Power, Democracy And Leadership—M.S. Srinivasan

A major challenge facing modern democracy is how to build enlightened leadership within the democratic framework.  This requires a clear understanding of the relationship between power, democracy, hierarchy and leadership.  This article examines the problem in a holistic perspective and in the light of Indian insights.

Key Perspectives: forms of power; political challenge; ideal of power;

 The Forms of Power

Oxford dictionary defines the concept of power as the “ability to influence people or events,” “right or authority to do something,” “political authority or control.”  However in an increasingly democratizing society we have to progress beyond authority and control to a more refined conceptions of power.   We will come to this subject a little later.  We may begin our discussion with a commonly accepted conception of power as the ability to influence people or event.

We may classify power into four categories: political, economic, social and psychological.  Political power comes from position, authority and hierarchy.  For example a Prime Minister or President of a Nation or the CEO of a multinational company has a certain political power which comes from their position of authority.  We may include here as part of political power some of the material or vital forms of power like oratory, physical charisma or mass appeal.  Wealth is the source of economic power.  This doesn’t need any elaboration or example because the power of money is well known.  The social power comes from possessing a knowledge, skill, expertise or qualities valued or respected by the community, especially a particular community, nation or culture of which the individual is a part.  For example, in ancient India, the Brahmin had not much of political or economic power but has considerable social power.  The fourth and the highest form of power is the psychological power, which comes from power of thought,¾which means the ability to think with clarify, insight and vision¾ leadership qualities, strength of character, self-mastery, lived values or walking the talk and spiritual growth.

The Political Challenge

The great challenge facing modern governance is to ensure that political power goes to people with sufficient and matching psychological and moral power.  In ancient India political power was vested mostly with the royal and warrior clans of Kshathria’s, bequeathed by birth and hereditary.  But most of the leaders of the Kshathria clan, like for example the crown prince, were put through a rigorous physical, mental, moral and religious education based on the ideal of dharma.  This education and training has to a certain extent helped in building the required psychological and moral power in the political leader.  But in modern democratic polity, which elects the political leaders by vote, there are no such mental or moral education or standards for the leaders.  As a result there is a great deterioration in the quality of political leadership.

How to rectify this situation? The first step is to educate the citizen and the voter on the ideals of true leadership and on the type of leaders which can bring the highest wellbeing to people and society.  In this task, the modern mass-media with its extensive reach can be a great help in educating the public on how to choose the right type of leaders.  The second step is to maintain certain basic mental and moral standards for contesting the election like for example some minimum educational qualification or no criminal record.  The third step is to educate the elected leaders on the ideals of leadership and governance and how to develop the psychological, moral and spiritual power needed to lead and govern in the right way.  For example in most of the big and progressive companies in the corporate world, managers and executives go through regular training and development programmes for upgrading their knowledge and skill and some of them make a conscious, systematic and planned effort to educate and groom their future leaders.  A similar effort has to be made in the political domain.

The third step is to promote creative thinking and research in political thought, governance and leadership.  Here again the modern political world can learn much from the corporate world.  Modern business has given birth to the science of management which is a rigorous and innovative academic and professional discipline, which nourishes theoretical and practical research on the various aspects of corporate management, governance and leadership.   A similar attempt has to be made in the political domain.

Hierarchy and the Dominant Class

The other issue related to power is hierarchy.  In the Indian perspective, the outer social or corporate hierarchy has to be the expression of the inner psychological hierarchy.   In this psychological hierarchy, the spiritual intuition of the sage is placed at the top.  Next comes the higher mental, ethical and aesthetic intelligence of the Brahmin and the enlightened will and vital energy of the Kshathria.  At the third level is the relational and pragmatic mind of the Vysya.   The fourth level is the physical energies of the Shudra.  The Indian idea is that the highest or the most enlightened Brahmic and Kshathria energies of the community, guided by the intuitive wisdom of the sage, must provide the top leadership to the society.  The rest of the society has to follow the direction set by the sage, brahmin and the kshathria.

This brings us to the question what is the role of dominant and ruling class in a society? In most of the ancient societies including India, the dominant classes tend to cling to their power and privileges and refused to share their achievements and gains with the rest of the society.  But this is contrary to the evolutionary intention of Nature which moves towards increasing equity through a dual process of concentration and diffusion.  There is a temporary need to concentrate the creative energy in a dominant minority.  For in order to distribute or share, first you must have something to share.  So, whenever Nature wants to achieve a change, progress or evolution, first she creates a dominant minority in which it can be achieved in a pure and concentrated form before it can be distributed.  But once the purpose of concentration is achieved, Nature puts pressure on the dominant classes to share their gains with the rest of society.  If the dominant classes refuse to do it, then Nature uses violent methods like mass upheaval and bloody revolutions to achieve her aim.  So the dominant or ruling classes must understand their true role and make a conscious effort to impart their gains, which may be wealth, power, ideas, culture, values or spirituality to the rest of the society and uplift them to a higher level of culture or consciousness or economic and social status.

The Indian ideal of hierarchy has to be viewed in this perspective of the ways and intentions of Nature in the evolutionary progress of humanity.  There is a deeper psychological truth behind the Indian ideal of hierarchy, which has to be retained.  But the sage, brahmin and Kshathria should not perpetuate a political intellectual, moral or spiritual aristocracy or theocracy over the society.  They must impart their knowledge, culture ideal and spirituality to every section of the society, including the Shudra and Woman and the large masses.  This may lead to a certain amount of dilution of the higher ideals and values and if there is no corrective factor to check the dilution, the ideal may get twisted, distorted and lost in the mass-mind.  There are two ways to minimize this loss.  First is to create and foster many centres of excellence where the ideal is kept alive and preserved in its pristine purity by deep thinking, scholarship and practice.  But these centres should not remain aloof or closed in their elitist ivory tower.  They have to interact creatively with the surrounding environment and think out how to communicate their ideas and ideals to people in various levels of evolution and steer their evolution progressively towards the ideal.  They must also figure-out how to apply and adopt the ideals flexibly to the facts and changing realities of life.  Secondly, the cultural mind of the community has to be alert and vigilant to detect the dilution and distortion in the ideals and send the corrective signal.

The Ideal of Power

There is one more important question related to wielding power.  What is the higher purpose or ideal or the ultimate aim of power? The answer of the old traditional paradigm is control, perfect control of the power-holder over those who are under his or her charge.  But this ideal of power is now obsolete and no longer viable for the present or for the future.  The ancient Indian ideal of power is not control but bringing a dharmic order to society by creating an environment where each individual and community can live and grow freely according to their unique swadharma, interacting harmoniously with each other and contributing to the common good of all.  In this Indian perspective the main function of the organ of power and the wielder of power is not control but coordination, harmonizing and unifying the communal life into an organic whole.  The other important values prescribed for the wielder of power is to ensure justice, and prevent or correct all violation of dharma.  The third ideal of power is to promote well-being, and in the Indian thought, it is primarily social and moral being of people.

We have to add to this Indian ideal of power, the modern ideal of “empowerment” which means literally giving more power to people.  The process of wielding power has to move from holding or concentrating power in a few people towards distribution or giving power to a large mass of people.  But power for what?  To think, create, decide, plan, organise and ultimately to govern themselves.  Thus the highest ideal of power is not to control or regulate people but to release and empower people so that they can govern themselves.  The highest ideal of the organ of power or government is to foster the self-governing individual in a self-governing community.

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