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Never a people's person

A dictator's downfall is almost certain from the day he grabs power, writes Jayatsen Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Sep 05, 2011 01:10 IST

Whenever longstanding dictatorial regimes are threatened, the media’s coverage is invariably peppered with images of angry citizens trammelling over busts and statues of dictators. We have seen this happening in Iraq, Egypt and now in Libya. Interest-ingly, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi overthrew a king to come to power but then proceeded to breed sons who on a bad day would purchase nothing but Armani and Gucci products. So what is with these leaders who spearhead popular movements but later succumb to the same vices of the earlier rulers?

The fact is that people who grab power by a coup or with the tacit acceptance of some supporters have to become absolute leaders. To do so, they suppress opposing voices and depend on coteries, loosely-threaded factions, camarillas or military cliques. These groups then become the backbone of a pariah empire. Gradually, in a bid to remain at the top, the dictator realises that a larger-than-life persona would help him strengthen his position. So he starts doling out favours, ranks, land and scholarships. In return, he asks for nothing but the loyalty of his chosen few.

Next, he starts to refashion society. He pays people to suppress opposing voices. He controls the media, public welfare becomes non-existent. Those with voice, conviction and intelligence either flee the land of their birth or are silenced. The poor are deluded into thanking their oppressors because they provide them with their daily dose of free soup.

With opponents and intelligent thin-kers out of his way, the leader now needs more money: to perpetuate his ruling clique. The inevitable happens: their cronies start taking advantage of the situation either by force or fear.

In such situations, people need some kind of solace or something to latch on to for their survival. They look deferentially at things that are products of their dictator’s profligacy: giant golden busts and statues of the leader. In Gaddafi’s case, along with his busts and statues, there is the ‘Green Book’, a self-autho-red treatise that talks about how dictatorship is the logical precursor to genuine democracy. The Book became a mandatory reading for children, students and even civil servants.

Dictators need money to stay in power for two reasons: to repress opponents and reward loyalty. But after staying many years in power, a problem emerges. He begins to lose control over those he paid to gain information about his enemies. He pays more, only to have his enemies pose as his supporters. By now, his supporters start demanding more to get information about his enemies.

And soon enough, the golden statue is gone and his luxury villas are ransacked, perhaps by the same people who till recently were the beneficiaries of his ill-gotten largesse. And soon enough, they offer a hefty ransom on his head. Ironi-cally, the ransom money is part of the very dole he once handed out.

( Jayatsen Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based advertising professional )

The views expressed by the author are personal