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)