists despite changes in ideas and beliefs. If a democracy is lucky, the character will not pose risks. But more often than not, it will burst through, particularly at key moments.

Which is why the need to see inside the leader’s soul, as it were, remains a resonant demand when strong leaders appear. Anyone watching strong leaders across the world ends up with this question. The contexts are very different. But the challenges posed by strong leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mahinda Rajapaksa or Putin highlight this question. There are interesting parallels. These leaders emerge against the backdrop of a perceived national crisis; they ride on nationalism; they acquire a reputation for decisiveness. They position themselves self-consciously and convincingly against old genteel elites, whose gentility merely hides their ineffectiveness.

In the case of Rajapaksa and Erdogan, there is also a claim to a vernacular and cultural authenticity against elements of artificial Westernisation. There is an interesting political ability to create a classic combination: weaken opponents through authoritarian tactics, while satisfying democracy’s protean urges by creating clever and shifting alliances. They have some governance achievements to their credit. But when placed under the slightest challenge, they subvert the very democracy that created them.

The appropriate question in their case, as it turns out, is not the question of what their ideology and beliefs are. These may indeed be quite malleable. The appropriate question is their capacity for tolerating dissent. In some ways, strong leaders often pose a danger precisely when they are doing or saying the right thing. It lulls us into believing that we have tamed their excessive instincts. But the real test comes when people disagree with the leader.

What then? Are dissenters a legitimate part of democracy, to be protected and accorded respect? Or does the leader, now wearing the mantle of the people, declare them to be treasonous? How do we come to a judgement of the capacity to tolerate dissent?

H.L. Mencken once gave a stunningly memorable description of another strongman, Theodore Roosevelt, that is worth remembering. “He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority. He was not in favour of unlimited experiment; he was in favour of a rigid control from above, despotism of inspired prophets and policemen. He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern, almost of the Napoleonic or Ludendorffian pattern — a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat- packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights. His instincts were always those of the property-owning Tory, not those of the romantic Liberal.

All the fundamental objects of Liberalism — free speech, unhampered enterprise, the least possible governmental interference — were abhorrent to him. Even when, for campaign purposes, he came to terms with the Liberals, his thoughts always ranged far afield. When he tackled the trusts the thing that he had in his mind’s eye was not the restoration of competition but the subordination of all private trusts to one great national trust, with himself at its head. And when he attacked the courts it was not because they put their own prejudice before the law but because they refused to put his prejudices before the law.”

Which strong leaders does this remind you of? Teddy Roosevelt changed his views; and the institutional structure of American democracy tamed him, just barely. But as Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey are finding out, that crucial element of a democratic character, the ability to tolerate dissent, remains a difficult one to create. A crisis compels a society to throw up strong leaders. But which insight into a leader’s soul will tell us whether they will, at crunch time, tolerate dissent?

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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