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June 10, 2018

The burden of charisma


June 10, 2018

Attention has finally turned from Nawaz Sharif to Imran Khan. That should have been good news for the PTI. It has been a year since Imran Khan’s corruption narrative lost its glory as the courts took over the role of the protagonist in the war against the corrupt Sicilian mafia, eclipsing Imran Khan and his promise to clean the Augean stables.

Imran’s job, in the new division of labour, was reduced to the cheerleader of the ‘system’ against which he was to bring a revolution. Sharif’s narrative of democracy under attack from non-elected institutions of the state has dominated the political arena ever since. If these elections were about the tabdeeli the PTI wanted, we would have been talking about Imran Khan’s greatness, his vision for a new Pakistan and the ability of the revolutionary PTI to transform the vision of its leader into a reality. Unfortunately, the leader for change is in the news for the wrong reasons – very wrong reasons. How much can it harm him?

Imran Khan’s latest tormentor, his former wife Reham Khan, has found support from some wise men of the PTI, particularly Hamza Ali Abbasi. We did not know that Abbasi was such an expert in game theory. He adopted a strategy to blunt the impact of the book well before it hit the bookstores by creating a controlled explosion of his own. What we have experienced so far are the waves created by his explosion. Reham has not pulled the trigger yet.

I have no wish to delve into the muck that is flying around since the explosion. Here, I only want to explore if the incident can hurt Imran Khan and the PTI’s fortunes at this crucial juncture. There can be many ways to probe this question. Let’s explore it in terms of Imran Khan’s personality as a charismatic leader and the way charisma works in politics.

Imran Khan is probably the only truly charismatic leader in the political arena at the moment. He is lucky to possess one of the most treasured human assets – defined as a gift from the gods. However, charisma is not something that belongs to the charismatic leader independently. It is a magic that works between two parties: the charismatic leader and his followers.

This is how it works, at least in terms of analytical psychology. Our inner divine, something great in us, aches for material realisation. Iqbal has put this psychological craving in an amazing couplet where he pleads with the Almighty to reveal Himself in libaas-e-majaaz – the material garb – promising “a thousand prostrations quivering eagerly in my submissive brow.”

In others words, the followers of a charismatic leader project their own better angels, their inner divine, on their charismatic leader. There is a mortal risk that a charismatic leader may start believing that it is truly him and not the process of projection. Such a belief may result in a disconnection from reality and the destruction of the charismatic leader. Charisma is a golden, bejewelled yoke that is never easy on mortals.

Those who are caught in the charisma of a leader cannot find any fault with him. How can your own angels be deficient? Nothing in the world can hurt the core following of a charismatic leader. “I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” said Trump confidently during a pre-election rally. Election results proved that he was right. Though he did not kill anyone, there were all sorts of accusations and scandals flying around. (Charismatic leaders do fall from grace and destroy themselves, but that’s a different topic).

For Imran Khan’s core following, he can do no wrong. What about those who are not in his spell yet, but can be potential voters of his party? Is his core big enough to secure him a victory in 2018 elections? Till 2013, Imran Khan’s vote bank hovered around one percent. In 2013 elections, his vote bank suddenly spiked to 17 percent. More recent surveys put his popularity at 23 percent. Going by these polls, his archrival, Nawaz Sharif, is giving him a run for his money despite the support available to Khan and the pressures faced by Nawaz. He and his party remains far more popular.

Imran Khan needs to chip away at his vote bank fast. Even if his core remains undisturbed, Imran Khan needs many more followers. This is not easy because one person’s charismatic is another person’s nothing. Take the example of Altaf Hussain. For his core followers, Bhai is a highly charismatic person while the rest of the country thinks that he is nuts. Trump is another example who is seen as a joker by those who are not under his spell. Such controversies can alienate the fence-sitters he needs so badly.

Pakistani voters are considered to be quite generous towards their leaders and forgiving about their personal lives. But frankly, we have no way of saying anything with certainty. It is often argued that the Sita White case did not harm Imran Khan. However, we know that Imran Khan failed to win a single seat in 1997 elections when there was a widespread hype about the PTI making a huge upset. Did it hurt him or not? We don’t know. We know that he was not taken seriously as a politician by the generation that knew him as a playboy cricketer.

As Bill Clinton will tell us, there are injuries that don’t kill but can harm you substantially. Clinton survived the Monica Lewinsky affair. But he has not been able to recover his image ever since.

Most charismatic leaders harm themselves through their own narcissism. Unlike charisma, which is a gift, narcissism is a pathology. Narcissism often comes with charisma as a package and it can even feed charisma. Narcissism results in the charismatic leader serving himself rather than a higher purpose. That’s what we have observed in Imran Khan, the politician. Today, he is victim to a culture he has blessed and promoted.

There is no form of filth that he and his followers have not hurled at his political opponents. Like any demagogue, he considers his political opponents to be criminals and traitors rather than legitimate rivals. When a young girl, Zainab, was raped and murdered in Kasur, Imran Khan, along with his followers, tried to implicate the PML-N leadership in the gruesome crime. Treason is another capital crime that he blames his political opponents for. He never mentions in his lectures that blaming political opponents of a capital crime is considered to be a taboo in democracies.

This episode may convince him to sit with other political parties to outline some political norms that Pakistan’s politics needs so badly. A charismatic leader must take responsibility for his own charisma and the huge influence he enjoys over his followers. Imran Khan cannot be dissociated from his army of trolls that follows him like a horde of zombies. It is he whose approval they seek and whose command they follow. Isn’t he manipulating them and using them against his political opponents? Hasn’t he abused and diminished them in character as a charismatic leader. He certainly has the power to transform them differently.

Charismatic leaders have millions of followers but very few friends. Those who seek intimate relations with such persons may feel used or abused. As a seasoned media person, Reham Khan should have known what she was getting into. It could not have been a normal union after all. Let’s see how forthright she is about herself.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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