Sometimes, the greatest wisdoms lie embedded in the insights of the past. Tulsidas (1532-1623), uttered the ultimate verity about the alchemy of power: ‘Nahin kou asa janma jaga mahin, prabhuta pai jahi mada nahi.’ Never was a creature born in this world, whom power did not intoxicate. Why does this happen? Is there something intrinsic in the way power operates, or is the vulnerability latent in the individual, or is it the evil that occurs when the two combine?
Power can be of many kinds – corporate, familial, bureaucratic or within any organisation; but perhaps the most emblematic area to understand its working is politics. Many politicians, when aspirants to power, genuinely believe that they will be invincible to its distorting temptations or misuse. But the way to hell is paved with good intentions.
The first chink in the armour of good intentions is arrogance. As political primacy consolidates, the incumbent begins to believe that he or she can do no wrong. A curious but lethal change of attitude occurs. The earlier belief that the public knows best is replaced by the hubris that I know what is best for the public. The greater the egotism of the ruler, the greater his conviction that he alone is the repository of public good. This constricts the space for the mandatory consultative processes essential to ascertain what is really good for the people, leading to arbitrary, imperious and whimsical decision making.
A second consequence is the erosion of inner party democracy. The supreme leader can only maintain the aura of his authority if he places himself above all questioning. Those who question or proffer advice are seen as less than categorical in their loyalty, even subversive. What should have been a collegial system of functioning is then replaced by individual centric fiats, leaving colleagues divided into those who blindly follow and those – very, very few – who are willing to pay the price of not doing so.
Courtiers are quick to realise that their personal gain lies in saying what pleases the leader rather than what they think is right. The outcome is an echo chamber – the third feature. A popular folk story about a king and his wazir illustrates this well. The king was tired of eating eggplant. One day he mentioned to his wazir that eggplant was an absolutely useless vegetable. The wazir agreed wholeheartedly, and decried the poor vegetable emphatically. Some days later, the raj vaid, the royal physician, not knowing the king’s views, spoke to him about the excellent health benefits of eating eggplant. Now the king recommended the vegetable to his wazir.
The wazir couldn’t agree more. The eggplant, he readily concurred, was veritably the king of vegetables. Suddenly, the king remembered that the wazir had roundly condemned this vegetable just recently. With anger he asked how he could maintain two absolutely contradictory opinions. The wazir’s answer came from generations of distilled wisdom. He said: ‘My Lord, I work for you, not for the eggplant. What good would it do me if I disagree with you and praise the eggplant?’
The emergence of a sycophantic coterie, and the absence of objective advice in the interests of the people, is the fourth consequence of power. Tulsidas again sums it up beautifully: ‘Sachiv baida guru tini jaun, priya bolahin bhaya asa, raja dharma tana tini kara, hoi begihin nasa.’ When a minister, a physician and a religious preceptor say pleasing words only from fear or hope of reward, all three – the state, health and faith – go to the dogs.
When the leader hears only what he wishes to hear within the establishment, he expects the people also to be so compliant. When this does not happen, his reaction – reinforced by the echo chamber around him – is to treat dissenters as enemies. They are dubbed as anti-nationals, traitors, foreign agents, seditionists and unpatriotic – and must be dealt with accordingly. All the might of the state is used to silence them. To concede to a differing opinion is conflated with weakness – anathema to a strong ruler. High principles – the glory of the motherland, state security, the protection of the faith – are invoked to deal with this treason. This is the fifth consequence of the intoxication of power.
The sixth trait is a burgeoning self-love. The powerful leader becomes increasingly conscious about his image. He is obsessed with his attire, his looks, the styling of his hair, his eloquence, even his physical size. From this narcissism, arises the seventh consequence: the desire for historical permanence. He wants to imprint his legacy on the pages of history. Critical of those who did so in the past, he now emulates them: cities are rebuilt, the old junked, and buildings renamed to commemorate his memory. Posterity must be given symbols – whether necessary or not – to recall the greatness of his era.
The last consequence is a determination to somehow cling to power. Any means are justified for this purpose, including unethical money power and the cynical use of religion to divide people. Mirza Ghalib wrote: ‘Har bulandi ke naseebon main hai pasti ek din.’ In every pinnacle lies the seed of its decline. The common man, patient but wise, watches this historical inevitability unfold.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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