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Of Influence, Power and Empowerment

The drawing up of lists of "most influential men and women" is done only to lionise individuals from an already established hierarchical structure, without considering the merits of these individuals substantively.


Of Influence, Power and Empowerment

Rana Nayar

local. Newspapers and magazines across the globe start conducting similar exercises to identify their own little pockets of power and influence, in the process pushing up their circulation and sales, too. My understanding is that Forbes conducts a worldwide survey annually to arrive at such

The drawing up of lists of “most influential men and women” is done only to lionise individuals from an already established hierarchical structure, without considering the merits of these individuals substantively.

Rana Nayar ( teaches English at Panjab University, Chandigarh.

very year Forbes magazine publishes the list of the most influential men and women in the world. Often the readers lap up such lists, without ever bothering to pause over their whys and wherefores. The only fact we are invariably interested in is as to who has moved in or out, up or down the coveted list. The publication of the list is treated as a celeb rated and much awaited event by the media the world over. Once the names are out, immediately the media mills all over the world start working overtime, publishing snippets from the Forbes list, either exulting over the fact that men and women from their country have made it to the top or bemoaning why some of them have slipped down the ladder of global influence.

Then starts the next phase, wherein this process begins to repeat itself at all possible levels such as national, state, regional or lists. Entries are invited from the readers of the magazine, who are not only expected to provide their own lists of influential men and women but also put them in some order of priority. The magazine develops its own parameters, which are meant to facilitate the readers’ choice, which, in turn, is ascertained through an opinion poll, and its results are finally tabulated in the form of a list of influential men and women.


Now this raises a number of questions? Who are these readers of the Forbes magazine? What is their profile? If one were to look beneath the surface, one would discover that the readers of this magazine are essentially from a very special, privileged class, which picks up these influential men and women from amongst its own members. Another way of putting the same thing is that the readers of the Forbes magazine constitute a closed club that keeps

december 8, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


electing the influential men and women from among its own members. One wonders if this is not a purely incestuous activity, initiated by a group of influential men and women to keep the world informed about how their sphere of influence is spreading globally. Are 100 or 500 people (who ultimately make it to the list of the fortunate ones) not trying to tell the rest of the world (more than a trillion people) that “the economic or political decisions that affect your lives and lifestyles ultimately rest in our hands?” Is it not a demonstration of power by the most powerful, a declaration by the mightiest of their growing might, a symbolic gesture of the rich and powerful to assert their growing power and influence over the world politics and economy?

Often, the readers, who are in the position of passive consumers, accept such lists uncritically, and without a demur. So much so, they also remain oblivious of the insidious ways in which the rich and power ful make preposterously loud statements about their growing power and influence. Rather than question the rationale behind such lists or their subversive logic, the readers begin to get intimidated by such unabashed acts as declaration of power and influence and start dreaming of how, if at all, they would be able to slip into the position of those who supposedly preside over the destiny of the mankind. In other words, these lists become the wish lists of the less powerful and power crazy, all of whom begin to hitch their wagon to the stars, raising the benchmark of their expectations, dreams, aspirations and perhaps frustration too.

There are other related questions. For instance, is money or power or the influence that flows out of its combination the only way of assessing the influence of an individual on his/her society, nation or the world? What is this term “sphere of influence” and what are some of the ways of assessing or quantifying it? Should the influence of an individual be judged in terms of the money power s/he exerts or the actual benefits his/her presence makes available to his/her society? Is the sphere of influence linked to the visibility of an individual and the frequency with which s/he appears in the media or the invisible

Economic & Political Weekly december 8, 2007

gains s/he transfers on to the less privileged sections of his/her society on account of his growing wealth and riches?

Sphere of Influence

Let me suggest that sphere of influence is essentially a sociological concept, which is extremely difficult to measure or pin down. In fact, one of the reasons why the media is able to take advantage of this socio logical phenomenon is because it is an abstruse one, and also extremely difficult to either define or set the parameters for, on the basis of which it could be formulated, assessed or quantified in actual, material terms.

For instance, if the editorial team of Forbes wants to find out whether or not Indira Nooyi (incidentally, she does figure very prominently in the prestigious Forbes list) is an influential woman, one of the most obvious criterion it has is to see whether she is a chief executive officer (CEO) or chief operating officer (COO) of Pepsi. In that case, they are likely to be led by certain beneath-the-surface assumptions which need to be externalised. First of all, it shall matter to them that Pepsi is a multinational giant and also the largest producer of aerated drinks in the world. In other words, they shall be conscious of the position (read turnover) of Pepsi in the world market, its position in the hierarchy of the super giants producing aerated drinks and the moment anyone rises to the top position within its organisational structure, they begin to presume that the influence of that individual is now synonymous with the organisation to which s/he belongs.

Moreover, they also tend to attach a great deal of value to internal hierarchal structure of the organisation, as for them, a CEO definitely does wield or is supposed to wield a much greater influence, power or clout than a COO, which is also true, but only partially so. Then they start seeking endorsement of their pre-conceived ideas (based upon hierarchical and notional concepts of individual power) from the public in general by conducting a market survey or an opinion poll, the results of which are not likely to be much different from what they have believed in all along. More often than not, it is this kind of circular logic that goes into a systematic process of manufacturing the images of


the great men and women of power, of legitimising their power as a measure of their influence.

