Democracy and charisma: a dangerous liaison

Demonstrations and strikes have shaken India over the last few weeks as people from all walks of life protest the Citizenship Amendment Act that discriminates against Muslims, serves as a major step towards institutionalizing their second class status in a predominantly Hindu country, and opens them up to systematic persecution as well as random violence.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, extra-judicial executions of suspected drug users continue, with the toll now said to come to over 20,000 deaths, the third biggest number of victims of state-sponsored killing in Southeast Asia in the post-World War II era, after the mass murders perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975-78 and the Indonesia military in 1965-66.

Yet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hold an unparalleled sway over their electorates, much to the consternation and puzzlement of partisans of democracy, human rights activists, and political analysts.

Democracy and authoritarianism are usually regarded as polar opposites. Yet democratic elections are, paradoxically, eroding what have been regarded as two of the most solidly liberal democratic systems in the global South: the Philippines and India.

Overall, the national elections held in 2019 in both countries were relatively free and fair, as even the opposition and international observers conceded, albeit grudgingly. Yet in both countries, the results have provided more momentum towards the concentration of power in the hands of authoritarian personalities.

Are the masses complicit in Duterte’s crimes?

In the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte was not running for office, but everyone knew that the May 13, 2019, election was a referendum on his three years in office. If it were politics-as-usual in the Philippines, the president’s record could have done him and his favored candidates for the Senate much damage: the worst inflation in nearly a decade, kowtowing to China, credible charges of hidden wealth, a penchant for misogynistic comments, a provocative anti-clerical attitude in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, intimidating the press, imprisoning or ousting from office vocal opponents, and, perhaps, most seriously, over 20,000 deaths, a large number owing to extra-judicial executions, in his war on drugs.

But it is not politics-as-usual in the Philippines. At the time of the elections, Duterte had an astonishing 81 percent approval rating, and the results of the polls drove this home: his favored candidates and allies captured all 12 of the senatorial seats at stake. Not since the late 1980s had the opposition been completely shut out in a Senate race. As the results poured in on election night, it became clear that Duterte, warts and all, had been given an overwhelming mandate by the electorate, making him the most powerful person to occupy the presidency since Ferdinand Marcos.

Since electoral fraud wasn’t a credible explanation for the results, some political commentators elected to blame the voters. “We have most of the voters to blame for it,” wrote one prominent journalist critical of Duterte. “They’re the millions who approve of mass killings, who’re indifferent to the violations of human rights, who despise intelligence and who’ve never read a book. They disparage democracy without knowing what it is and approve of tyranny because they can’t tell the difference.”

One would not have given the writer’s words a second thought were he a conservative intellectual. But he is a well-known man of the left who had previously written about the masses being the agents of history. His words echo the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial book Hitler’s Willing Executioners that ordinary Germans were complicit in Hitler’s crimes because they knew full well what was going on and they approved of it.

“A moment of dread for Indian democracy”?

In contrast to Duterte, who had an amazingly high approval rating despite the existence of many serious problems faced by the Philippines, things did not seem as auspicious for Narendra Modi and the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) at the beginning of the six-week long electoral process in India in April.

The annual growth rate was down to 5.8 per cent. The economic crisis triggered by “demonetization” — the sudden withdrawal from circulation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes, which represented 86 percent of the value of circulating currency — was not over. Farmers’ marches reminded the country of the crisis of agriculture, and violence spawned by an aggressive Hindu nationalism had become commonplace.

Yet after the votes were counted, the whole country was stupefied. The BJP had expanded its majority to 303 seats, 20 more than its 2014 tally.

Congress, the main opposition party that had been the dominant force in the first 30 years of India as an independent state, was badly beaten, emerging with only 52 seats, with its leader Rahul Gandhi losing in his family’s traditional constituency, Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh. Modi came out much stronger from an election where he had been expected to emerge much weaker.

The desperate mood that engulfed those critical of Modi was captured by the words of one academic, who claimed that his victory was “a moment of dread for Indian democracy” because it had resulted in “the greatest concentration of power in modern Indian history.”

Suddenly, BJP boss Amit Shah’s boast that the BJP would rule India “for the next 50 years” no longer seemed incredible.

As in the Philippines, despairing liberals in India wondered what on earth made their compatriots “outsource their destiny” to a strongman, as one of them put it. Just as the Philippine intelligentsia expressed wonderment at how serious charges would simply bounce off Duterte, Indian liberals could not figure out what it was that made voters across the board readily absolve Modi for the very real problems being faced by the country, whether this was rising unemployment, farmers’ suicides owing to economic distress, numerous cases of lynching of Muslims accused of trading cattle, or the unsolved murders of prominent intellectuals.

Controlling the narrative was certainly part of the explanation for Modi’s success, as it was for Duterte’s. Modi’s discourse placed him and the BJP as the agents of India’s economic development and the restoration of Hindu civilization’s ancient greatness. Duterte combined an earthy discourse that many saw as refreshingly free of the usual liberal democratic froth with a stern message of cleansing the country of the drug menace that was “destroying the youth of my country.”

This analysis, however, assumes the relationship between the voters and the strongman is a one-way street, whereas anyone who has lived through the tumultuous politics of both countries in the last few years would not have failed to note the very real synergy or mutually constructive relationship between the strongmen and their people.

For other analysts, Duterte and Modi had tangible achievements that overrode the problems pointed out by their opponents. In the case of Modi, for instance, voters were said to appreciate his campaign to build a toilet for every household, his free LNG connections for poor families, and a program of giving 6000 rupees a year to subsistence farmers.

These material benefits do not, however, add up to a viable explanation for the massive mandate. Politics in India and the Philippines today is not arithmetic, to use a famous Filipino politician’s inimitable description of democracy. Promising and providing goods and services is the stuff of patronage politics, of democratic politics-as-usual, but what is happening in both countries today is a political earthquake, a massive transformative change, a fundamental reconfiguration of politics.

