I have had this conversation so many times with so many different people. Some among them good friends whom I respect.

The premise of the topic of the conversation is quite simple. Given the state of affairs in our country , are we not better off with a dictatorship for a while? Sounds like a topic for group discussion during one of those horrid selection processes in a B school/company recruitment eh? But it is fascinating how many people seemingly agree with this. I have heard many educated , intelligent , informed people state this. There are of course variations on this theme. The dictator becomes a “strong leader” who does not brook any dissent. The dictator sometimes gets replaced by a “committee” , so it is not a dictatorship of one but dictatorship by a committee. Whatever , the variations on the theme -there are two undercurrents that seem to be common to all the themes:-

1) A wish or desire -even a sort of wistful longing for a leader with almost unbridled powers – this leader would need those powers to set everything right but he would not misuse those powers – a “benign”/”benevolent” dictator he is called. A variation on the Lee hypothesis.

2) A general disdain for the democratic process as being too slow , messy and prone to manipulation. Coupled with this a tendency to blame a lot of our ills on our slow moving democratic machinery. Politicians are blamed and democracy is blamed too for giving them too much leeway and opportunity to manipulate the system.

Let us consider the second undercurrent first. But before I begin be advised that I have libertarian tendencies and have a pathological disdain for anything remotely authoritarian. However , I shall try and restrain myself from quoting such advantages of democracies like “free speech”,”civil liberties” etc. I gather they are not too important these days as long as we are “reforming” the economy.

Is democracy bad for development?

Is there a link between democracy and development in general? Are the slow , ponderous processes that are inherent to a democracy inimical to development? There are three favorite examples of the dictator lovers . They talk of China . They talk of Singapore . And when it comes to law and order they talk of the UAE. Specifically there is talk of the huge strides China and Singapore have made in a very short period of time. There is also talk of the fear of God (God here is of course Allah – there is no God but Allah),that UAE has been able to inspire in the minds of wrongdoers. People think twice before even running a red light.

To be fair , it is difficult to argue with that.Undoubtedly , China and Singapore have done well for themselves . And UAE definitely has very low crime rates.

But are these the only countries that have done well? Let us take a larger view. Consider the top 30 developed countries in the world. And the usual measure for this is the HDI – the human development index – a sort of composite to measure how well off a country’s citizens are with respect to health,education and income.( One could have looked at GDP but that is not exactly a comprehensive indicator of development.)

Interestingly , almost all of them are democracies. In fact most countries which have done well for themselves over the past 50 years seem to be democracies. The usual refrain is that these countries are largely homogeneous with none of the pressures that a large , diverse ,hugely populous country like ours would have. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the United States , unless of course you think of the President of the United States as a quasi -dictator of sorts. If you ,in fact do, it is good to have known you.

On the other hand , most countries which have had dictators or authoritarian forms of government -think of most of the African countries or a few Islamic states – one sees they haven’t done too well for themselves.

Ofocurse , one needs to be careful and not read too much into this. There needs to be a statistical study that needs to be made to understand the relationship between democracy and development.

But upon a cursory examination ,it does look like democracy in itself does not seem to be inimical to development , if anything it is the democratic countries that ,on a balance, seemed to have done well.

So next time ,when we are tempted to think of China , I wish we would also think about the US ,UK or Germany and remind ourselves that among the well off countries in the world , there seems to be a preponderance of democracies.

Let us consider the first undercurrent now.

The “Benevolent” dictator:

It is an oxymoron if I have heard one. A “benevolent” dictator. One who would be hard nosed enough to use his unbridled power unhesitatingly for the good of the people , yet who would be noble enough not to misuse these powers that we trust him/her/it with. Even forgetting the ethical implications for a minute – it looks like a logical impossibility.

However , let us assume for a moment that this is indeed possible. Let us consider the ways in which this could come to be , since we seem to be on an unbridled flight of fantasy anyways.

1) The dictator/group of elite people / committee/ sentient robots grab power , through violent revolution.Having grabbed power they establish themselves firmly in it’s seat and claim to represent the will of the people. The dictator/group of elite people/committee/sentient robots then rule by fiat. Clearly , the public in general would not have a role or say in this. And a dictatorship/robot rule that has been established this way seems too risky. We do not really know , if the dictator who has come to power this way ,would be too benevolent.

