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Institutions, Individuals And The National Crisis
Z.A. Bhutto: The Semiotics Of Charisma
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, September 26, 2002

A remarkable feature of the current elections is the absence of political charisma amongst those who currently lead the campaigns of various political parties. (The honourable Imran Khan certainly had charisma as a cricketer, but has not so far been able to transmute it into political charisma). It may be pertinent by way of contrast, to examine the nature of charisma with reference to Mr. Z.A. Bhutto, who was perhaps the first politician to elicit mass adulation since the Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Charisma could be defined as the luminous synthesis of a range of images projected by an individual to a receptive audience. For example, it may be arms held high to capture the pitch of a crowd's emotion, as if at the far edge of language, to silently suggest all that is and all that can be; or while facing a lonely death on the gallows, to claim a place amongst the phalanx of heroes since Mohenjo Daro, by sending out the defiant message: "They (his military captors) do not know the mettle of the man from the desert".

The images that together constitute charisma, establish an instant, almost chemical bond between the wielder of the images and the spectator: They suggest that the charismatic individual has an incisive insight, an infallible efficacy, an inner power through which he can grasp the most fertile dreams of the spectators, and then through collective effort actualize the dreams: Dreams of renewal, of transformation; dreams of a moment when the stasis of fear would give way to a joyous dance, when a new consciousness and a new society would take shape. Thus the charismatic politician is essentially a Promethean Hero. He embodies the possibility of enhancing life, of breaking away from the existing establishment.

The individual imbued with charisma, has a strange duality: By virtue of the supernormal powers signified by the images, he stands apart - an object of deification. Yet, at the same time, charisma represents a relationship with the spectators so intimate that he reaches into their innermost longings. This duality is expressed in the contradictory impulse of the spectators spontaneously reaching out, and yet being afraid to actually touch their Hero. Intimate contact between the charismatic politician and the audience is achieved indirectly through the mediating device of symbolic gestures. By way of illustration let us see how Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto made contact.

The dress bearing and the design of the stage in sub-continental jalsas had traditionally been a device of psychologically distancing the audience from the speaker. The speaker normally gave a spruce look, dressed in stiff achkan or western suit, speaking in literary Urdu or Oxbridge English. The stage was usually a raised platform with a stylized setting (flowers in a vase and water in a glass jug). The speaker stood stiffly behind the rostrum. Each of the elements of a highly structured stage design and the formal bearing of the speaker, emphasized the distance from an audience that was unkempt and chaotic. Mr. Bhutto undermined this psychological distance by means of a number of symbolic gestures such as:

i) During his speech he took off his coat, then progressively loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt sleeves. By means of these gestures he was demolishing the image of the conventional speaker and symbolically acquiring the unkempt appearance of the audience. He often wreaked havoc on the tidy stage. On one occasion as he reached a climax in his speech at the Gaddafi stadium, he picked up the flower vase and threw it at his audience. He thus smashed a symbol that served to separate him from them.

ii) His language did not have the streamlined sophistication of the traditional politician, but was often grammatically incorrect, fragmented, and laced with earthy epithets from the local dialect. As he built up to an emotional crescendo, his voice often cracked and halted in mid-sentence. Through these devices Mr. Bhutto was reaching out to his audience. He was sending the coded message that he was not delivering a speech but rather participating in a collective emotion; he was suggesting that contact with the audience was cracking his emotional defences: that at a psychosomatic level he was one with the crowd.

iii) He achieved audience participation through rhetorical questions and rhythm. For example, he often posed a question and let the audience answer it in a single joyous roar. Perhaps the most important gesture that brought the speaker and audience into visceral contact, was breaking into the dance rhythm of Dama Dam Mast Kalander: The ancient rhythm through which the individual could momentarily transcend his separateness and experience the intoxication of collective being.

It appears from these examples that while the charismatic politician is at one level a deified object inaccessible to the people. Yet he achieves visceral contact with them through the device of certain images.

The intimate contact that a charismatic politician can achieve with the people, enables him to unleash such mass emotion that drives ordinary politicians into an acute sense of inadequacy and fear. That is why the charismatic politician induces such extremes of either love or hate. Those who are gripped by the glow of his charisma, hero worship him with a blind love. Many of those who are beyond his aura are terrified by his almost mystical connection with the people. Yet such detractors are engulfed by an equally blind hate. Thus, the charismatic politician treads a dangerous path. He is subjected to adulation on a gigantic scale and hence faces the danger of losing perspective, and becoming a prisoner of his own personality cult. At the same time his access over the emotional switch of his mass following can threaten the establishment, and marginalize the run of the mill politician. This can give birth to conspiracies against his person.

The images that constitute the vocabulary of charisma have the same effect on the spectator as magic or drama: There is in the mind of the spectator a momentary suspension of disbelief. In the magical dream-like moment created by the charismatic political personality a new vision of the future takes shape. It is important to remember however, that while he can cast a spell over the audience and thereby have access over their deepest emotions, this spell is easily broken. Let us see how this may happen: The failure to achieve a declared strategic objective breaks the image of infallible efficacy. For example, instead of attempting to achieve his manifesto objective of "all power to the people", former Prime Minister Bhutto began to rule increasingly on the basis of the coercive apparatus of the state. After allegations of rigging in the 1977 elections, Mr. Bhutto faced huge street demonstrations against him. At this moment, he took recourse to a gesture signifying that his power was drawn from the establishment rather than his ability to actualize the dream of the people: During one of his last statements on TV, Mr. Bhutto thumped his Prime ministerial chair and declared, "I may be weak but my chair is strong".

When images of incisive insight, of infallible efficacy, of the inner power to actualize the possible, are broken, then charisma is eroded. In just the same way as an actor who forgets his lines can shatter the illusion of the stage.

There is little doubt that Mr. Bhutto's charisma lost its sheen between 1971 and 1977, because of the erosion of the images through which his charisma had been constituted. However, it may be equally true that Mr. Bhutto's last ordeal in prison, served to regenerate his charisma: This time as a martyred hero. In the popular psyche, his pain and suffering during a long incarceration began to represent the suffering of the people under Martial Law.

Mr. Bhutto's period in the death cell created the image of a Prince sacrificing his body in slow degrees for the people: The broken wire mesh of his bare bed drawing blood from his back; the slow loss of body weight due to an untended stomach ailment. His body shorn of its flesh, was held only by a fierce spirit of defiance: He continued to smoke his customary cigar and sip his coffee as his life ebbed away. Before the curtain went up, Bhutto's body, shorn of its flesh as much as of its sins, stood in stark silhouette on the horizon of popular consciousness. A flawed politician by the form of his death, had passed into myth as a folk hero.

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