Shakespeare, writes Stephen Greenblatt in the opening paragraph of Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power, grappled with a deeply unsettling question: How can a whole country fall into the hands of a tyrant? Under what circumstances do cherished, deep-rooted and impregnable institutions suddenly prove fragile?
The Bard, suggests Greenblatt, knew tyranny could not happen without the readiness of a nation to abandon its ideals. People can be attracted to mendacity, crudeness and cruelty. ‘Why do otherwise a proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?’
We hesitate to use the term tyrant in the times of democracy because tyrants are wholly illegitimate. They grab power by force, they rule for their own good, and they show no mercy to dissidents.
Hilary Mantel’s three wonderful novels describe in meticulous detail the inhuman punishment meted out to courtiers who fall out of favour of King Henry VIII. Take the execution of Anne Boleyn, a woman who at one point could twirl the king around her bejewelled fingers. For the assembled crowds, the slowly executed beheading was pure spectacle; an unadulterated blood sport.
Thomas More, the great intellectual and the author of Utopia, was killed in a similar manner because he refused to accept Henry VIII as the Head of the Church of England. Just like the Duchess said to Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a tyrannical monarch is likely to say: ‘Talking of axes, off with her head.’
Our worlds are, and should be, different. In a democracy, citizens have the right to hold their representatives responsible for acts of omission and commission. The institutional structure of a democracy is designed to control exercise of unmitigated power. Illegitimate assertions of political power are supposed to be monitored and regulated by citizens. This is democracy.
But when the Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, while delivering the 17th Justice PD Desai Memorial Trust lecture, suggested that the mere right of people to change rulers through elections was no guarantee against ‘the tyranny of the elected’, we are forced to sit up and think. Perhaps, electoral authoritarianism is not an oxymoron after all!
We have seen political leaders, bloated with power, misbehave with the very people who voted them to power in the first place. We have seen elected leaders downgrading citizens into subjects.
The situation is rich in irony. Democracy transforms subjects into citizens, but elected leaders have reversed the process. Still, a politically aware electorate continues to vote for a party whose agenda is not circumscribed by the Constitution, no matter how ignoble the agenda might be.
Indians continue to vote for discredited politicians, accept their lies, disregard their past, overlook their misdemeanours, specifically their failure to govern the country, and pay little attention to intolerance of the slightest criticism.
Witness the paradox. Leaders come to power through elections and swear allegiance to the Constitution. And then, some of them ruthlessly proceed to demolish or subvert every provision of the political contract that creates a bond between the people and their rulers.
Citizens are rendered vulnerable. They can, of course, invoke the rule of law, appeal to the judiciary, write letters to the government, hope that the media takes up their cause, or hope for support from citizens’ groups in civil society. But mediatory institutions have been rendered toothless. Citizens in the modern state are as vulnerable to the diktats of the authoritarian ruler as the subjects were in the times of the tyrant. They are, probably, more vulnerable because the modern state possesses the kind of power that Louis XIV, who is reported to have said, ‘I am the state’, would have envied.
Innovative ways of exercising power have been invented with the help of new technologies. Rulers throughout history have played to the gallery. Today, they intrude into the minds of people through social media and television appearances, through thunderous oratory and the clever mining of aphorisms. Why should we hesitate to call them tyrants just because they formally abide by hollowed-out institutional and constitutional conventions?
I doubt whether tyrants or aspiring tyrants read at all, but if they do, they should read Macbeth to understand the futility of power gained at any cost. Once he ascends the throne of Scotland after killing Duncan, Macbeth is edgy and fearful, wracked by ‘restless ecstasy’. “We eat our meals in fear, and sleep to terrible dreams,” he tells his wife. “Better be with the dead/Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace… Duncan is in his grave; after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well… nor steel nor poison/ Malice domestic, foreign levy nothing.” He envies the dead! We almost feel sorry for Macbeth, till we recollect that his path to power is strewn with corpses.
Perhaps, democracy, when pushed to its limits, extracts revenge. At some point, the wheel of fortune, in the words of the philosopher Boethius, will turn. A student will stand up, a poet will write, a movement will coalesce, or someone will retell the political message of Shakespeare that “Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more: it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.’
An elected tyrant might learn some lessons. Perhaps.
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