When I asked Indira Gandhi some time in 1978 why she had held the previous year when all the signs were that Congress had become extremely unpopular, she said with a laugh, “One doesn’t hold elections to win. One holds elections because it’s a democratic obligation.”
It sounded good but leaders with a sense of mission like her, Narendra Modi or Donald Trump usually feel they are above such rules. Mrs Gandhi herself gave some indication of her lofty thinking when she declared after the Allahabad High Court’s adverse judgment and before declaring the Emergency that she had nothing to be ashamed of because she had done nothing for herself.
That implication of martyrdom was again evident when she shut herself up in her bedroom after receiving the news that the Congress had lost control of the country for the first time in history. She did emerge eventually, and allowed Morarji Desai to be sworn in as prime minister but it’s a moot question whether Mr Modi would accept defeat as readily if perchance the verdict goes against him on 23 May.
President Trump, a political tactician who resembles him in many ways, would probably at once bellow “Fake news!” and banish the White House press corps. But there’s a sombre side to the prospect beyond histrionics. The US House of Representatives Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said in an interview, “If President Trump is defeated in 2020 by a narrow enough margin, he will refuse to accept the legitimacy of the election.” Sane and sober opinion makers in the US have echoed that misgiving.
That assessment is based on the evidence President Trump himself has provided. Dealing with Mexicans or Iranians, as now with the Chinese, he conveys a belief in some kind of divine mandate. To oppose him is to question God’s will. As long as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un played along, he was a good guy. The moment he displayed a will of his own, he was again relegated to the pantheon of bad guys. If President Trump can possibly invalidate an electoral verdict by attributing it to malign forces, he will.
Faced with a similar dilemma, Sri Lanka’s president, Mathripala Sirisena, might not be content with just sacking the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. He would probably send Mr Wickremesinghe to jail. Hasina Wazed would face a problem in neighbouring Bangladesh for she already blames the Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader and former prime minister, the jailed Khaleda Zia, for everything adverse that has ever happened to her.
Of course, Mrs Zia’s sentence can be doubled but that wouldn’t be any more satisfying than the life imprisonment awarded in absentia to her son, Tarique, whom the Dacca court declared a “fugitive”. The trouble with absolute rulers is that they run out so easily of adversaries and suitable punishments. Turkey is a case in point.
Unable to accept the fact that the electoral verdicts of two key mayoral elections have gone against his candidates, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president who has dominated Turkish politics since becoming prime minister in 2003, reportedly threw a fit. As a result, the country’s national election board has been pressured by his allies and associates to announce fresh elections in Istanbul.
Mindful of the old saying “He who rules Istanbul rules Turkey”, Mr Erdogan was understandably vexed when his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) lost the city’s mayoral election. The opposition’s Ekrem Imamoglu was sworn in for a five-year term after a series of official recounts sought by the ruling party failed to erase his narrow winning margin.
But Mr Erdogan is refusing to accept defeat in the city where he once took his first big step on the political stage by becoming mayor. Presumably under instructions, Turkish prosecutors have opened dozens of criminal investigations into alleged irregularities in Istanbul’s mayoral election as Mr Erdogan’s ruling party fights to regain control of a city it lost in a humiliating defeat.
In the capital city of Ankara, the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) won more than 50 per cent of the votes while the AKP trailed with around 47 per cent. It was the first time in 25 years that the Islamist party had lost its control of the capital.
Some elected rulers don’t have to worry about being re-elected. Formally or informally, they are seen as presidents for life. The most dazzling addition to their ranks is China’s Xi Jinping. But Josip Broz Tito was also president for life, as was Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov.
Some lifetime appointees then promote themselves to a higher grade, prominent among them being Napoleon Bonaparte who was made “First Consul for Life” in 1802 before elevating himself to emperor. He inspired Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic to follow his imperial footsteps.
Some presidents for life are also cut short, notable among them being Indonesia’s Sukarno, Hastings Banda of Malawi and Uganda’s Idi Amin. The most curious case of a president for life was that of the late Lennox Sebe of the Xhosa Bantustan of Ciskei. Not only was he a self-proclaimed president for life, but no one recognised his “republic” of a million people. Yet, the dignity was undoubtedly as important to Sebe as occupancy of the White House is to President Trump.
Perhaps the most bizarre refusal to abide by an election outcome was that of Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, who claimed to cure AIDS by prayer and refused to accept defeat. Mr Jammeh took power in a bloodless coup in 1994, when he was a 29-year-old lieutenant. In early 2007, he declared he had invented his own miracle cure for the virus using a mixture of herbal medicine and spiritual healing techniques that worked only on Thursdays and Mondays.
His defeat came as a huge surprise, given that he ran one of the most feared intelligence agencies in Africa, with its tentacles spread across the country – so much so that until the election, people in cities and villages feared to speak ill of the man who was officially referred to as his “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa”. In 2015, he added the title “Babili Mansa” – a Mandinka-language honorific which can be translated as “chief bridge builder” or “conqueror of rivers”.
Come to think of it, Jammeh’s medical pretensions were no more far-fetched than Mr Modi’s own fanciful claims about genetic science and plastic surgery supposedly practised by the ancient Hindus. Gambians accepted them without demur just as Indians don’t mock Mr Modi’s absurdities. Powerful politicians are obeyed … as long as they wield power. It’s what happens afterwards that distinguishes a political tactician from a statesman.
Sunanada K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.