The personality cults of Trump, Modi and Imran Khan

One of the great advantages of democracy is that it resists personality cults.  The two are so mutually incompatible that when personality cult grows, democracy recedes, and vice versa. Durable democratic processes do occasionally produce very popular leaders, but rarely one with a cult following.

One very popular democratic leader was President Franklin D Roosevelt in the United States, who won four consecutive elections (1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944). He died in office in 1945, whereupon congress, in 1947, initiated the 22nd constitutional amendment restricting a president to two terms.

Despite what their objects claim, personality cults are never spontaneous. They are always carefully cultivated, usually but not necessarily with state patronage. When the state machinery is used to promote the cult of a leader, the results are catastrophic. The worst example in recent history is the cult surrounding the Kim family in North Korea. There are, of course, other lesser cults now doing the rounds: Belarus, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, China, Brazil, the Philippines, etc.

In recent history, millions became sacrificial lambs to feed the extreme cults of Adolf Hitler (Germany), Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union), Mao Zedong (China), Pol Pot (Cambodia), Saddam Hussain (Iraq), and Hafez Al Assad (Syria), to name a few.

Pakistanis have witnessed the rise and fall of a political leader with a cult following limited to a small, regional ethnic minority. Exploiting some genuine grievances of the Urdu-speaking youth of Karachi and Hyderabad, Altaf Hussain used demagoguery and oratory to build a cult following: he was “Quaid, Pir and Aqa”.

Like all cults, his ended disastrously. So did the cult of Velupillai Prabhakaran in Sri Lanka. Both Altaf Hussain and Prabhakaran had united their respective Mohajir and Tamil communities and infused them with a sense of pride and power. But the seemingly powerful edifice they had constructed came crashing down due to the over-centralisation, obstinacy and skulduggery that accompany personality cult and hero-worship.

Pakistan is now in the throes of the cult of Imran Khan, which began to take shape a few years before he became prime minister. His choice of the epithet “Kaptaan” not only harked back to his success as a cricket captain, but also announced him as a potential “captain of the ship of state”. Using colours, banners and songs, exploiting youth and technology, viciously attacking opponents and making deceitful promises, he portrayed himself as a larger than life figure, the messiah who would rid the country of all evils. Thankfully, in Pakistan’s quasi-democratic, hybrid system, he has not been able to harness all the instruments and organs of the state to push his cult.

Across the border in India, the cult of Narendra Modi has grown alarmingly. Far more devious, divisive and destructive than our Kaptaan, aided by very potent symbols (such as Hindutva), a much stronger team and a far larger support base, Modi has overwhelmed India’s strong and resilient constitutional safeguards and system of checks and balances.

Modi prefers many epithets for himself but two are worth mentioning. “Chowkidar” was transient, to whip up anti-Pakistan (and, by implication, anti-Muslim) sentiments for electoral gains by highlighting his defence of India’s territorial and ideological frontiers. “NaMo” is more enduring, being rhythmical, personalized and sounding like a brand name. But I doubt that Modi will be able to totally subdue India’s constitution, institutions, civil society, and its pluralist and secular tradition to enforce his divisive and authoritarian diktat for too long.

But whereas NaMo presently calls all the shots in India, in Pakistan Kaptaan has to contend with a colossus, referred to as “The Establishment” or “State Institution”, which reigns supreme. It tolerates no cult other than its own, although it is facing unprecedented challenges now.

Then there is Donald Trump, the lying, cheating, bullying real estate tycoon who surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the US presidential election in 2016. Beginning with the election campaign and gathering steam with the presidential debates, he began to cultivate a cult following with carefully chosen words, slogans and gestures, as well as plans, promises and objectives. At the centre of it all was “MAGA”, his promise to make America great again.

Explicitly mentioned were the southern wall to keep messy immigrants out and a tariff wall to keep jobs in. But implicit and between the lines were xenophobia, loathing for Muslims, aversion for blacks and Hispanics and promotion of a white supremacist agenda harking back to the days when blacks were kept in their place and non-white immigrants kept a low profile. Although the American democratic system and tradition had the better of him, he remains a lurking danger.

