Want a ‘strong’ leader?

A book relevant to our times as it shows, through historical examples, how “strong” leaders often end up as a peril to democracy.

Published : Jan 04, 2017 12:30 IST

DR B.R. Ambedkar told the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948: “Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic” ( Constituent Assembly Debates, hereafter CAD , Volume 7, page 38). On November 25, 1949, at the end of the Assembly’s labours, Dr. Ambedkar warned that “it was quite possible for this newborn democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact…. If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing, in my judgment, we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. …It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha…. [They are] The Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”

The rest is so strikingly relevant to the situation today as to bear quotation in extenso :

“The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy; namely, not to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For, in India, Bhakti, or what may be called the path of devotion or hero worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship” ( CAD , Volume 12, page 978). Nehru and Patel were present when he spoke thus at the Assembly.

Unlike most of the tribe, Ambedkar was no mere lawyer immersed in law reports and textbooks with a smattering knowledge of a couple of other subjects and a passion for self-advertisement through TV appearances and articles in print. He was steeped in constitutional thought, history, economics and political science. He and his generation had read Mill and he knew the Indian character very well. So did Nirad C. Chaudhary, who remarked: “Depthless cowardice before power and limitless insolence before justice are the constants of the political behaviour of the Indian people.”

Four centuries earlier, Francois Bernier (a French physician and traveller who was in India during Aurangzeb’s reign) had noted that in India “the vice of flattery pervades all ranks”. He recalled a Persian couplet in vogue then which said “Should the King say that it is night/Be sure to cry, Behold, I see the moon.”

Democracy does not dispense with leadership. It survives on it—provided the leader sustains it and does not subvert it by fostering a personality cult to amass power. He thus abuses the trust which a people, addicted to hero worship, repose in him.

Archie Brown, the author of the book under review, is emeritus professor of Politics at the University of Oxford, and has written works of high scholarship on Soviet and communist politics, the Cold War and political leadership. This book is strikingly relevant to the dark times that have befallen our country as Narendra Damodardas Modi won a landslide victory at the elections baring a self-acclaimed 56-inch chest to proclaim that a truly “strong” leader had arrived to achieve miracles. In reality, he sought to recast the polity after his heart’s desires. In the heat of the crisis of demonetisation, every peel of falsehood fell off his person, leaving him piteously exposed as a power-hungry politician.

The people yearn for leadership, but they are notoriously oblivious to the perils it can pose. The Quit India movement in 1942 was a predictable disaster. In 1941, both the United States and the Soviet Union were attacked. Japan’s conquests could not last. It was entirely one man’s plan. Vallabhbhai Patel, the “realist”, told the Congress Working Committee (April 27–May 1, 1942) explicitly: “I have placed myself in the hands of Gandhiji. I feel that he is instinctively right; the lead he gives in all critical situations.” This spirit of obedience to the “master” pervades all ranks in Indian society.

Brown’s book explodes the myths surrounding people’s yearnings for a “strong leader” and the claims made by the pretenders who deceive them. “This is an argumentative book and one of the main contentions is already suggested by the title. The central misconception, which I set out to expose, is the notion that strong leaders in the conventional sense of leaders who get their way, dominate their colleagues, and concentrate decision-making in their hands, are the most successful and admirable. While some leaders who come into the category emerge more positively than negatively, in general huge power amassed by an individual leader paves the way for important errors at best and disaster and massive bloodshed at worst. Although the book also examines many other aspects of political leadership, what I call the myth of the strong leader is a central thread which unifies the discussion of democratic, revolutionary, authoritarian and totalitarian leaders. Those in the first of these categories can do far less damage, precisely because there are constraints upon their power from outside government. 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 Cabinet, the greater the leader. A more collegial style of leadership is too often characterised as a weakness, the advantages of a more collective political leadership too commonly overlooked… the notion that there is, or should be, one leader who stands head and shoulders above his or her colleagues and dominates the political process is common in all democracies (from the preface).”

The book is a product of more than 50 years of study of politics, of research and lecturing on the subject in different parts of North America, Europe and Asia. Britain apart, the country in which he spent the most time was the U.S. He spent almost as much time in Russia, in both the Soviet and the post-Soviet periods. He made some 40 visits to Russia.

Strong, not autocratic It is a vicious circle. The leader wins popularity first and proceeds thereafter to acquire charisma. However, “to a large extent it is followers who bestow charisma on leaders when that person seems to embody the qualities they are looking for” (italics here, as in the original).

