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The cult of personality

May 22, 2013

ARE people, or more specifically the voting public, attracted to leaders or to their ideas? In the aftermath of Pakistan’s tumultuous election season, the answer to the question is elusive.

The past few days have seen the rejection of previous leaders, the anointing of old ones, and the ascent of some new ones. Tigers have gone up against captains and lions have emerged from ballot boxes.

In these days of expecting change and accepting realities, it is nevertheless useful to consider whether it is the personality of an individual or the substantive content of their ideas that appeals to voters determining the country’s future.

According to experts on leadership, ‘charismatic leaders’ are those who are ‘essentially very skilled communicators, individuals who are both verbally eloquent but also able to communicate with followers on a deep emotional level’, able hence to ‘articulate a compelling or captivating image that arouses a strong emotional response in their followers’.

Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi are often presented as historical examples of charismatic leaders, able by the strength of their personalities to inspire movements that produced seismic changes in the societies where they arose.

Both leaders were, through unique interactions with their followers, able to gain trust and influence and, consequently, to convince them that their particular needs at that particular time called for taking the sort of action they prescribed.

While Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi may be two of the best-known examples in studies of charismatic leadership, lesser politicians in less historic times have been able to use similar strategies to build a following and then convert that following into political power.

One recent example would be the campaign of US President Barack Obama, who used the slogan of ‘change’ to mobilise a vast ground campaign of young American voters, which led ultimately to the election of the first African-American president in US history.

History was made — but some would argue that little changed after its momentous making. Actual change, perhaps, is not the point of charismatic leadership.

Lesser forms of charismatic leadership are also familiar to Pakistanis. In the late ’60s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was able to mobilise in one half of the then two-part country, a leadership wrought on a similar strategy. The slogan of bread, clothing, and housing was central, and a cult of leadership developed around his image.

The emotional identification grew even deeper roots when tragedy intervened; the leader’s execution made him immortal, seeping through generations to anoint others who bore his name and could hence stake a claim to a charisma now etched in the nation’s memory.

In more recent times, Imran Khan, former cricket captain and now the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, has emerged as the nation’s latest charismatic leader.

Through a slogan for change and a capitalisation on the vast stores of frustration, helplessness and hopelessness faced by the country’s youth, he has been able to mobilise the sentiments of many.

As is the recipe for many charismatic leaders, he has been able to take the particular variables of a particular historical situation and turn them to his benefit.

In Pakistan’s present case, these would be the trauma in a population facing unprecedented violence, extreme uncertainty and the perceived relentless meddling by foreign powers.

Interweaving emotions with slogans, a credible strategy for hope has been erected on the glories of instances past: the victories of bygone cricket matches, the charitable impulses of a cancer hospital, expanded, highlighted and presented as a basis of legitimacy that has appealed to a wide variety of voters.

As is the case with many examples of charismatic leadership, there are holes in the story. The PTI has promised education to voters in Karachi who crave a more literate country, and offered peace to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, who have bombed school after school.

The party’s Peshawar declaration has announced that drone attacks will immediately stop and all agreements with foreign nations that permit such meddling be immediately revoked, without once addressing how a civilian government can wrest power from an establishment that seems larger than life.

The questions and contradictions can continue endlessly, but to ask them would be to ignore the very core of charismatic leadership and to fail to recognise that its power centres on an emotional rather than a rational appeal.

The discrepancies can be pointed out time and again, but the people who are converted remain so. They have chosen their positions not by argument but by a particular reaction between circumstances and emotion, all focused on the persona of a particular person.

There is nothing inherently duplicitous about charismatic leadership, but as in the case of the PPP and numerous others that have relied on the identity of a single leader as their trademark, the challenge before this latest Pakistani specimen is to resist the temptation of making it a political party’s eternal script.

It is precisely this reliance that could be blamed for the failure of Pakistan’s political parties to develop solid organisational structures that can go beyond the cult of personality and become effective machinery that can translate charismatic leadership into meaningful change.

This failure in turn has meant that once the life of a charismatic leader ends, or his memory fades, the parties created around them follow a similar downward trajectory into irrelevance.

After the demise of memory or man, the country is left simply waiting and wanting the next heady mix of emotion and passion and tragedy, while denied the practical translation into something longer-lasting, less dramatic and more real than just the illusion of greatness.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.