Charisma and Politics


Gandhi was one of the most influential and charismatic political leaders of all time. But then again, so was Hitler.

Charisma is the unbiased force that brings together leaders like Mussolini, Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, Mao, Obama and Modi all under the same umbrella, who are otherwise absolutely different in every way imaginable. All these leaders, in their own time and space, have risen to power through popular support, as surprising as it may be to admit it. Evidently, there are a few modifications that need to be made in the conception that we have of charisma, especially with regards to politics.

One thing that needs to be sorted right at the onset is that charisma is independent of the idea of what we consider to be moral good. Being charismatic does not translate into being a good person. At the same time, ill deeds do not rid someone of charisma. Thus, an undeniably erroneous judgement would be to think that charisma is necessarily a positive attribute. What then, is charisma?

More than a hundred years ago, the term ‘charisma’ was extrapolated by Max Weber to a sociological context, after its initial usage more than a thousand years ago by Paul the Apostle in the religious context. Paul had used charisma to refer to a sort of inherent ‘grace’ gifted to some people by God. Weber brought a more secular dimension to it by defining it as a “certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities”.

This definition has a positive connotation, but a close examination will clarify such a misconception. Hitler certainly had extraordinary capabilities: he showed immense skills of organisation; a meticulous manner of administration; an iron-clad grip over the country’s army and people. All of his superhuman qualities certainly led to a disaster, but they were superhuman nevertheless. Over time, the definition of charisma and who we consider charismatic has evolved. Today, charisma entails a necessity of demonstration of a leader’s potential abilities.

This means a leader need not necessarily possess the qualities that he advertises about, but should be able to convince us that he does. Thus, almost always, a charismatic leader is a brilliant orator. Narendra Modi, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. all are classic examples of influential orators. Oration is significant not just for political motives but also for creating the image of the exceptional and extraordinary – charisma banks to a great degree on how this image is painted.

There is a definite and disturbingly gaping crevice in the idea of charisma dominating politics. Charisma relies, to a dangerous extent, on a sense of absolute faith in the abilities of a particular leader. People can choose to differ, but the image of a charismatic leader is very closely linked to the image of a great, exceptional person. The general crowd in such a situation finds considerable difficulty in accepting that this great exceptional person might also have some flaws.

In any form of democratic political discourse, subjecting leaders to scrutiny is both healthy and necessary to prevent dictatorial tendencies. Charisma often overshadows competence and mars our judgement when we look at our leaders. When it comes to judging the character of a political leader and if he/she is fit to run the country, relying on competence seems far more credible than on charisma. Sadly, we often find it difficult to distinguish between the two.

The NaMo wave that swept across the country and marked the end of the socio-politically stagnant coalition-era was driven largely by PR-backed charisma. Modi’s strategic outlook and the agenda of ‘Vikas’ stirred hope amongst the general people who were tired of a decade of stagnancy in almost every sphere of importance. It also culminated into a spirit of unconditional support by many people, one that often prevented them from rationally judging Modi as a political leader– an inevitable effect of charisma.

In the spirit of democracy, perhaps as citizens endowed with the right to free thinking, shirking out the common after-effect of charisma is necessary to view our leaders from an unbiased perspective. None of this means that Modi is not a good leader. Charisma comes with its limitations, and as the people of the largest democracy of the world, it can only impede us if we make our judgements solely on the basis of charisma and ignore the other aspects of what makes a good leader: competence, rationality, and above all, a sense of humanity.

-Contributed by Tinka Dubey

Picture Credits: thehindubusinessline.com

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