Charisma in democracy

The media coverage around the death of Nelson Mandela and retirement of Sachin Tendulkar brought back memory of an essay on charisma by Max Weber. I asked a colleague how many charismatic personalities exists these days in politics in his country. He responded somewhat indirectly, “There are some, but in Germany parties are more important than individuals.” When I hinted at Hitler, he told me that Hitler played a great part in forming a distaste of ‘charismatic’ people. He added that many if not most Germans are extremely concious of authoritative leaders these days; and any attempt to revitalize them is met with strong enough opposition. He found it somewhat amusing to note that approval ratings of Hitler are quite high among Indians (a student even greeted him with Nazi salute).

The leadership of recent governments has not been marked by any vivid or memorable personal quality. Our current Prime Minister is a man of modest demeanour and speech and does not make a great impression either in front of camera of mike. He has been target of sarcastic and other types of distasteful personal comments. He even complained once to get respect only from international community. Perhaps he forgot his initial days when media pundits were extremely warm to him. It was said that he is the most educated since Nehru and least corrupt since Shashtri. It is easy to understand why people do not show much enthusiasm for a “weak” prime-minister but it is somewhat paradoxical that many among those who are now uneasy about a weak leadership were first dismayed and then embittered by style of functioning of Mrs. Indira Gandhi when she kept the nation in thrall. The students of history or psychology have to tell us why a person who is so rudely disillusioned by one charismatic personality quickly find himself embracing another one?

A system governed by rules or customs is at best can be a stable one. It can hardly be attractive to a generation which is obsessed with change and alternatives. A stable system can not change itself; and if a change is desired, it needs a push from outside or an strong individual initiative from within which set the change it motion. It looks normal to me that appeal of charisma is stronger among people who are desperate for change; they will search for heroes or create some. Democracy may curb it to some extent by conducting regular elections. The appeal for change is not like to recede very time soon especially when other institutions of societies fails to show any improvement election after election.

The transformation of a society from an aristocratic or a hierarchical one to a democratic one has always been sustained by charismatic people or heroes. Tocqueville thought, rightly or wrongly, that unlike in aristocracy, heroes or hero worshippers have no proper place in democracies. In a democracy, according to Tocqueville, Heroes, whenever they arise, will sooner or later turn into despots. The lack of heroes and charismatic leaders in our democracy may not be such a bad thing.

The charisma, with which I mean a personal quality which makes a person irresistible to many and ensures unquestionable loyalty and devotion of followers to a leader is on decline everywhere in the world. There are simply no equivalents of Nehru, Churchil, or de Gaulle exists today. To be sure, there are leaders, in India and elsewhere, who are quite popular, but their appeal are rather limited in both time and numbers. But it is significant and most likely to increase, at least on factional lines. This waning of charisma, I would suggest, might be a healthy thing for democracies.

People are attracted to charismatic people not only because they posses certain qualities but also because they want the very same qualities in themselves. In a village, where violence or threat of its use often used to settle disputes, people admire strong and violent people and set them up as role models for their children. Similarly, in IIT Bombay (indeed on any university in India) students who do well in ‘entrepreneurship’ and able to churn out a confident public appearance are seen with both envy and admiration by most if not all in student community. Academic skills are rarely admired if not ill-treated on our campuses. In cities, similar mentality is on display among those who wants ‘development’ as any rate. For them an authority who can rule them with iron hand — euphemism is “the one who gets thing done” — is more acceptable than one who gets work done through procedures and rules. It does not matter how many rules and institutions have been weakened and subverted when the “thing” was being done. The destruction of Civil Services during Indira Gandhi regime would serve us a good lesson if we are willing to learn from it.


The prevalent lack of charisma among political class these days is compensated by glorification of few dead charismatic leaders. Various political leaders have been erecting the statues of heroes, perhaps to make people feel “proud” about themselves and to raise their own charismatic profiles. Although those who do not have blue blood turns themselves into laughing-stock when they mimic their high-caste colleagues. It speaks well of a society if it keeps memories of its worthy members alive and does not suffer from amnesia. If they do not, it points to a psychological decay and an apparent lack of self-respect, both of which are often displayed in public. It is often accompanied by, or perhaps generated by, a feeling of self-worthlessness which is evident in comments like “Indian author is book hai.”, “Desi maal hai bhai, koi guarantee nai”. Here, “Indian” is euphemism for low-quality and mediocre. Many try to escape these feelings by collecting some external symbols; though they would not do it artlessly. During a lecture in HSS dept on “Algorithm in Indian astronomy” when the instructor politely suggested that our minds have been colonised and we believe that ‘Western scholarship is the only scholarship’ and accused the younger generation of being indifferent to Indian tradition, there was a moment of ill-feeling among students about themselves, which educated Indian, given their self-consciously virtuous nature, try to avoid at any rate. The accusation of “academic imperialism” or “western hegemony” and the uncivil tone in which it is expressed have only increased along with the numbers of Indians studying and working abroad and rarely one sees any comment on it. Our well-travelled if not foot-loose intellectuals are at front line in these attacks; many of them build their career, indeed their lives, is West. One wonders why so many people love to throw stones in all direction after erecting glass houses for themselves. Perhaps it does not feel good to be root-less but what is the points of roots if one is constantly ashamed of them?

