Can the pressures of high political office trigger mental illness in presidents and prime ministers? According to the British neuroscientist Richard Owen, and professor of psychiatry Jonathan Davidson, the answer is, yes.
However, they differentiate this psychiatric disorder from other forms of mental illnesses — because the inflicted person would not have developed it had they not been elevated to the highest political office of their country. Owen and Davidson call it ‘hubris syndrome’ and explain it as “an acquired personality disorder.” This disorder is tightly knitted to political power.
In May 2009, after examining the histories and leadership style of dozens of American and British presidents and prime ministers, Owen and Davidson published a study. It purposed the exploration of a disorder that was solely caused by the dynamics of political power.
The study generated interest. But a few years later, it attracted a lot more attention when the actions and rhetoric of quite a few newly elected PMs and presidents across the world began to be described as being odd, and even irrational. These included heads of state and government in Poland, Hungary, the US, Brazil, Tanzania, India, Pakistan, etc.
A theory posits that political power can lead to an acquired personality disorder. How well does this theory sit with the actions and rhetoric of India’s and Pakistan’s prime ministers?
Studies of this nature of various controversial dictators are quite common. This is why the thesis of Owen and Davidson stands out. They only focused on democratically elected leaders.
The word ‘hubris’ means arrogance, conceit and even delusion that lead a person to disregard the limits on human action. According to Owen and Davidson, hubris syndrome constitutes a cluster of symptoms evoked by a specific trigger: political power.
Some of the most prominent symptoms of hubris (in a political leader) are: “(1) sees the world as a place for self-glorification through the use of power; (2) has a tendency to take action primarily to enhance personal image; (3) shows disproportionate concern for image and presentation; (4) exhibits messianic zeal and exaltation in speech; (5) conflates self with nation; (6) manifestly has contempt for others; (7) loses contact with reality; (8) resorts to recklessness and impulsive actions; and (9) displays incompetence with disregard for nuts and bolts of policymaking.”
One can notice most of these symptoms in the rhetoric and actions of many present-day populist PMs and presidents. But let’s pick two: India’s PM Narendra Modi and Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan. One should keep in mind that Owen and Davidson presented the findings of their study as a theory. They admit that there is still quite a bit left to do to substantiate it as an established fact.
Modi was an obscure figure in Indian politics, until he rose to become the chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. Deadly communal riots broke out in Gujarat in 2002, in which over a thousand people were killed, mostly Muslim. Various independent media investigations of the riot accused CM Modi to have condoned the violence against Muslims.
But Modi was elected as CM Gujarat again. According to the French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, in Saffron Modernity, during his second term as CM, Modi largely concentrated on Gujarat’s economic issues. However, after he became PM in 2014, he began to demonstrate various symptoms of ‘hubris syndrome’ — especially after failing to replicate his noticeably successful economic policies in Gujarat, in the rest of India.
He “sees the world as a place for self-glorification through the use of power.” His whirlwind trips to wealthy countries are often used by him to gather praise from the leaders of these countries. “Has a tendency to take action primarily to enhance personal image.” But these were often “recklessness and impulsive actions.” Such as: The 2016 Indian banknote demonetisation that was severely criticised by economists, and the introduction of new ‘farm laws’ that drew the wrath of farmers in Punjab and Haryana who, a year later, forced the government to eat humble pie. His decision to launch ‘strategic strikes’ inside Pakistan left two Indian jets shot down and one Indian Air Force pilot captured.
Modi has “messianic zeal” as well, which is exhibited to portray himself as a wise Hindu sage. But he “manifestly has contempt for others.” Of course, this has often been manifested by his encouragement of anti-Muslim militancy but, more comically, by the manner in which he has been caught on camera rudely pushing aside lesser officials, so that the cameras could get the full picture of him greeting a leader, or performing yoga, or planting a tree, etc. Therefore, he also “shows disproportionate concern for image and presentation.”
PM Khan was a well-known sporting personality before he entered politics in the 1990s. After retirement, he joined politics and became a regular on TV talk shows. In 2018, he became PM. Unlike Modi, Khan does not see the world as a place for self-glorification through the use of power. He had his fill in this as a dashing sporting star and ‘playboy.’ But he does have a tendency to take action primarily to enhance personal image.
This action is related to the ‘messianic zeal’ present in his rhetoric. He imagines himself as a crusader against corruption who was cleansed by his ‘rediscovery’ of Islam. But after three years of misrule, this image has greatly suffered. Corruption is present in his own regime, and his gnarled idea of morality and faith has produced actions and rhetoric that have actually increased episodes of religious violence and intolerance in a society already ravaged by Islamist strife and radicalisation.
He “manifestly has contempt for others.” This is present in the sometimes shocking choice of words he uses for opposition leaders. Also, he has often been seen exhibiting extreme rudeness towards his own party members and supporters. He certainly “displays incompetence with disregard for nuts and bolts of policymaking.”
Having a short attention span, he is known to green-light problematic policies without fully understanding them or their consequences. He “resorts to recklessness and impulsive actions.” These include sudden tirades against the leadership of some of Pakistan’s largest donors, offending them. This has continuously embarrassed his main backers in the military establishment.
Now, the question is, do Modi and Khan exhibit Owen and Davidson’s most serrated symptom: “has lost contact with reality?” Owen and Davidson’s theory suggests that, “when a leader succumbs to hubris syndrome, his experience at the top has distorted his personality and decision-making.” This can initiate a delusional disposition which, in a way, is about losing contact with reality.
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 26th, 2021