'Power', in simple terms, refers to the ability to influence decision making. Nehru and Mandela are two individuals who have set examples on how to wield and relinquish power responsibly.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” - John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, also known as Lord Acton, English historian and moralist of the 19th century

All power corrupts, but some must govern.” - John le Carre, British ex-intelligence officer and novelist of the 20th century

The first is among the most quoted maxims in the zeitgeist of twentieth century geopolitics. The second makes a sober counterpoint to the first.

What exactly does ‘power’ mean? What kind of power is really necessary for an individual — and by extension a nation — to create a healthy self-image? And at what point does it cease to be a stimulant and metamorphose into an intoxicant?

With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the early 90s, ideology ceased to define the way countries spelt out different power equations. There was only one mantra, analysts said: free market capitalism, which they prescribed as the panacea for all difficulties. With the creation of a unipolar world order, the world, fed in no small amount by self-congratulatory pundits, came to believe that self-regulation, both in political and economic spheres, would create the ultimate check on power. The Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher school of thoughts — favouring small state and big business — came to gain worldwide acceptance in the last decade of the century.

However, its limits were visible sooner than later. Imbroglios like the Asian currency crisis and then seemingly disparate events like the war on terror of the last decade; the ongoing great recession; and the endless winter in the aftermath of Arab Spring have all brought us to the realisation that unfettered power — be it political or economic — is as detrimental to a the well being of a nation as overregulation.

So is ‘power’ per se an anathema? How to define it in the first place? And how do stakeholders create a template for utilising it?

‘Power’, in simple terms, is the ability to influence other’s decisions. This applies not just in terms of ends, actual results, but also means, the thought processes that go into producing those ends.

In that sense, this piece, based on this research article published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, surely informs, educates and enlightens a keen layperson.

Andy J. Yap, Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, conducted experiments at Columbia University to study some attributes associated with power equations in an organisational setup. He and his colleagues found that ‘feeling powerful’ or ‘powerless’ influenced not just our ability but also our perception of others. So, we have a tendency to evaluate the power of others relative to that of our own.

That sounds trite. But the next part of it is likely to raise a few eyebrows: feeling powerful makes us see others as less powerful. An individual’s sense of being powerful not just equates to others being powerless but also feeds on it.

Can this hypothesis find wider application? Can we apply it to the leaders we admire? To. democrats like Jawaharlal Nehru, who had power but chose to exercise very wisely? Or to Nelson Mandela who made good use of his power and relinquished it when he felt the time was ripe?

To take the point further, what stopped Jawaharlal Nehru from becoming a Lee Kuan Yew? Or, to make it more recent, what could have stopped Mandela from becoming a Robert Mugabe?

The piece quoted provides some answers. Joe Magee, a power researcher and professor of management at New York University, finds power more “freeing” rather than “corrupting”. He says power always helps one’s true self to emerge.

His stand is that handling power is more about the values cultivated before coming to power.

But what about checks and balances?

The research article was published in May. Six months later, Mugabe, at the age of 89, has won another round of elections in Zimbabwe. Mandela is no longer with us. And in June next year, it would be 50 years since India lost its first Prime Minister.

Discovering power

Rewind to the year 1964. India’s first Prime Minister died on 27th May . His last days — his photographs and his statements make it clear — did not suggest that end was nearing.

Victor Anant, in his obit, said, “The face was frozen into a mould of bewildered determination. In death as in life this was a face not of repose but of eager, impatient discovery.”

I don’t think Anant was a necromancer. I do think Nehru’s was a curious soul, in life and death. He remained a seeker/learner as much as a shaper and a setter - one reason he knew how to handle power.

A little more than a month earlier, on April 20, Nelson Mandela, then a youth leader of African National Congress (ANC), made his iconic speech before being sentenced to life imprisonment.

He presented his vision for a democratic South Africa — one he held on to even after 27 years in prison. He stood for African nationalism but not the one that wanted to “drive the white man into the sea”. His party, the African National Congress (ANC), stood for “freedom and fulfillment for the African people in their own land”. It did not call for violent takeover and redistribution of land, neither did it call for total nationalisation.

He was not just against white imperialism. He was also against black imperialism. I wonder how Mugabe would have reacted to this or how he would react to it now.