Of the three personality cults mentioned above, I believe that Trump’s is the most potent for two reasons: firstly, he delivered on some of his promises, such as jobs, and many of the issues he raised were real. He boldly confronted China, which is known to take unfair advantage of lax American rules, he called out Europe and Japan for paying far less than their fair share of the costs of defence alliances and United Nations, and he highlighted the economic, social and demographic consequences of unregulated immigrant influx.

If the issues Trump represents are not taken seriously, there is imminent danger for the United States, for he has a huge following among ordinary Americans and a cult-like status for many, who are armed and spoiling for a fight to the finish.

Modi, to the disappointment of many of his followers, has so far failed to deliver on any of the promises that really matter. The economy is in a mess, largely due to his own reckless policies, China has inflicted a humiliating defeat in Aksai Chin in response to his bluster, Pakistan has not been browbeaten, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Dalits are alienated and the whole country is in turmoil.

But Modi has whipped up so many Hindus into such a frenzy that it will be impossible in future for Indian Muslims to feel like equal citizens of the country. Even after a post-Modi reset, India will be an Israeli-style democracy where non-Jewish Arab citizens, 20% of the population, have constitutional safeguards, but are practically relegated to the status of second-class citizens.

Like Israel, which is “Jewish and democratic”, in reality if not in name, India at best will be “Hindu and democratic”. Even so, it will perhaps be more democratic than the world’s many Muslim-majority countries, where non-Muslim minorities are second class citizens without exception, in practice as well as in theory.

Whereas both Donald Trump and Narendra Modi will leave their mark on the history of their respective countries, Imran Khan will be a mere footnote in the history of Pakistan, remarkable for the incompetent and blundering leadership he delivered, in sharp contrast to the hype and promise of the personality cult he generated and cultivated.

by Razi Azmi

(Daily Times, 14 March 2021)

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21 Responses to The personality cults of Trump, Modi and Imran Khan

  1. M. Anwar Hossain says:

    Excellent portrayal of personality cults of Trump, Modi and Imran Khan.

  2. Jehanzeb says:

    An excellent analysis of the leading contemporary cults. While Imran Khan’s incompetence and political vindictiveness may leave him as a mere footnote in the Pakistani political history, I am afraid it may take at least a generation to wipe out the utter political polarisation he has brought about. He will be remembered by his biggest legacy which is the culture of abuse and vilification, above dialogue and political inclusiveness. Imran Khan’s fascistic approach has left a lasting dent in the nascent democracy of Pakistan.

    • Aamkhuda says:

      Take a breather. I take it you are not about to invite Imran Khan to your Eid dinner. I get it. Frankly, I am not a fan or a follower of the man. I detest the man for a number of things including his misguided religiosity. But, I am not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
      I know just like you everyone’s favorite word in Pakistan is Fascist. Name one political regime in Pakistan that has not exhibited authoritarianism or mellow it down to being autocratic?
      Imran Khan is for my money an idiot worth redeeming in a pool of lying, deceiving, autocratic, corrupt and I’ll add self serving idiots. Man has countless faults. His only saving grace is relatively honest but more than that I am compelled to think he has a plan.

      • Razi Azmi says:

        Thanks for you taking the time to comment. It seems to me that you only object to the application of the word fascist to Imran Khan. That’s OK. Fascist or not, Khan saheb definitely will settle for nothing less than: (1) an authoritarian government bordering on his personality cult, (2) complete centralisation of authority, (3) presumption of guilt for others but innocence and honesty for himself. Ask yourself this: Do we want as leader a man who is widely believed to be narcissistic, arrogant, vindictive, obstinate, abusive, etc? Weigh that against his assumed honesty, which is highly questionable?

  3. Khalid Pathan says:

    A very good analysis, though I don’t totally agree with the author’s observations regarding Imran Khan in context of Pakistan’s politics, which is in control of the Establishment. Pakistan is the safest place on earth for the corrupt politicians who in collusion with the dominant power in the country get all the protections.

