Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In their book Denying to the Grave, Sara Gorman and the psychiatrist Jack Gorman write that one of the ways ‘charismatic’ leaders justify the nature of power they wield is by constantly claiming that there is no other alternative.

Such leaders aim to create a perception of a crisis when there is none. They then repeatedly claim that they alone are the best choice to resolve the crisis.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has often claimed that the country (and his erstwhile backers in the military establishment) have no other alternative than him (as PM). Khan is known to blurt glaring inaccuracies while sharing his wisdom in various fields. Yet, even though such inaccuracies are quickly ridiculed on the social media, they are uncritically swallowed as ‘facts’ by thousands of Khan’s supporters.

Is Khan really ignorant or is the act of sharing exaggerations and concoctions a tactic because he knows they will be uncritically accepted by his supporters? But let’s first figure out what is a ‘charismatic’ leader.

Well aware of their ability to effectively manipulate their audience, charismatic leaders make people believe that only they have a solution to problems which, in reality, may not even exist

The idea of a charismatic leader stems from the works of the German sociologist Max Weber (d.1920). He coined the phrase ‘charismatic authority,’ or authority that flows from the charisma of a leader.

According to Weber, charisma in a person is because of a quality or personality trait ‘by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men.’ Weber explained ‘charismatic authority’ in contrast to ‘traditional authority’ and ‘rational authority.’ Traditional authority flows from established customs, and rational authority through institutions of the state. Charismatic authority flows from the charismatic leader, created by ‘the cult of personality.’

Ever since the devastation that befell Europe during the rise of charismatic leaders such as the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini (d.1943) and the founder of Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler (d.1945), sociologists have expanded the study of charismatic authority. In fact, the subject has enjoyed an increasing interest in the last decade because of the emergence of controversial ‘charismatic leaders’ in the US, Hungary, Poland, the UK, Turkey, Russia, Brazil, India and Pakistan.

Many sociologists believe that having charisma and/or the ability to instantly charm and persuade a large group of people, is not a negative trait. But the same sociologists also agree that when charisma is used politically, the outcome is often dark.

In an essay for the January 2021 issue of The Third Coast Review, Nancy S. Bishop writes that those not smitten by charismatic leaders often dismiss them for being eccentric and even comical. However, Bishop thinks that charismatic leaders are well aware of their ability to effectively manipulate their audience. The number of people mocking them is always smaller than those who hang on to their every word, no matter how exaggerated, inaccurate or, for that matter, silly.

According to the American political scientist David Meyer, charismatic leaders are especially attractive during times of crises. Indeed, but it is also a fact that the crises are not always as grave as portrayed by the leader. Such leaders understand that, to make themselves count, they have to paint a crisis that only they can resolve. They can create a perception of a crisis when there is none, or when it is not as intense as portrayed. Of course, the crisis can be very real as well.

Yet, there are numerous examples of how a perception of a crisis was moulded to make space for a charismatic leader to emerge. For example, a movement in India was organised against ‘corruption’ in 2011, during a time when the Indian economy was actually doing rather well. This paved the way for Narendra Modi’s BJP to sweep the 2014 elections.

Modi was/is considered to be a charismatic leader. But he gradually changed the nature of the crisis from corruption to one of Hindu identity, which he believes was eroded by the secular and ‘pro-Pakistan’ Indian National Congress. He now poses as resolving an existential crisis.

In 2016, Donald Trump claimed that the US had lost its ‘greatness’ because of the corrupt politics of the ‘liberal elite’. This for him was a crisis, but one he substantiated only through irreverent rhetoric and conspiracy theories.

During the campaigning of the 2013 elections in Pakistan, when terrorism had hit a terrifying peak in the country, Imran Khan chose to put ‘corruption’ at the top of Pakistan’s crises list. He hardly ever mentioned terrorism in his speeches, because those who were talking about it were parties that Khan believed were corrupt.

He continued to roll with his corruption mantra even when he lost the 2013 elections to the PML-N. He explained the PML-N government — and not the violent extremists that had slaughtered over 50,000 people — as ‘a grave danger’ to the country (because of its ‘corruption’). This, despite the fact that the economy had begun to show signs of growth.

If this really were the case, then why were so many people rallying around Khan?

In 2017, German researcher Jochen Menges led a study to explore the impact of charismatic leaders on their followers. His findings led to what he called the ‘awestruck effect.’ According to Menges, a lot of people suspend their emotions while listening to charismatic leaders. This hampers their ability of critical thinking. Menges adds that “charisma as a dominant behaviour is successful only when it is matched by submissive behaviour on the part of a leader’s followers.”

An earlier theory in this context is based on the works of German psychologist Sigmund Freud (d.1939). It is often referred to as ‘transference’, in which a person or group projects an idealised image of a father or mother figure on to a leader. When the leader becomes conscious of this, he tries to enhance this idealised image of himself. In politics, this is often done by the creation of the cult of personality.

For example, Khan’s photographs while performing prayers, or working out, or speaking to a group of youth, etc., are floated to substantiate the idealised image of him being a morally correct and fit father figure who can do no wrong.

The late politician Mairaj Muhammad Khan once told me that, in 1970, someone showed the charismatic Z.A. Bhutto a poster, in which he was saddled on a white horse like an idealised Muslim warrior of yore. “Well, this is ludicrous,” Bhutto laughed and said. “But if some people want to picture me in this manner, so be it. I’ll become their knight.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 17th, 2021

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