The era of charismatic politics

At the epicenter of this earthquake is a discontented citizenry, and it is as much an agent of change as the unorthodox personalities that have found a way to unlock its swirling passions.

The focus of citizens’ discontent is a system of liberal democracy that has simply not delivered on its promises. “India is a grotesquely unequal society,” writes Pankaj Mishra. “A great majority of Indians, forced to inhabit the vast gap between a glossy democratic ideal and a squalid undemocratic reality, have long stored up deep feelings of injury, weakness, inferiority, degradation, inadequacy, and envy; these stem from defeats or humiliation suffered at the hands of those of higher status than themselves in a rigid hierarchy.” This could be a description of 21st century Philippines as well, with the added dimension of disaffection for a state that has lost the capacity to perform what Thomas Hobbes saw as the raison d’etre of a state, that is to protect the life and limb of its people.

It is the explosive synergy between a deeply disaffected citizenry and a political personality who has captured their imagination — and on whom they have rested their dreams and aspirations for the future — that today drives politics in both countries. It is perhaps easier to understand this dynamic in the case of Modi, who unites a dynamic personality to an aggressive ideology of wounded but assertive nationalism that has tapped into a country’s feelings of pride and shame, deep disappointment, and persistent hope.

Yet Duterte is, in his own way, a magnetic personality, one who strikes people as having what it takes not only to take out criminals but also to tame exploitative elites and discipline a people that famously regard themselves as rowdy and undisciplined. The very qualities that liberals despise in Duterte is what enables him to “connect” with the masses, especially with the volatile middle classes that feel most sharply the yawning gap between aspirations and the possibilities of fulfilling them in the “really existing” democratic dispensation.

The “connection” that has been forged between strong personalities and their people has ushered in a period that may best be described as one where charismatic politics has displaced democracy-as-usual. Here we might take a leaf from the great sociologist Max Weber, who saw “charismatic” authority or legitimacy as a dynamic transformative process that overwhelms both “traditional” and “rational-legal” authority and structures co-existing in society.

Charismatic politics exploits the contradiction between traditional authority structures that legitimize inequality and injustice and an idealized rational-legal order based on the principles of democracy, justice, and equality. Arundhati Roy captures this thrust of Modi’s project in classic Roy fashion when she writes, “In practice, India has been neither secular nor socialist. It has always functioned as an upper-caste Hindu state. But the conceit of secularism, hypocritical though it may be, is the only shard of coherence that makes India possible. That hypocrisy was the best thing we had… [W]e are learning, too late, to cherish hypocrisy. Because with it comes a vestige, a pretense at least, of remembered decency.”

Charismatic politics is not politics as usual and is a fluid process that moves in uncharted waters until the charisma of the leader is “routinized” into a set of rules, procedures, and processes which become the new source of authority and legitimacy.

What must be emphasized though is that charisma is not simply an individual psychological trait but, as alluded to earlier, a social creation, a mutual construction. To quote Weber, “The holder of charisma seizes the task that is adequate for him and demands obedience and a following by virtue of his mission. His charismatic claim breaks down if his mission is not recognized by those to whom he feels he has been sent. If they recognize him, he is their master — so long as he knows how to maintain recognition through “proving” himself.”

Moreover, charisma is effective only in a receptive social climate, where the resulting synergy is a political explosion. George Orwell underlined this historicity of charisma when he wrote that fascist leaders “only appear when the psychological need for them exists.”

Charismatic politics and othering

Charismatic legitimacy is hardly benign. Indeed, it almost invariably ends up with a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the charismatic individual. And, equally alarming, its emergence has been accompanied by the imaginative creation of an “Other” or “Others” upon whom the ills, contradictions, and disharmony of society are projected. The achievement of social harmony is dependent on the excision or neutralization of the Other or Others — in the case of the Philippines, drug users, liberal politicians (“dilawan” or “yellows”), and communists; in the case of India, Muslims, Christians, westernized intellectuals, and Marxists. It does not take much for the leader and his disciples to set the mob on these “enemies of the people,” as persecuted communities in India would readily testify.

Charismatic politics as democratic and authoritarian

A key feature of the dynamics of charismatic politics is that it is both authoritarian and intensely “democratic.” Allow me to deconstruct the democratic dialectic at the heart of the new authoritarianism.

One the one hand, followers are willing to hold their critical faculties in abeyance, ready to give the leader the benefit of the doubt even when they may not agree with everything that they stand for or promote. And the more they give the leader the benefit of the doubt, the more they have an investment in them.

On the other hand, it is through the mediation of the electoral process, through direct contact with the masses during the campaign and through their act of willingly voting for them or their anointed ones, that the leader renews their legitimacy. Indeed, the less controlled and more spontaneous the expression of approval, the greater the legitimacy that can be turned into even greater power. India and the Philippines have gone through relatively free elections that, by bestowing greater legitimacy on them, is, paradoxically, leading to the concentration of even greater power in the hands of charismatic authoritarian personalities who are intent on doing away with the post-World War II liberal democratic dispensation and leading their consenting citizens to a Brave New World.

This must, however, be qualified. In their rise to and early years in power, leaders of the far right may use relatively free and fair elections to gain legitimacy, but with their authoritarian instincts, it is unlikely that they will allow them for long. When Amit Shah boasts that the BJP will be in power for the next 50 years, he’s probably not thinking of consolidating power only or mainly through elections.

Hopefully the current groundswell of opposition to Modi and Shah is the beginning of a process that will stop authoritarianism in its tracks. One can only hope as well that a critical mass emerges in the Philippines to derail Duterte’s ambitions before the descent into de facto dictatorship reaches a point of no return.

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