    • Gen(r) Fakhar Zaman says:

      You are spot on in identifying the root cause of Pakistani malaise that it’s safest place for corrupt politicians. That is why military has to play it’s role to ensure integrity of country.

  4. Iftikhar says:

    Quite incisive and timely!

  5. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Poignant and well defined.

  6. Pradeep Kalra says:

    Very well written piece and the timing is pretty apt. The depiction of the three leaders and the analysis is worthy of praise.The author has done a good job.

  7. Carl Pletsch. says:

    The broad comparative context of this fine piece of writing should be enough to shame the supporter of any supposedly heroic object of a personality cult. This great article should be widely distributed and re-published in all the countries referred to here. For one public to realize that their supposed enemy has a titular figure very like their own hero, using the same tactics to inflame hatred in that country to inflame hatreds there should be sobering. The ancient Greeks had an antidote to this phenomenon: ostracism. Forming a personality cult was prima facia evidence that a leader should be expelled from the country.

  8. Gen(r) Fakhar Zaman says:

    In Pakistan, establishment by which you mean military, doesn’t reign supreme. It’s God who reigns supreme and under that people’s will through parliament. Unfortunately, the parliament has always been a mumbo jumbo of feudal, thugs, nouveau riche and the likes. People look up to military to be their guardian angel and given the internal and external environs of our country, militarily has to play that role whether it likes it or not.

    Whether it’s IK or NS or even Zardari; military has always tried to support them but NS through his obstinate nature, and Zardari due to inherent corruption have left no choice for military but to support IK. IK has charisma, a clean past, good intentions and willingness to take tough measures. Having a cult of youth around him is a plus for him as that youth is fed up of the likes of NS and Z.

    Pakistan is not Greece and we are not living in medieval times.

    • Jehanzeb says:

      Sir, if people’s will through Parliament runs supreme, we should learn to respect people’s right to elect whoever they wish to represent them. Why can’t feudal or nouveau riche be people’s choice? People’s will cannot be encumbered by supra-constitutional restrictions or dictates of a department with no defined remit in running of the country.

      My apologies but there is no “role” for the Military to play in politics or governmental affairs. Not in Constitution, not in law. A “guardian angel” does not meddle in affairs beyond its legally sanctioned sphere, lest its intrusion brings disrespect for it and blemish to the country.

      May I also ask since when somebody’s “obstinate nature” has become a crime? Obstinate in comparison to what? With whom? A people’s choice must be respected whether that person happens to be a maverick like Trump, divisive like Modi or fumbling like Boris Johnson.

      I hope Imran Khan’s charisma and appeal among the youth do translate into the good of Pakistan. Unfortunately, it has not in the three years since he assumed the office after a disputed and, what many believe, a rigged election. Otherwise, it is feared that Imran Khan’s failure will not only be his downfall but that of anybody who might have been propping him up. History shows today’s favourite turn tomorrow’s villain.

      • Gen(r) Fakhar Zaman says:

        Pakistan is a unique country where it’s very survival depends on military. Military is pro-democracy that’s why it supports IK and people of Pakistan understand and appreciate that as otherwise what’s stopping yet another coup ?

        If it were not for military, no politician could ever rule this ungovernable disparate land. Military is unifying force and future of Pakistan is intertwined with military’s vibrancy.

  9. KHALID PATHAN says:

    A comment on Gen (R) Fakhar Zaman’s comment.
    No doubt that people look to the Army when they lose all hope in a democracy run by corrupt politicians for their cronies. The fact is that the Ashrafya’s (elite) loot and plunder was never stopped and is continuing unchecked. May I ask the Gen Sahab to mention the Institution that was behind the bail of Nawaz Shareef on pretext of his pseudo illness. Zardari’s corruption is unparalleled, however, he is now on the same page with the establishment. When the army is pulling all the strings in politics, then it is but natural that a vast majority of people of Pakistan are justified in thinking that the most powerful institution in the country does not want the corrupt politicians to be punished. Qazi Faiz Isa’s corruption has been brought to surface because the army didn’t like his decision in context of Khadim Rizvi’s dharna, however, the Judicial system in Pakistan is a mockery of justice as the judiciary has failed to deliver justice, because of massive corruption. All institutions that guarantee the survival and progress of a country, have been compromised for worse in Pakistan. The only power left to set the things right is the army. It’s only time that will determine the role of army in running the country directly or indirectly, through their proxies.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      (1) Justice Qazi Faiz Isa has not been charged with corruption and certainly not convicted. He is alleged not to have declared his wife’s properties in his declaration to the authorities, which he argues he did not have to as she is an independent person.

