Politics and the sociopath

Amit Varma | Updated on September 05, 2014

The Mask: What Modi does is but a reflection of what his electorate wants. Photo: A Roy Chowdhury

Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at

A particular personality type seems to be drawn to politics, and excels there. Prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi fits the bill

‘For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted’ — Frank Underwood, House of Cards.

I have often wondered, what kind of person wants to be a politician? Growing up, we gravitate towards our future professions on the basis of interests or aptitude or, often, just circumstances. What we are drawn towards depends on the kind of person we are: someone bad at maths is unlikely to turn to engineering or investment banking, just as an introverted geek is probably going to avoid a career in news broadcasting. So what are you like, then, if you aspire to be a politician and end up being good at it?

First up, the stated reasons are mostly bunkum: aspiring politicians want to serve the community or make the world a better place only as much as Miss India contestants want to be like Mother Teresa. No, with few exceptions, people are driven to get into politics by just one instinct: the lust for power. It’s primal, it’s hardwired into us — the chief of the tribe has the best chance of propagating his genes — but there are many who want what only a few will get, and the road to the top is always bloody. Those who navigate it successfully need to possess ambition, charm and ruthlessness in equal measure.

The kind of person best suited to do it is a sociopath. A sociopath — the term is also used interchangably with psychopath — is a person who feels no empathy towards his fellow humans, a condition that is innate. (Damage to a part of the brain called the amygdala is the most likely culprit.) Psychologist Robert Hare defines them as “intraspecies predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they cold-bloodedly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”

Sociopaths are thus cut out for some professions more than others. While they comprise upto four per cent of the general population, they are estimated to make up over 20 per cent of the prison population in the US, which is what you’d expect from people who lack any conscience. It has been theorised that they are also over-represented among trial lawyers, bankers and of course, among politicians.

A study published last year analysed the 42 US presidents leading up to George W Bush and found a high degree of sociopathy in their personalities. But this is not necessarily a negative assessment. As Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist who worked on the study, said, “Certain psychopathic traits may be like a double-edged sword. Fearless dominance, for example, may contribute to reckless criminality and violence, or to skilful leadership in the face of a crisis.” Indeed, over a century ago the philosopher and psychologist William James had said, “When superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce [...] in the same individual, we have the best possible conditions for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.” Sociopaths can acquire power more easily than others.

While politics is the natural habitat of the sociopath, political systems differ across the world. Sociopaths are more likely to dominate politics in countries where the State has more power and less accountability than it should. I’d think, therefore, that there is a better chance of finding a sociopathic politician in India than, say, in Scandinavia. Indeed, the disdain with which Indians regard politics and politicians indicate there’s something to this. In the population, one in 25 people is a sociopath; list 25 Indian politicians and see, according to you, how many fit the bill.

There are exceptions, of course. In my view, the following gents don’t seem to be sociopaths: Manmohan Singh, an accidental politician; Rahul Gandhi, a buffoon trying to run the family business because he’s good at nothing else (or because it’s there); Arvind Kejriwal, a sanctimonious and misguided activist. But one man who seems to fit the bill, and who even his opponents admit is talented as a politician, is Narendra Modi. To me, he seems to be a textbook sociopath, who believes in nothing, has no principles, and will simply do whatever it takes to get to power and stay there.

If you agree, consider the implications: if Modi is indeed a sociopath, all the things you like or loathe about him may be misplaced. He may be neither a bigoted Muslim-hater nor a champion of development and growth, but an opportunistic politician pandering to different constituencies at different times. (On one side, the electorate of Gujarat, with whom the perception that he engineered the riots, whether or not he did, brought him much support. On the other side, the small business owners and industrialists who fund him, and spread the impression that he supports free markets while his actions reveal him, so far, to be no more than a crony capitalist.) Every aspect of his public image could be carefully constructed to get him political gain, and his actions if he becomes PM would be tailored around the constraints and opportunities of his political environment that will be different at the national level from what they have been in Gujarat or on the campaign trail.

All this, I must clarify, is neither a defence nor a condemnation of Modi. Being a sociopath is biological destiny, just as being left-handed or gay or allergic to coriander is, but how you are born should be neither a reason to condemn you nor an exculpation for your actions. Men should be judged by what they do, not by what they are — and it is not the purpose of this column to examine whether Modi is a genocider or a developmental messiah, both of which are simplistic narratives anyway. Consider this: If Modi is indeed a sociopath, whose public persona is constructed around whatever will get him to power, then whatever you like or dislike about him reveals less about him and more about India. When India looks at Narendra Modi, it looks into a mirror. What you are is what you get.

Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at

Follow on Twitter >@amitvarma

Published on March 14, 2014

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor