The idea of ‘charisma’ and the case of Narendra Modi

Charismatic leaders often emerge in times of great need for change. Mr. Modi’s rise can be attributed to several factors, but chief among these was the country’s weariness with Congress-led rule

Updated - May 22, 2024 11:52 am IST

Published - May 22, 2024 08:30 am IST

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India is in the midst of elections to the Lok Sabha. Pre-poll surveys by the Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) showed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in a pole position despite economic distress. The BJP is banking on its governance record and hoping to secure a higher number of seats from southern and eastern States this time. But most of all, it is relying on its popular prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Over the last decade, apart from its cocktail of development and Hindutva, and its publicity blitz, the BJP has always looked to Mr. Modi to pull in votes. In this article, we examine sociologist Max Weber’s classification of authority, specifically his idea of charismatic authority, and its appeals and dangers with the example of Mr. Modi.

Types of authority

Weber drew a distinction between traditional authority, rational-legal authority, and charismatic authority. His tripartite classification has received classical status in political science, political sociology, and behavioural psychology. His writings on charismatic authority have especially influenced and shaped theories on modern leadership.

Weber wrote that order is based on two polar principles of social organisation: norms and authority. He defined norms as rules of conduct towards which actors orient their behaviour, while the essence of authority lies in the relationship between actors in which the commands of some are treated as binding by the others.

Traditional authority refers to authority that is derived from societal customs, habits, or age-old sanctified practices. This means that norms generate leaders. People obey the leader because they are socialised into doing so and because such obedience has guaranteed social stability and order in the past. Patriarchy provides the best example of this type of authority. Across the world, and over generations, the father of the household or the eldest male member of the family has been considered the head. Descent and inheritance are through the male line. Girls take their father’s name as their last name and women take their husband’s. In India, among some Marathi and Sindhi communities, the grooms rename the brides as part of marriage rituals. This example of traditional authority, that is, patriarchy, has expanded outwards of the familial unit and into society. It is because it is so ingrained in our psyche that it is often difficult to question or challenge it.

The second type is rational-legal authority, which is derived from legal norms (as opposed to traditional norms). Those exercising rational-legal authority may be chosen in different ways, such as via elections (ministers) or an examination (bureaucrats).

The third type is charismatic authority. Weber defined charisma as a “gift” based on which a person is treated as a “leader”. The person is perceived by the majority to possess “supernatural, superhuman, or at least specially exceptional powers or qualities”. This means that the leader generates the norms, unlike in structures of traditional authority where the contrary is true.

It is important to note here that these three types of authority are characterised as ideal types. Weber spoke of them in pure terms. However, as we all know, systems of authority in the real world are often a mix of these. A priest, for instance, can derive his authority from both tradition and his own personality traits and also be bounded to act within certain legal norms.

Modi’s charisma

Leaders, whether political, religious, or military, who draw their authority from charisma share an intense personal bond with their devoted followers. Weber writes, “The eternally new, the non-routine, the unheard of and the emotional rapture from it are sources of personal devotion. The purest types are the rule of the prophet, the warrior hero, the demagogue.”

This brings us to the question: Is Mr. Modi a charismatic leader? Not everyone may agree with this statement, but that is the essence of Weber’s theory: charisma is what is perceived; it is subjective. Given that the Prime Minister’s campaigns draw thousands of people, every pre-poll and post-poll survey since 2014 has recorded his immense popularity, and his followers believe that he is heroic, possesses the power of mind and speech, and is capable of extraordinary acts such as “stopping the war in Gaza” or single-handedly preventing black money from flowing in the economy, he can be characterised as charismatic. In fact, such is his hold over a section of the population that many people consider him a messiah; these are the blind followers who are disparagingly referred to as “Modi bhakts” by the Prime Minister’s critics. Mr. Modi can also be called a demagogue: he frequently appeals to the desires of ordinary people, does not restrain himself from using falsehoods to gain votes, and seems to believe that he is bigger than the party or the government. This is of course not to say that those who vote for the BJP do so only because of Mr. Modi’s personality cult, but that this is an important factor that cannot be ignored. Devotion to a leader is more a product of passion than of intellect; it is a belief in the leader’s so-called extraordinary powers.

Charismatic leaders often emerge in times of great need for change. Mr. Modi’s rise can be attributed to several factors, but chief among these was the country’s weariness with Congress-led rule and the several allegations of corruption that had battered the previous United Progressive Alliance government.

Shortfalls of charismatic authority

However, as Weber wrote, charismatic authority is never long-lasting in its purest form. It is inherently unstable since it is based on the unique qualities of a particular individual; it cannot be transferred to someone else. Any failure that calls the extraordinary nature of charismatic leadership into question instantly weakens it.

Charismatic authority can be used to bring in positive change. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela were fine examples of this. Their charisma was rooted in ethics and morality. However, this kind of authority can equally be misused, as we have seen in the cases of Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler.

Charismatic leadership can be dangerous not only because of how leaders misuse their charisma, but also when followers abandon rational thought and accept ideas uncritically. In 2012, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote that charismatic leaders tend to become “addicted” to the unquestioning approval of their followers. This “reciprocal dependence” leads both parties to “distort reality”. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Vergauwe et al wrote of how having too much charisma can hinder a leader’s effectiveness. Self-confident leaders can become over-confident and narcissistic, seek attention all the time, and act in fanciful ways — qualities that Mr. Modi has often been accused of.

The abuse of charismatic leadership naturally tends to be seen more in non-democratic societies than democratic societies. However, even in democratic societies, charismatic authority can be abused — first in fits and starts and then routinely when institutions that keep the leader in check weaken over time. In India, trust in the Election Commission, which has failed to control hate speeches during the Lok Sabha campaigns, is the lowest it has been in years. Over the last few years, investigative agencies have been accused of pursuing charges, including dubious ones, only against the political Opposition and dissenters. Some top judges in the judiciary even expressed concern over political capture of the institution a few years ago. Recently, Sweden’s V-Dem Institute termed India an “electoral autocracy”.

This is not to argue that charismatic authority cannot exist in democracies. History is replete with examples to show that it can. But it depends on the extent to which the leader can preserve moral influence and the extent to which institutions can keep such leaders in check.

The aura of Prime Minister Modi can be alluring. But it is inherently unstable, and as power is now so concentrated in him, it can even damage his own party’s prospects in the long run.

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