      (2) The army has stepped in directly three times before, in 1958, 1977 and 1999, “to set the things right” to borrow your words, but each intervention has left the country in a worse situation than before. It is no secret that the army has been “indirectly” influencing or intervening in government affairs for the last few years but, if anything, things are getting worse.

      (3) The only thing that has NOT been tried and tested in Pakistan is to let democracy function and grow as is the case with all democratic countries, whether Europe, America or any other, including India.

      • Gen(r) Fakhar Zaman says:

        Army had to jump in directly in 1958 as country was on verge of collapse as politicians failed to set the sails right even after 11 years of independence; in 1977 as Bhutto was tearing apart very core of country after betrayal of 71, nationalization, FSF etc; in 1999 as NS was hell bent on becoming Almighty.

        Army has always been wanting for democracy to flourish and that is why after clipping the wings of these monsters, it returned to barracks again to give them yet another chance but the same story repeats again and again and then again.

        If you look carefully, army is backing IK and letting democracy flourish these days and committed to do so.

        Lt. Gen (r) Fakhar Zaman
        Serving the Nation in New Uniform.

  10. RJaved Agha says:

    A very good article. Being a Pakistani, I would only comment on the politics of Pakistan. I believe that the prevailing Parliamentary setup and system does not suit Pakistan. More than 70 percent of people are poor and because of the system, do not have their representation in the Parliament. Elites and powerful rule Pakistan. Some land in the Parliament through voting system and some pull the strings because they have a gun on their shoulder. The situation is complex. I would request the author who has a deep insight into such subjects to pen down his thoughts on what sort of system be developed where the corrupt elite and powerful army is kept at bay. Regarding your thoughts on personality cult, I agree with Razi that it is a curse that does no good to any country or its people.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      You say “parliamentary setup and system does not suit Pakistan”, forgetting that an army general, Ayub Khan, abrogated the parliamentary system and then introduced a presidential system using exactly your argument. He left the country in a shambles in 1969, leading to the secession of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) within two years. Very sensibly, a consensus then emerged on parliamentary democracy with provincial autonomy.

      Nigeria with a presidential system is thoroughly corrupt and failing while India, despite Narendra Modi, is a successful parliamentary democracy with all its corruption and other failings and vices. Pakistan needs, if anything, more provincial autonomy, not less, even more provinces, many would argue. The situation in Pakistan is neither “complex” nor are corruption and nepotism etc unique to Pakistan.

  11. Anthony Letford says:

    You are (and not for the first time) a bit unkind to Imran Khan. He may be incompetent and he may (possibly) have rigged elections but the problems of Pakistan cannot be laid entirely at his feet. Almost all Islamic nations are steeped in corruption. The deeper the grip of the clerics, the greater the problem. Imran Khan’s abilities to bring about lasting change are constrained by the army and the Islamic powers.

    The only Islamic nation to enable politicians to have any significant degree of freedom to act semi-independently is Indonesia and even there corruption is widespread and Islamic bigotry prevents true freedom of expression. After 70 years Pakistan still cannot survive without billions of dollars of aid from the USA. Compare its progress with India. If Imran Khan is ineffective then show me a Pakistani politician who has had a lasting and beneficial effect on that shambles of a nation.

  12. Dr M Sanjeeb Hossain says:

    Dear Gen(r) Fakhar Zaman, Pakistan, like any other country, needs unadulterated democracy, and an Army that does not interfere in politics.

  13. Dr. S M Babulanam says:

    You work is excellent. I wish to contact you on Facebook and gmail, to share my thoughts with you.
    Dr. Babulanam

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