Personal charisma as a factor in nation-building


Where have all the 'role models' or 'heroes' gone? This poser was essentially the principal theme of a commentary run on this page on December 4, written by Irfan Husain and sourced to The Dawn/Asia News Network. It is a prime issue that ought to be engaging the attention of all those endowed with a social and political awareness.

However, the complex nature of this question prevents the analyst from arriving at easy or simple answers to it. The personal, positive example of those seen as national leaders, for example, counts immensely in nation-building but the challenge is for polities and publics to sustain the beneficial influence of these lead personalities. This is a multi-dimensional exercise that defies easy definition and analysis. It is one of the reasons why these prime figures 'come and go', so to speak, like 'meteorites'. Simply put, the factor of personal charisma alone does not help in sustaining good influences.

There is the case of former US President Barack Obama who strikes Irfan Husain as being particularly 'meteorite'-like. In Obama's connection Mr. Husian says -

'A decade ago, Barack Obama appeared on the American political horizon like a meteorite, or seemed to have cut across America's racial divide. But our optimism was misplaced. As we can see, Trump's victory in the 2016 election showed that little had changed, and the President's overt racism is as much a sign of America's divisions as it is of Obama's failure to change attitudes. Like a meteor, he flared and fell to earth.'

The deep ranging, positive impact Barrack Obama made on the US public could have been gauged by the fact that he was elected the first 'Black' President of the US. Needless to say, this was a singular, unprecedented moment in US political history. Here was a polity which was no foreigner to racial tensions over the decades opting for a 'Black' President, by majority vote. This is a cogent pointer to the fact that Obama positively impacted the US public in no small measure. His personal charisma and his messages for the US mattered in a major way. The seemingly impossible had happened and the chief reason for this was Obama's ability to influence the US positively and decisively.

However, there is no arguing the point that good influences must be sustained and perpetuated if the personality behind these changes of consciousness and psyche are not to be seen as being 'meteorite'-like.

The world has a suitable case study in this connection in the influence wielded by India's Mahatma Gandhi. It cannot be believed that the impact made by Obama on the US public would subside in a hurry because the Democratic Party continues to see him as an opinion-moulder of great significance and the fact that he is back in a notable way in the Democrats' opinion mobilization efforts speaks volumes for the influence he continues to wield. However, sections of the Indian public have never ceased from keeping the Mahatma's good name alive and unless and until similar efforts are made to keep Obama's thought legacy alive in the US, Obama would be seen by some as having had his day and is no more a force to be reckoned with.

As in the case of the Mahatma, Obama did speak to the hearts and minds of his citizens and a proof of this were his demonstrations of solidarity with the US' Muslim community at the height of some security crises. The 'Ground Zero' commemorative event, for instance, goes down in the history of the US as being of iconic importance.

However, special efforts are needed on the part of supportive sections of the US public to keep the legacy of Obama in the public mind. For example, special public institutions supportive of minority rights could be established to perpetuate what Obama stood for. Charities too could be brought into being for the same purpose, if such efforts have not already taken place.

But it is to the Mahatma that we have got to refer on this question of the perpetuation of memory and legacy. For example, the President of India is usually a representative of the country's minority or 'oppressed' groups. This gesture on the part of the Indian state is an enduring acknowledgement of the Mahatma's beneficial influence on the country's politics and public life. We are also obliged to remember the fundamental rights chapter of the Indian Constitution that repeatedly refers to the state's duty to protect the rights of the weak. Here too, the impact of the Mahatma is manifest.

In India, the so-called minorities are, generally, not 'invisible', thanks to the Mahatma. But this does not mean that harassment of the powerless is completely non-existent in India. Such victimization does occur every now and then but the legacy of the Mahatma reminds the Indian polity of its duty to help to the extent possible the powerless in its midst.

Accordingly, lead personalities, although few, continue to make an impression on the world's publics. But unless their legacies are supported and made to endure they would be only cursorily spoken of. For this purpose, institution-building and institutional support are essential inputs, as in the case of the Mahatma. It is plain that preserving the legacy of charismatic personalities is a multi-dimensional effort. That is, 'memorializing' of the notable among us is a many-sided, complex thing. However, personal charisma alone is insufficient for the perpetuation of beneficial influences.

One is obliged to point out that Donald Trump's triumph over Hillary Clinton in the last US presidential election, while attended by controversy, came in the wake of hyped-up security concerns linked to 'Islamic terror' and other acutely sensitive issues. Impressionable sections of the US public were compelled by the Trump campaign to 'vote with their guts'. It could be said that 'atavistic fears' were churned-up in them. One wonders whether Trump took a leaf from the majority of Sri Lankan politicians. The US 'whites' were given to understand that they were a threatened majority. If not for these circumstances it is doubtful whether Trump would have triumphed.

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