Behind the decline and downfall of each and every regime has been the role of sweet-talking professional sycophants. It is the single constant. The cluster of sycophants makes it all the more difficult to escape their clutches. It is a peculiar subcontinental malady, which Babar had identified in his memoirs 500 years ago, and about which Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya had warned, during his sermons seven centuries before.

Sycophancy is often confused with loyalty. But it is not. Sugary talk and buttering behaviour addicts the person in authority to what he wants to hear, rather than what he needs to hear. This breed resurfaces under different disguises: Sometimes under the umbrella of “supreme national interest”; sometimes under democracy; sometimes under reform. Theirs is not an overnight reawakening. It is a calculated bid to encircle the glitter of power and to protect their own perks and privileges. When the bubble bursts, they disappear.

The weapon of flattery is a good way to shield incompetence and fraud. False praise is also a tool of instigation against those who do not indulge in it. Rulers keep falling into the same ditch, because they end up doing the same thing over and over again. Meanwhile, the system remains rigged in favour of the rich.

These barracudas are nowhere to be seen when there is heavy lifting to do, but they are right there when there is ripe fruit to be plucked. Scavengers are not into doing good; they are into quick gain. Hence, they are visibly affiliated with whosoever is the flavour of the day.

Amidst sheep mentality, dissent often is portrayed as not playing with the team.

The larger question is: Does the existing culture have the guts and capacity to pay the price for revolutionary change? There is a huge gap between rhetoric and reality.

The pressures of electoral vote-getting have demonstrated that those at the upper tier are more sensitive to the demands of big donors (who happen to be rich) than to the aspirations of commoners. Inevitably, then, one makes false friends and genuine enemies.

Benjamin Franklin stated that a small leak can sink a big ship. Take, too, the example of America, where more than 50 percent of Congressmen are millionaires, and where the median income of Congressmen is $750,000 a year. It distorts democracy and makes the legislative body, in effect, hostage to moneyed interests, rather than a repository of common weal. It is by setting policy agendas that the wealthy 1 percent controls the 99 percent.

One way to vet opportunism is to ascertain how many have gone against the odds, spurned riches, taken an unpopular stand, and incurred losses while doing so.

The twin threat within comes from “mein” (me) and “munafqat” (hypocrisy).

It has been said that the essence of generalship is what a general does before the fighting begins. It has also been said that there are no bad soldiers, only bad generals. Over-promises are often under-delivered. It is a necessary safeguard, then, to question the assumptions.

Sycophants undermine audacity, which is the hallmark of leadership. Sycophancy, like corruption, can’t be eliminated. But it can be contained. 

The writer is an attorney-at-law and policy analyst based in Washington DC. He is the first Pakistani American member admitted to the US Supreme Court Bar.