Leadership can be transactional or transformative, the ones who conduct the daily chores of governance and the ones who shape the polity or alter the course of events radically. Two names stand out—Charles de Gaulle and Mikhail Gorbachev. De Gaulle was authoritarian, yet democratic. He was “the exception who proved the rule—not merely by being ‘above party’ but by ultimately enhancing, rather than undermining, French democracy”. The author accepts that “usually leaders who think of themselves as being above politics, and who regard politicians with disdain, are bad for democracy. It is an outlook to which some military men have been particularly prone. General Charles de Gaulle, too, believed that he had a higher understanding and conception of France than mere politicians, and he was disparaging of political parties. Yet, in spite of fears to the contrary, he strengthened French democracy, rather than undermining it, and played the decisive role in replacing an ailing democratic political system with a more robust one….

“Eschewing at each stage of his career any attempt to rule by force, de Gaulle chose a democratic path. In 1946 that meant resigning from the premiership and retiring to his home in the village of Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, from where, nevertheless, he hoped that before long he would be called back to Paris to lead the nation. It was to be another twelve years before the call came.”

A leader must lead, inspire and yet follow the norms of democracy. He must make it his business to know and understand the people’s thoughts, feelings and moods. What Edmund Burke wrote in his classic Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents is as true now as it was when he wrote it in 1770. “The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought therefore to be the first study of a statesman. And the knowledge of this temper it is by no means impossible for him to attain, if he has not an interest in being ignorant of what it is his duty to learn.”

“Strong” leadership is not synonymous with autocratic leadership. On the contrary, it signifies the leader’s insecurities. “‘Strong’ leadership is, then, generally taken to signify an individual concentrating power in his or her own hands and wielding it decisively. Yet the more power and authority is accumulated in just one leader’s hands, the more that leader comes to believe in his or her unrivalled judgment and indispensability. The more decisions are taken by one individual leader, the less time that person has for thinking about the policy and weighing up the evidence in each case. Since there are only 24 hours in the day of even the strongest leader, that person’s aides find themselves (often to their great satisfaction) taking decisions in the name of the leader. That is just one reason why the allure of ‘strong leadership’ being exercised by a single person at the top of the political hierarchy should be resisted.”

Tony Blair held otherwise and brought the country to grief. “Time and again in his memoirs, Blair emphasises that the decision to take Britain into war in Iraq in 2003 was his, that as Prime Minister he was entitled to take it, and that, even if people disagreed with the military intervention, they ‘sympathised with the fact that the leader had to take the decision.’”

He misread the popular mood and perverted the norms of Cabinet government. Worst of all are the ones obsessed with their “image” in the minds of the people. The Tory press drove Anthony Eden to near madness, after he succeeded Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, by accusing him of providing a “weak” leadership. He decided to prove them wrong by launching the disastrous Suez adventure.

Parties dump a leader who is perceived to have lost the capacity to deliver votes. “The political scientist Anthony King has described the ‘near-universal belief’ that leaders’ and candidates’ personalities are hugely important factors in determining the outcomes of elections as ‘simply wrong’. That is not, King observes, to deny that leaders’ personal characteristics count for something, simply that it is ‘not for nearly as much as is generally supposed’. Summing up a study of modern elections in six countries, King concludes that ‘it is quite unusual for leaders’ and candidates’ personalities and other personal traits to determine election outcomes’. Among specialists who have made serious studies of the role of leaders in the determination of electoral outcomes—and their number has increased in the decade since King’s work was published—there is no consensus. Some attribute more electoral significance to leaders than do others. Their work contains little, however, to justify certain political leaders’ attribution of election victories primarily to themselves.”

Not seldom, the leader who brings victory at the elections is the one who has just responded to the mood of the electorate. The ground for change in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) leadership was prepared by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh after its disenchantment with L.K. Advani. The failure of the United Progressive Alliance government in its second term did the rest. And Modi sailed along.

The author bases his conclusions on extensive case studies of British, U.S., Russian and other leaders. His highest praise is reserved for Nelson Mandela, a democrat and inclusivist, shorn of ego. If India had produced a Nelson Mandela, it would not have been partitioned.

Clement Attlee Was U.K. Prime Minister Clement Attlee a “strong” leader? The historian Alan Bullock wrote of him: “No politician ever made less effort to project his personality or court popularity; in place of Churchill’s heroic style, his speeches were dry, matter of fact and often banal. He preferred understatement to rhetoric, and his most effective weapon in debate was a gift for deflation which more than once took the wind out of Churchill’s sails.… Attlee’s unassuming manner and laconic habit of speech, however, were deceptive.… There were half-a-dozen men in the government with more obvious talents than his own; it was Attlee’s strength as Prime Minister that he turned this to his advantage. Unaffected by vanity and with a shrewd eye for the strengths and weaknesses of his colleagues, he left them a free hand in carrying out their different jobs and made little or no attempt to impose his own views on departmental policy.”

