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 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’

 express@expressindia.com

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First Published on: March 7, 2014 1:19 am
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    Chandra Jay
    Mar 8, 2014 at 2:51 am
    India has been bled of much of its financial and political values through reckless spending,giose ideas on leaky projects like MNREGA,FSB and many more the name of telecom and defence ,lakhs of crore shave been unwisely spent and lost.A PM ,who was touted to be a visionary and a brilliant economist ,had little elbow room for flexing his muscles or making his words rise above the plebeian din of sycophants or ayes ayers of a non consutional power centre an atmosphere like this brilliant souls were bartered for pelf and profit.The rot has to stop;what better way than trying an alternative,even if the alternative may be somewhat flawed in the definition of the author who compares him with Teddy Roosevelt.America ,post McKinley ination wanted a change,and was bursting with ideas to lead the world and give solace to a deteriorating Europe of disintegrating Dynasties,emerging anarchist philosophies like fascism,communism and early buds of sm.What better choice than Teddy R. ,who started the modern USA.The column reads like the usual PBM ones,you have to be a Crossword addict to pick the clues and fill the squares.Still,Modi may be safe from the coded and clue laden article,since the average voter may byp the clues,vote as he pleases and wait for May 17 th.That is the beauty of universal suffrage,Pratap Bhanu Mehtas notwithstanding.Still,delightful and brilliant.
    Reply
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      chandra jayashankar
      Mar 8, 2014 at 4:05 am
      India has been bled of much of its financial and political values through reckless spending,giose ideas on leaky projects like MNREGA,FSB and many more the name of telecom and defence ,lakhs of crores have been unwisely spent and lost.A PM ,who was touted to be a visionary and a brilliant economist ,had little elbow room for flexing his intellectual and administrative muscles or making his words rise above the plebeian din of sycophants or ayes sayers of a non consutional power centre an atmosphere like this, brilliant souls were bartered for pelf and profit.The rot has to stop;what better way than trying an alternative,even if the alternative may be somewhat flawed in the definition of the author who compares him with Teddy Roosevelt.America ,post McKinley ination wanted a change,and was bursting with ideas to lead the world and give solace to a deteriorating Europe of disintegrating Dynasties,emerging anarchist philosophies like fascism,communism and early buds of sm.What better choice than Teddy R. ,who started the modern USA.The column reads like the usual PBM ones,you have to be a Crossword addict to pick the clues and fill the squares.Still,Modi may be safe from the corrosive effects the coded and clue laden article can potentially cause ,since the average voter may byp the clues,vote as he pleases and wait for May 17 th.That is the beauty of universal suffrage,Pratap Bhanu Mehtas notwithstanding.Still,delightful and brilliant.
      Reply
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        Ananth
        Mar 7, 2014 at 1:44 pm
        Mr.Mehta while discussing whether strong leaders have the capacity to listen, tolerate and even allow the dissent has missed the salient features we have in our democratic system. The country as a w is today clamouring for a strong leader because of the intolerance of the dissent, side stepping and even stifling it by the weaker leaders who have been holding the fort for the past a decade. When Indira hi tried the same despite being a strong leader she was sent to wilderness when the general elections took place in 1977. Hopefully we wouldn't be repeating the 'emergency' fiasco once again in our country as the electorates are making it compulsory to have a coalition government at the centre. With our democratic process being held in safety and increase in awareness due to the present communication setup we should not worry about the strong leader and his capacity or otherwise to tolerate dissent, Today we do have the necessity of such a leader for good governance, progress and development.
        Reply
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          Narayan Srikanth
          Mar 9, 2014 at 12:59 pm
          Very often questions have been asked whether we are aware of any names of Ministers in Gujarat beside NaMo and the ignorance is only an indication of the autocratic style of functioning of NaMo. By the same yardstick are we aware of the names of Ministers in Orissa, Kerala, Maharashtra, Uttarkhand, West Bengal beside their CMs. Well then all CMs in India are autocratic by the same yardstick.
          Reply
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            Satish K
            Mar 7, 2014 at 3:31 pm
            It is a thought provoking analysis on the issue of authoritarianism and democracy.The author has candidly chosen examples from history to interpret contemporary events in Russia, and a tacit hint on evaluating the personality of Narendra Modi.But the parliamentary democracy where coallitions rules the roost, are a formidable system of checks and balance on the dictatorial authoritarianism. Presumably that a supposed authoritarian element in Modi's personality poses a risk to the democratic fabric in case he succeds to ume PM's office democratically. The chances of the subversion of demoratic traditions will be far less as compared to the contemprary examples cited by the author because these were the cases where Presidential form of democracy gave the authority a free hand.
            Reply
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              Subramanian Vasudevan
              Mar 9, 2014 at 10:52 pm
              Whether Mr. Modi listens or not, I hope he will choose not to ever listen to our (il)liberal pseudos who p off as our intelligensia today only because the smarter amongst us in that generation, left for foreign ss. Keep whistling, bhanu, in the dark (as far as you are concerned).
              Reply
              1. V
                Vikram
                Mar 25, 2014 at 11:07 am
                Liberals in the West today like state control. They would have loved Roosevelt. Maybe you meant libertarians?
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