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
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".
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.