Impact on foreign policy Leaders delight in soliciting applause abroad in order to buttress their support at home. Modi fancies himself as an untrained genius in foreign affairs. The results are none too impressive. He disdains professional advice. The author notes insightfully: “It would obviously be misleading to suggest that bad foreign policy decisions are taken only by those who fancy themselves to be strong individual leaders, endowed with special insights. However, such leaders are more prone to serious error because of their willingness to discount the accumulated knowledge of people with expertise on the part of the world in question. They are characterised also by a disinclination to promote uninhibited discussion, based on full access to information, with governmental colleagues who feel free to raise objections and to insist on consideration of alternative approaches.

“Worse decisions on foreign policy are, on the whole, taken in authoritarian regimes than in democracies (the gulf is still wider on domestic policy), and the worst of all are within autocratic, rather than oligarchic, regimes. There the preordained lack of dissent from the views of the top leader fortifies his belief that he is supremely qualified to make the decisive judgment call. Leaders who pride themselves on being ‘strong’, or who are anxious to appear strong, may be especially tempted by military intervention in another country.”

Since this feature of government has become increasingly prominent, the author’s incisive analysis bears quotation in extenso . It applies to all countries locked in Cold War situations, especially India. “Cold War paranoia led to many foolish decisions on both sides of the ideological divide, and armed interventions without major unintended consequences are rare. Time and again governments think that the military part of the operation will be over in a matter of weeks or months, after which the right kind of government will be securely installed. Outside specialists, as distinct from senior KGB officers, were given no opportunity to influence the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan.…

“If we turn to democracies, Britain provides several examples of Prime Ministers intent on dominating their colleagues and coming to disastrous conclusions on the basis of a misplaced faith in their own judgment on foreign policy. The two most clear-cut cases are those of Anthony Eden and the collusion with France and Israel to invade Egypt in 1956 and of Tony Blair and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

Gorbachev’s role Gorbachev truly altered the course of history. He rid the Soviet Union of dictatorship and helped end the Cold War. Brown’s praise for him is unqualified.

“Gorbachev was not, in the conventional sense, a ‘strong leader’. He was not overbearing and was willing both to make tactical retreats and to absorb criticism. In particular, he did not fit Russians’ traditional image of a strong leader. The head of Soviet space research, Roald Sagdeev, had opportunities to observe Gorbachev in small group discussions in the early years of perestroika. He noted that there were only a few people who did not fall under the spell of Gorbachev’s personal charm and the magnetism of his verbal talent. Admiring his zeal as a genuine born missionary, Sagdeev remarked, however, on Gorbachev’s tendency to overestimate what he could achieve with his formidable powers of persuasion. He had come to believe that he could persuade anyone in the Soviet Union about anything. Yet what was especially important about Gorbachev’s leadership, Sagdeev adds, was precisely that he attempted to persuade his interlocutors, albeit in a most impassioned and eloquent way.…

“By playing the principal role in the transformation of Soviet foreign policy, Gorbachev had also been the key figure in changing the international system. The Cold War had begun with the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. It ended when the countries of East and Central Europe became, one by one, independent and non-communist and Gorbachev calmly accepted the outcome….

“Aleksandr Yakovlev, who by the 1990s had become a far from uncritical admirer of Gorbachev, said, nevertheless, in 1995: ‘I consider Gorbachev to be the greatest reformer of the century, the more so because he tried to do this in Russia where from time immemorial the fate of reformers has been unenviable. It is certainly difficult to think of anyone in the second half of the twentieth century who had a larger (and generally beneficent) impact not only on his own multinational state but also internationally. By temperament a reformer rather than revolutionary, he, nevertheless, pursued (as he put it) revolutionary change by evolutionary means.” This is the man who was cheated by George H.W. Bush. It is not realised that the U.S. broke its word to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Vladmir Putin’s ire is justified.

A leader must consult. In the aftermath of the debacle of the 1965 war, Ayub Khan was asked why he allowed himself to drag Pakistan into a war by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His answer was stunning in its truthfulness—he did not have the system which an army should have—in-house critics of military plans.

The journal Daedalus invited Brown to edit a volume on the subject which he did (Summer 2016). The insights he offers here are striking. “There is a hankering in the United States for more assertive leadership, as well as ambivalence when it is provided. The chief U.S. commentator of Financial Times , Edward Luce, recently wrote, ‘One of the loudest complaints of Mr Trump’s followers is they believe America lacks a strong leader.’ He immediately added, ‘If Mr Trump is the answer, there is something wrong with the question.’ The search for a strong leader—in the sense of one who will dominate all and sundry—is indeed the pursuit of a false god.” We know how very true this really is by our own disastrous experience in 2014.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment