Respecting leaders in a democracy

Respect for politicians is in short supply in our times. Most citizens of contemporary democracies seem to tolerate, not respect, those they elect. Are we troubled by the absence of respect in politics? Should politicians even be accorded respect? If yes, what form of respect must they get?

Directive respect: Egalitarian

‘Respect’ has multiple senses, of which three are relevant here. One sense, that might be called ‘directive respect’, was elaborated by the late 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. For him, respect had the force of an authoritative moral instruction, a directive. Why? Kant understood that humans in their social interactions can never entirely eliminate using one another for personal benefit. When I enter a bus, I approach the conductor not out of love, affection or curiosity, but with one goal in mind: to purchase a ticket to travel. And the conductor is in the bus to do a job for the bus owner: sell tickets. All of us — the passenger, the conductor, the driver and the bus owner — relate to each other as instruments to achieve our respective ends: travel home, earn a livelihood, make profit. However, Kant argued, while this may well be so, each must also keep in mind that we are moral agents with distinct purposes, with our own subjective take on the world, with the capacity to endow the world with meaning, purpose and value. In short, we have inherent dignity that imposes limits on the extent to which we can use each other for personal benefit. I can’t treat the bus conductor as a mere thing to be pushed around, offended or humiliated, even as I buy the ticket from him. I must respect him.

To reiterate, the quality of dignity that inheres in a person is the ground for a moral directive not to treat someone only as an instrument to realise my purpose but also always as a person with distinct purposes of her own. Put differently, to respect others is not just to have an attitude, but also to act towards humans in a way that does not merely use them. This is what makes it a form of directive respect. In addition to being directive, Kant’s notion is also egalitarian. This is because each of us commands this respect regardless of our differential social status or position, class, gender, race, talent or achievement.

Directive respect: Hierarchical

This egalitarian feature alone differentiates it from another instance of directive respect where the quality that commands respect from others inheres not in the person qua person but in the social position she occupies or the role she performs. Thus, children must respect their fathers; wives, their husbands; servants, their masters; lower caste people, those in higher castes; and so on. Indeed, this unequal status is the original site of the idea of respect, its breeding ground. The notion of respect was for long intertwined with ideas of superiority and inferiority and had deep hierarchical overtones. Virtually indistinguishable from fear and deference, it was expressed not only in words but through silence and bodily stances. Thus, a person believed to be inferior could not call a superior by his name; could not look him in the eye; always had his or her head bowed or covered; could not touch any part of the superior person or could, at best, touch only his feet; was always to obey, do as he was told, never question or even respond.

This hierarchical notion of directive respect has not disappeared from our society (as many had hoped) and continues to permeate social relationships. But disturbingly, just when we thought that because of our anti-colonial struggle and equality-centred reform movements led by Jyotirao Phule, Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, it is fading away from politics, it appears to be raising its ugly head again. Revived here is the older, deeply hierarchical idea of respect as deference which brooks no dissent, muffles voices, demands unquestioning silence from all. It is also being used to elicit obedience to a ‘supreme leader’. This appears to be happening not only in India but in many other polities of the world. I am told that many conversations between Trump loyalists and his critics come to an abrupt, screeching halt by the complaint that critics don’t respect the President. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán says that any attack on his policies is a sign of disrespect for Hungary. The Turkish writer, Ece Temelkuran, drew attention to similar demands by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When charged with rigging the polls, Mr. Erdogan claimed that this showed disrespect to the people of Turkey and their choice.

The hierarchical notion of respect is a one-way street and incompatible with the very idea of democracy. The egalitarian notion of respect articulated by Kant, a prefect riposte to respect as deference, is presupposed by democracies and relevant as a value in relationships among citizens but is too general to be of use in the specific context of citizen-ruler relationship. Does this mean then that respect for politicians is entirely dispensable in democracies? I don’t think so.

Evaluative respect

Another kind of respect exists: this is owed to people not because of what they are or their social position but by virtue of what they have achieved. This may manifest in some praiseworthy qualities of character such as moral integrity or by perfecting some skills as a cricketer or scholar. This respect consists in an attitude of positive appraisal of the person’s moral qualities or non-moral skills. Here respect is not presumed but earned. We can appropriately say that this attitude of respect is deserved when a person meets some standards of excellence integral to that practice. Precisely because it is something one achieves, it can also be a matter of degree. Rightly or wrongly, one can say that one has greater respect for Sunil Gavaskar than, say, Chetan Chauhan, or Jawaharlal Nehru than, say, Govind Ballabh Pant.

It is this notion of ‘evaluative respect’ or ‘appraisal respect’ that is relevant in democratic politics. Politicians occupy a contingent political position where they have a job to perform: work for the common good; ensure that everyone is treated as an equal, not suffer from negative discrimination at the hands of the government; get what the people need; ensure that there is peace and justice. Also, that they work truthfully, sincerely, transparently. When politicians achieve these goals and behave in accordance with the highest standards of political morality, they earn our respect. When they fail to so, we begin to disrespect them.

There is no question of hierarchical respect or deference to our leaders in modern, democratic polities. It is our right to question, challenge and criticise our politicians. All power wielders, including the Prime Minister, must submit to these demands. All of us, the rulers and the ruled, are bound by norms of egalitarian respect more generally, and by evaluative respect specific to democratic politics in particular. To our politicians, we can only say: perform well, and earn our respect!

Rajeev Bhargava is a political theorist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi