September 29, 2023


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Book Excerpt: Narcissus or Machiavelli? Leadership skills of Indian Prime Ministers examined for the first time by Nishant Uppal

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An exclusive excerpt from ​Narcissus or Machiavelli? Learning Leadership from Indian Prime Ministers by Nishant Uppal. Published by Routledge India, 2021, a book on the first time historiographic analysis of the personality traits of Indian Prime Ministers.

On September 3, 2020, a BJP functionary came up with ‘Modi Idli’ in Tamil Nadu in direct competition with the highly popular ‘Amma Idli’. Addition- ally, Modi and ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak both have suits with their names embroidered all over them.


Modi criticized IIM Shillong for prefixing Rajiv Gandhi’s name superfluously. According to Modi such tagging caused confusion in the minds of applicants that it was a privately run management institute.


A Right to Information query raised in 2013 was answered that over 450 schemes, building projects, institutions, etc. were named after the three members (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi) of the Nehru– Gandhi family.


Modi changed his appearance and grew a flowing beard and long hair during the Kolkata assembly election campaign. Popular media compared it with Rabindranath Tagore.

What insights above instances offer for a vast liberal electorate democracy that is India?

“They tell over to themselves with vast amusement that a crafty scoundrel or spell-binder could pass off on the people of Paris or London (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)”.

Plato’s fierce aversion and distaste for liberal democracy emerges from his proposition that it facilitates the evolution and growth of demagogues, who eventually mutate into tyrants. A democratic city in Plato’s view is sustainable only when its leaders are selfless and not demagogic, which is an impossibility due to the differential capability among democratic men who are free to pursue an enterprise of (their) choice. Therefore, logically and conveniently, demagogues equally possess “the license to do what (they) he wants”.

Aristotle, Plato’s disciple, in his Politics even recognizes democracy’s flaw and the potential instability it faces caused by “demagogues”, who alternately “stir up” and “curry favor” with the people. Such propagandist and demagogic tendencies have been seen in leaders with personality traits such as Narcissism and Machiavellism.

Modi’s frequently and dramatically capitalize upon his photos in the digital circulation. The curation of photographic images is creative and unprecedentedly flamboyant. The images are carefully constructed to reveal the desired side of Modi’s personality. For example, while Indian and international media depicted it somewhat contradictorily, Modi’s photograph of cave meditation at Kedarnath is a sign of a conscious media campaign. Another noticeable picture was from his days as CM of Gujarat, where he is holding The Economic Times, with books about world affairs and a laptop lying around him, depicting him as a superbly intellectual person. Whenever some of my marathoner friends share their photos on social media while running in the early morning, I always wonder who photographed them and why?

In terms of public relations, Modi displays an unprecedented effort at outreach. A direct channel of communication has been formed with the public via various social media handles, on which he is prompt with replies, retweets, and follow-backs. On Twitter, he is currently one of the most followed political leaders globally with 60.3 million followers. Periodic relevant campaigns are run creatively through these handles. For example, the Women’s Day post of March 2020, where the PM tweeted that he was thinking of quitting social media, attracted considerable attention. It was then revealed that this was to be done only for a day so that seven women from different socio-economic backgrounds may be allowed to run his account on Women’s Day. The tweets are often written in Indian regional languages with an occasional change in the script as well. The public relations are astutely and effectively handled to maintain interest as well as widespread outreach, with minimal reliance on the press and media channels. Besides, ‘Modinomics’ and ‘Moditya’ are extraordinary tags that confused the international media whether to brand him as ‘divider in chief’ or ‘Modi the reformer’.

Several Indian movies have also been released in the recent past to either criticize the opposition or to overtly highlight Modi’s accomplishments. Movies such as Thackeray, Tashkent Files, The Accidental Prime Minister, and Indu Sarkar depict the opposition in an awkward light, and the biopics, PM Narendra Modi and Uri: The Surgical Strike, directly promote Modi’s persona and accomplishments.

An aggressive sense of Nationalism often makes the individual leader isomorphic with the country. Almost all of Modi’s speeches reinvent the idea of India as a great nation, historically as well as in the contemporary scenario. His election campaigns are laden with economic hope for the country and the possibility of making India great again. Commenting on the electoral victory, the columnist Mihir Sharma said:

“We do not live in Modi’s India. We live in Indians’ India, and the reason so many Indians adore Modi is because he represents their preferred conception of the Indian state and the Indian nation.”

It also became a widespread notion that opposition to the ideologies and actions of the Modi government meant opposing the nation itself. Dissent over the Modi government’s aggressive stance towards Pakistan was seen as an anti-India action. At a public address in Goa, he asked the people why India was being celebrated across the world today. The people replied: “because of Modi”. He denied that, stating that it is because the 125-crore people of the country have decided to provide an absolute majority to his party.

            In general, dissent has become a problematic practice in the current national political milieu in India. The disturbances at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and increasing association of the term “anti-national” with dissent, especially from students in the country, and the unofficial attempts to censor the press have been some instances that heavily discourage dissent.

At the Jaipur Literary Festival held in May 2015, Megha Harish pointed out that unlike many other world leaders, such as Obama or Cameron, who strive to create an accessible family image, Modi’s persona is focused on him alone, and his interactions with other world leaders take centre stage.

While not all of the paraphernalia surrounding these issues can be directly, personally linked with the PM, the fact that it has taken shape under his government could possibly be an indicator of certain tendencies associated with narcissism and Machiavellianism traits, such as the urge to be in control, promote unilateral thinking, prefer praise and shun censure, and place oneself as in charge of things.

Excerpted from ​Narcissus or Machiavelli? Learning Leadership from Indian Prime Ministers by Nishant Uppal. Published by Routledge India, 2021.

About the Book

This book is about leadership and its strategies. Drawing on Indian prime ministers since Independence, it traces personality traits and leadership skills that have shaped many futures. It examines a range of leadership profiles to study dominant traits in one of the most demanding leadership roles in the world. The volume focuses on Machiavellianism and narcissism as a framework to policy-personality connections and demagogic tendencies in leaders in politics and in everyday life. Accessible, engaging, and provocative, this book will be essential reading for professionals across industries and corporations. The general reader interested in leadership studies and Indian politics will also find this book useful.

About the Author

Nishant Uppal is on the faculty of Organization Behavior in the Human Resources Management Group, Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow. His recent publications include Duryodhanization: Are the Villains Born, Developed, or Made up? (2018), Leadership in Organization (2020) , Understanding the Theory and Design of Organizations (2020), and HR Analytics (2021). He has published in a number of international journals, such as Personality and Individual Differences , Studies in Higher Education , International Journal of Manpower, Team Performance Management, and European Business Review, among others. More recently, his research focus area has been in understanding the effects of negative personality traits on work, family, and societal outcomes. Dr. Uppal specializes in the fields of analytics, leadership, change management, knowledge management, organizational adaptation, job design, organizational structure, and personality. Related Subjects Asian Studies Political Leaders Leadership Political Behavior and Participation South Asian Politics South Asian History India (studies of) Public Opinion Political Psychology Public Administration. 

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