Power and Influence

Is there any direct correlation between the “power one wields” and the “influence one exerts”? Does the growing personal influence of an individual also become a logical determinant of his power and authority within the organisation, society or the world at large? Now how much of this power that an individual wields is to be attributed to his/her personal charisma and how much of it to his/her identification with the organisation, is something rather difficult to say. Here it needs to be stated that all organisations value individuals only in direct proportion to the extent to which they can maximise the organisational benefits (read profits) or organisational objectives. Once an individual fails to achieve either the first or the second or both, s/he becomes disposable and the organisation starts looking for a more productive substitute.

In all organisations, especially in the multinational giants, individuals are merely cogs in the big, oiled machine, and what matters is not the individual worth or significance but his/her performance in enhancing the worth or significance of the organisation’s productivity and/or profits, which, in turn, becomes a hallmark of the organisation’s influence and power. This being so, it follows that an individual within an organisation has worth/significance only so long as s/he enjoys a pre-eminent position within the organisation. This also means that within the society, the individual commands, whatever respect, influence, power and privileges s/he does, only because of the organisation and not in spite of it.

One should not discount the fact that such an individual has to work and perform much better than other individuals within the organisation so as to excel and reach the top bracket. This is consi dering that performance and productivity are the only parameters used in evaluating an individual’s worth and significance within the organisation and are also treated as infallible indices of his/her elevation and promotion within its hierarchical structures. Sadly, this is not always the case, especially in our context where mediocrity and sycophancy often thrive at the expense of meritocracy.

Now when the images of success and fame are constructed in the media, often they are based upon such and other similar determinants. In other words, it is the worth (read cost) of the individual to the organisation first, then his/her positioning within the organisation and finally the positioning of the organisation within the larger global network that is often responsible for the positioning of an individual in the media. My contention is that more often than not such surveys end up producing either pre-doctored or entirely predictable results. Does it mean that such surveys are the only ways of asserting or demonstrating the growing power of money and influence for the privileged few and that the media simply becomes a convenient tool or instrumentality in the process? Does it mean that the media only colludes with and for that reason enters into a symbiotic alliance with the growing influence of money and power? Does it also mean that media has its own intrinsic compulsions to constantly manufacture images and fashion icons, which is what it periodically does through the medium of such surveys?

Media Collusion

The question is: why must media manufacture such images of discontent and collude with, and not critique the subversive forces of capitalism? First, most of the media today is controlled by the business barons across the world. Second, the econo mic survival of the media largely depends upon advertising, which is the largest source of revenue, apart from the direct or indirect funding it often receives from one business establishment or the other. Third, the media has this inherent compulsion to project newer images on the consciousness of its readers, if it has to sustain and/or enlarge its readership base. (Its logic is simple: you stay in the news only by creating newer images of consumption and/or discontent.) In other words, the media is constantly engaged in this swirling enterprise of creating iconic figures, manufacturing larger than life images, which not only feed the growing aspirations and dreams of the reading public but also their appetite for novelty and newness. It is this kind of subversive logic that often lies behind most of the surveys, such as the one that occupies us here.

A Substantive Critique

While critiquing this phenomenon, I am not only conscious but almost convinced about the inevitability of such surveys. I am in no doubt that such surveys shall continue to dominate the media scene and perhaps get more fiercely competitive, even more ruthless with the passage of time. Does it mean that there are no options left to us, so to say? Does it mean that this entire critique is some kind of a

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december 8, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


cul-de-sac? One has to concede that there is no escape from the commercial logic of such surveys, which is why they are eminently irreplaceable. But if we have to measure or map out the extent of influence or clout that an individual enjoys, then we must change the way in which we often measure this influence. Rather than rely upon specious and flimsy factors, it is much better to depend upon a set of welldefined criteria. Say, if we wish to measure the exact nature of Nooyi’s personal influence as the CEO of Pepsi, will it not be a good idea to see how far her elevation within the organisation has helped the cause of women empowerment? How many more women within Pepsi have benefited because of her elevation to the top position? Another way of asking the same question is: has she taken a policy decision to either recruit more women or empower the existing women staff by offering them key appointments, positions and elevations? If Nooyi works only for the promotion of the organisational objectives and fails to make Pepsi more gender sensitive and less of a level playing field for women, then I think, it would be a sheer folly on our part or that of the media to lionise her as a symbol of growing woman power within Pepsi in particular and the multinationals in general. In absence of a set of well-defined criteria, it is often this kind of fallacious reasoning that is used by the media to promote its icons and sell its carefully constructed and manufactured images.

The reality is that when one Nooyi is elevated, she does not become a symbol of the growing power of women, as hundreds and thousands of women are conveniently left out of the loop. As such, her elevation only enhances a sense of helplessness among those who are excluded for one reason or the other. So long as our modes of analysing social reality remain faulty and fallacious, we shall continue to lap up images that are no more than mere cardboard cut-outs, hollow from within and garishly painted from without. At this juncture, if someone were to turn around and say, “why grumble so much about the surface appearances and their facetious nature, when a postmodern, fractured reality surrounds us all”, I would have no choice but to retreat into my habitual silence as the last refuge.

Economic & Political Weekly december 8, 2007

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