When the prevalent cultural idioms arouse the feeling of inferiority and worthlessness, one tries to find solace in symbols of potency and perfection. People are greatly attracted towards those representing ‘perfection’ (sadhu, sants and godmen, even a period of history, Vedic math?) and omnipotence (authoritative leaders who gets thing done, sports personalities who wins). The psychologist Sudhir Kakar explains the tendency.

The need to bestow ‘mana’ on our superiors and leaders in order to partake
of the mana ourselves, and unconscious attempt to restore the narcissistic
perfection of infancy, ‘You are perfect but I am a part of you’ is ofcourse
a universal tendency. In India, the automatic reverence for superiors is a
nearly universal psychological ‘fact’… Leaders at every level of society and
politics, but particularly the patriarchal elders of the extended family and
jati groups, take on an emotional salience independent of any realistic
evaluation of their performance, let alone acknowledgement of their all too
human being. When it comes to leadership in the large social institutions
of business and government in India, charisma plays and unusually
significant role. The search for leaders of purity and authority, and their
idealization, is vividly manifest in the sphere of religion. [1]

One should not underestimate this even among young people, although some changes are noticeable between young and old especially in classroom as style of parenting is changing. Among students the unconscious attraction of hierarchy is displayed by a ubiquitous cultural expression of it, “fuck you in your anus” or who can fuck them in their anus. By saying it they either assert their place in hierarchy or acknowledge the authority of a superior (“he will fuck me in my anus if this is not done”). Dr. Ambedkar, whose speeches and writing were free from wishful thinking, was troubled with our weakness for charismatic people. He warned in constitutional assembly,

The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill
has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely,
not to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him
with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions. There is
nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long
services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness...

This caution is far more necessary in the case, of India than in the case of
any other country, for in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of
devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in
magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the
world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But
in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to
eventual dictatorship.

Charismatic people can hardly show any respect for rules and regulation which should govern a democratic system. If they did, they would not be charismatic. For a charismatic person, the rules and other institutions are a mere hindrance in his path which should be removed to achieve whatever he has set his mind on. The aim may be ill conceived or self-defeating but if the decision has already been made in favor of change or alternative, then why should one care to ponder over the potential costs? The obsessive and increasing zeal to create alternative of existing institution in one go over that painfully slow process of improving them bit by bit may prove to be extremely costly in the end. Alternatives in society (as newness in science) is not discovered merely because one has a great desires to do so; and lives of great many people will be improved by their existence.

A nation obsessed with personalities does not spend much of its time worrying about its institutions. Parliament and its affairs consume a great deal of our intellectual energy. But parliament is not the only institution, even the most important one, for such a unique treatment. There are others such as Courts, Police, Army, Hospitals, Universities which are extremely important. Their roles for the health of society can hardly be overemphasized. History tells us that the charismatic people are not so much of sustainer of institutions as they are the destroyer of them.

Modern societies have institutions which can also be charismatic; admired and respected by public. A student wrote on his facebook page that he thought in his childhood that IITs are so respected that one has to call them IIT jee. While encountering a student accused of cheating by his teaching assistants, Prof Madhav Desai asked the crying student — I was preparing myself to listen to a speech by an elder to a younger person about moral issues involved — would people respect IITs if they come to know this is what student do here. It was a refreshing moment of some delight seeing someone is concerned about the dignity and not just the efficiency of his institute.

There seems to a time where people respected public institutions. Remembering his childhood, Andre Beteille recounts that Congress party had a certain aura of charisma around it. The assault on its dignity by its own “charismatic” members and subsequent corrosion of its image is matter of pain to some people who sees it more than a political party, something of a national heritage. Parliament also enjoyed a great deal of respect of people and whenever many of them visited Delhi, they also visited the parliament in the spirit of pilgrimage. How many people will go to visit parliament in the same spirit? Indeed, it has been a long time since I have heard any word of praise for our institutions.

The English political scientist Walter Begehot distinguished between dignified and efficient part of English constitution. This can be extended to almost all institutions of society; an institute needs both. And like a person, it needs to be efficient and able to protect its dignity by a mindless assault from its own members. Here the role of charismatic people can be crucial. It has been said that Nehru kept the parliament in thrall during the debate by the force of his personality. Keeping parliament in thrall is one matter, letting others assaulting its dignity in open, and even participating in it joyfully, is quite another. A new parliament is going to be formed. I will speak nothing about the efficiency; but one hopes that its new members — indeed members of any institute — even if they care little about their own dignity and image, will not act in a way which irreversibly takes away a part of dignity of their institute.

[1] The inner world, A psychoanalytic study of childhood and society in India, Sudhir Kakar. Fourth edition, pp.162-3. Oxford University Press.

[2] The ones who stayed behind, Ramachandra Guha, Outlook

  • Dilawar

Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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