2) Non violent revolution- we rally behind a leader ,who would lead us through a revolution . This revolution would overturn all the existing systems/players within the existing systems. Having done this we establish this leader in the seat of power and hand over our asses to him/her/it. This leader would have unbridled power and would use it for the good of the people. A variation on this theme is that this leader would give up his dictatorship and establish a democracy after a stipulated “n” number of years. n usually is greater than 10. Simple and elegant ,right? Except for a few problems:-

1) We assume that this leader knows best. Apart from being a great revolutionary , he would be a great administrator , a great visionary and knows exactly what needs to be done and how to get it done. And more importantly , all of us will be happy with most of what he is doing. What if a section of us do not agree with a particular step? Or steps? Who gets to decide which section’s opinion to consider on a particular matter? Running a country is an intricate , complex business and it will happen many times that there will be disagreements. Now the only way out of this seems to be trusting in the Great Leader.Which leaves us with the little problem of finding a trustworthy leader?How does one choose such a leader? Who gets to decide? A democratic process to choose a dictator?I invite you to examine the sheer absurdity of this.

2) There is a supposedly neat solution to this. Give the Great Leader a charter.This charter would lay out what the leader is supposed to do. It is kind of a road map. It would also contain solutions for possible contingencies. Neat eh? May be , except -consider this- we are a people who are capable of getting together for a total revolution , we also have the ability to write a charter that foresees all possible contingencies . Along with it , we have the ability to pick out a trustworthy leader from a population of a billion. Why the hell do we need a dictatorship? Cant we use all these wonderful abilities to make the current system work? We must be high or masochistic or both.

And I am not even getting into things like , how do we know this Great Leader will not become a tyrant or how do we know he will give up power when he is supposed to etc. I am assuming if we are able to deal with the above mentioned problems , these smaller problems will take care of themselves.

Philosopher Kings 

Plato started it all with his vision of Philosopher Kings. He was disillusioned with the democratic process existing in Athens during that time and was also a little too enamored of militaristic Sparta. His Republic is, at some points ,evocative of an Orwellian nightmare. However , there is one significant argument that he makes . When for the execution of a job , for example carpentry or let us say gardening , we tend to look for people who are skilled at that particular job -why is it that we do not demand that the people who govern us be skilled at governance. During that time , public offices were decided by lot. So , anybody , actually anybody could hold any office. And that is the context in which we should see his point. He then goes on to expound on his idea of an ideal society , a school for future leaders , the modus operandi of selecting such leaders etc. He gets fairly nutty at some points -suggesting communal living and censorship of music and poetry. He has grand ideas on engineering the perfect society. One sees echoes of this in the Ubermench of Nietzsche , whose philosophy is said to have inspired Nazism.

The appeal of the philosopher -king ,remains. “Philosophers should become Kings and those who are now Kings must start to philosophize” . And over the ages we have seen ,people attributing to themselves these qualities. Adolf Hitler saw himself as a visionary. So did Stalin. But to be fair to Plato , he did lay stringent rules for who could be this philosopher king and how one would go about earning the right to be called one. And while many dictators naturally skip the stringent procedures , they see themselves in their mind’s eye as philosopher kings. As great visionaries on whom this huge responsibility is thrust upon and which they will fulfill for the sake of their countrymen. Hitler, at least , was brimming with such thoughts. And that is how their countrymen also see them ,when these dictators first ascend to power- as saviors. The Germans saw strength in Hitler. But eventually ,their hollowness is exposed and we realize it was a bubble all along puffed up with megalomania.

Democracy has come a long way from Athens. Public office is no longer decided by lot. There is an entire machinery in place for governance. Every philosopher’s philosophy must also be seen in the context of his life and times. I am not sure how relevant Plato is to us today. But surely our longing for the equivalent of a philosopher king remains. We want a leader who is a visionary ,who is a great administrator and knows how to get things done. There is nothing wrong per se with that desire. But in a democracy ,the citizens typically end up getting the leaders that they deserve -not the leaders that they desire.