In Mandela’s vision, nationalisation and private enterprise were to be allowed to coexist. The middle-class was not to be ignored. And he made it clear that ANC did not advocate a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country.

This was made in the context of ANC’s links with communists in a Cold War scenario. The positive part of it was, Mandela did not give up on it even after coming out of prison, about 27 years later, when Cold War had ended.

These ideals, values, principles defined the way he handled his inner demons. And his conditioning, like that of many other leaders, was an ongoing process. As historian Stephen W. Smith mentions here, during his long and solitary confinement, Mandela came to see the ‘other’ as a reflection of himself. An alterego finding himself in different set of circumstances. Mandela's fight was to be against circumstances rather than against people.

And as his favourite poem Invictus, by William Ernest Henley [quoted in the piece] goes,

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.”

These values, in their distilled form, made sure he knew how to handle political power when he finally accepted it after winning elections in 1994. They also defined the way he relinquished it after just one term in 1999.

Consummate democrat

Coming to Nehru, for all his flaws, he was a consummate democrat. Though many other attributes characterised his style of decision making — including idealism which at times bordered on naivete — he never shied away from his responsibilities as a parliamentarian and a legislator. His scientific temper is one of the many reasons India stood as a democracy much after he left his job unfinished.

In the case of both personalities, democratic values were cultivated after a long struggle which involved not just winning battles of mind with the opposition but also achieving victory in battles with oneself. The fight was as much with one's own inner demons as it was with the external forces..

In this regard, Mandela acknowledged — quoted by Rajeev Bhatia, India’s ex-high commissioner to South Africa in his tribute — that Nehru was his “hero”, someone who influenced not just the thinking of South Africa's liberation movement, but also his own thinking, in a "profound and lasting" manner.

Democracy is as much a social process as a political one. Something the lives of these two make clear. Their handling of power had to do as much with the values cultivated beforehand as the constitutional checks and balances in place once they were in power.

Just like Mandela did later, Nehru could have quit as Premier and strengthened inner-party democracy. Alternatively, he could have chosen to be the elder statesman Mandela became after finishing his first term. He didn’t. Perhaps he couldn’t afford to. However, that doesn’t take anything away from his democratic credentials. That he believed in debating issues out in Parliament to achieve a solution That he did not want to impose customs, attitudes, philosophies from above. That he was for much closer integration of states without forcing the centre’s writ on them [there are exceptions of course].

The same cannot be said about many other leaders, many of whom were freedom fighters. Robert Mugabe is one. Muammar Qadhafi is another. They had their hearts in the right place but the processes in their minds were either flawed or hazy. This resulted in increasing concentration of power, lack of viable opposition and ultimately their own decline. The nation, its common citizenry, had to endure results of their shenanigans. The results can be seen in our daily news updates. Zimbabwe has become synonymous with hyper inflation while Libya has descended into near anarchy after Qadhafi’s brutal killing.

As philosopher Slavoj Zizek mentions here, in his tribute to Madiba, when the first stage of conquering an imperial power/occupying power is reached, the spadework for laying the foundation for an independent nation begins. The challenge is to find the next step without becoming a victim of totalitarianism. “How to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe?" he asks.

The answer to this lies in adequate constitutional checks and balances. And it requires a truly democratic Constituent Assembly ready to look beyond the here and now. One prepared to think of interests of the future generations. It is this form of incubatory setup that many of the aspiring democratic states lack — including those who have carried out basic experiments in the past few years like Egypt, Nepal and Afghanistan.

Looking beyond self interest would require having a clear definition of ‘power’ in mind. And as researchers said, reacting to results of the same experiment, it would require greater awareness of what power could do to our minds. In the context of a nation, this means willingness to develop checks and balances that makes one more egalitarian in approach. Democratic values are to be cultivated. They may not come by default.

In this regard fundamental duties enshrined in the Indian Constitution — though inserted at a time when fundamental rights were given short shrift — do offer some important takeaways. One of them is the need for a citizen to cultivate a scientific temper, humanism and a spirit of inquiry and reform. This could be considered applicable across nations, though to be internalised as a logical sequel to one’s own self- realisation rather than imposed from above.