Consider the state of affairs in our country today. There are many who feel that , now that Modi has been elected all our troubles are at an end. He is going to find the perfect solutions to all our problems. This optimism was an at all high time high a year or so back. While it has abated a bit now , it is also surprising how lenient the media has been with him and how in general too , the refrain has been that we need to give him more time. Again nothing wrong with that. In some ways it also shows a certain level of maturity on the part of the electorate. However , Modi and adequate time seem to be our only answers to the problems at hand. He is a “strong” leader , people say. And that seems to be enough. There is even a sneaking and many times an open admiration for his authoritarian tendencies. Allow me to point out that having a “strong” leader has never been a problem -except for the years under Manmohan Singh. Indira Gandhi was a strong ,authoritarian leader. She was equally lauded and adulated during her time. She was “Durga Maa” ,after the war with Pakistan was won on the Eastern Front. Her Garibi Hatao had in many ways captured the imagination of the electorate. Modi is also charismatic , has captured our imagination like few leaders in the recent past have been able to. But the only qualitative difference that I see is it was Socialism then -it is Capitalism now. There is a different economic coin. And that seems to be it.

No, I am not a Modi baiter. I am not necessarily a fan of his style of functioning ,or the ideology of his party. But I must say , that he has taken some delightful if unexpected agendas. And that is commendable. I am talking here about , this tendency on our part to see this single person as a savior of sorts. This amounts to an abdication of our own responsibilities as citizens. It is almost reminiscent of the monarchies of old, where the King would make all the difference. The citizens in general are helpless and powerless. We have replaced monarchies with electoral democracy. But the way we idolize our leaders still reflects the old spirit. We have had a long history in this country of personality cults and perhaps this reflects the fact that while we are a democracy in the letter , we are not really a democracy in spirit. True , we have voted out certain leaders in the past , but the phenomenon of personality cult remains strong , and seems to have come back with a vengeance with Modi.

There are obvious dangers to a culture of leader worship and personality cults. Sooner or later it leads to authoritarian tendencies and an acquiescence on the part of the general public , further emboldening the leader and so forth like a vicious cycle. And then when the breaking point comes we would vote this leader out. For a while , such a “strong” leader would not emerge. The citizens start feeling direction less.A need again is felt for a strong leader and another would emerge and the cycle would repeat itself. The leader gets adulated , the leader turns megalomaniacal and then he is discredited. And nothing would change in real terms.

All the while we miss the real problem. A successful democracy demands from it’s citizens far more civil vibrancy than has existed in our country for long. True , it is changing now. And that is a good thing. But for us to be a successful democracy we need to operate at far higher levels of awareness and at much lower levels of apathy. Unless and until we are more informed ,more active as citizens , much more demanding of our representatives ,I do not see much hope for change. We are our biggest hope but we do not see it that way. We see hope in our leaders and express disappointment in them. We tend to blame politicians and democracy for all our ills. But then , we are getting the leaders that we deserve. We blame our politicians for playing caste based politics – yet in a lot of places in the country for a lot of people caste plays a very important role in their lives. We bemoan the communalization of politics , yet we need only to look at the prejudices of an average Indian to guess as to it’s source. We don’t want people to run red lights , yet we do that at every opportunity when we know we can get away with it.

It is convenient to blame our problems on the lack of leadership. But when this leadership emerges from amongst us and when we have a chance to select who our leaders should be , we have little excuse. Our longing for a leader who would lead us out of this mess is only a reflection of how little responsibility that we as citizens want to take for our conditions. True , leadership is important, there is no denying that but leadership is not the only or even the biggest solution to our problems. Can we be more informed ? Can we be less apathetic? Can we take up certain responsibilities in whatever little way each of us can? Only when we are able to answer these questions in the affirmative , will the solutions to our problems begin to emerge.

We can continue to blame democracy. We can continue to see our savior in one single person. However , till the time we become worthy of the progress that we want our leaders to magically deliver to us ,I dont see real change happening.

The day is not far when we will be disillusioned with Modi too. And it wont be his fault. Democracy is not the problem. A strong leader who brooks no dissent is not the solution. We can provide solutions ourselves by being more demanding , by changing the discourse , by being informed .Hard work? Yes. Worth it? We all need to answer that for ourselves.

Successful democracies seem to have worked this way. I guess we can too. Denying that we can make this work is almost tantamount to saying we are not fit for self rule. If that’s the case , somebody should have alerted our freedom fighters to that fact. We seem to have wasted our time winning our freedom. After all , could there be a “stronger” leader than the Monarch?


About srikal

Confused,Unsure, Bored , Faithless and Cynical...

Posted on October 7, 2015, in POLITICS, REFLECTIONS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. 3 lines of praise, followed by 10 lines of abuse. rrrrrright, not a modi baiter. definitely not. no sir.

  2. Wonderfully written, a thought provoking article.

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