Blog: Dangerous Liaison: Democracy and Charisma in India and the Philippines

January 15, 2020
By Walden Bello

The widespread protests in India against a citizenship law that many feel is the first step in the legalization of the inferior civic status of Muslims has drawn critical attention globally to the Hindu nationalist BJP regime headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the number of alleged drug users and peddlers who have been subjected to extra-judicial execution is now said to number over 20,000 over the three and a half years that President Rodrigo Duterte has been in power.  This would make his administration the notorious holder of third place in terms of responsibility for state-sponsored killings in post-war Southeast Asia, after the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975 to 1978, and the Suharto military regime in Indonesia over 1965-1966.

What is most puzzling to many is that despite their brazen defiance of liberal democratic principles and practices, Modi and Duterte remain very popular, a point underlined by their massive electoral victories of their parties and allies in the national elections held in both countries in 2019. This point was again reinforced in Duterte’s case by his 87 percent popularity rating at the end of the year.

The Advent of Charismatic Politics

A political earthquake is sweeping both countries: the advent of post-liberal democratic, charismatic politics.  At the epicenter of this seismic phenomenon 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.”1 This could be a description of twenty-first 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, protect the life and limbs 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.

Taking off from Max Weber’s distinction among types of authority, 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 and her reaction to it 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...In his May 2019 victory speech, after his party won a second term, Modi boasted that no politicians had dared to use the word “secularism” in their campaigns…And we are learning, too late, to cherish hypocrisy. Because with it comes a vestige, a pretense at least, of remembered decency.”2

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.

Charisma is not simply an individual psychological trait but 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.”3 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.”4

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 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. In the case of the Philippines, the others are the drug users, liberal politicians (“dilawan” or “yellows”), and communists. In the case of India they are 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.” At the heart of the new authoritarianism lies the democratic dialectic.

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 he or she stands for or promotes. And the more they give him the benefit of the doubt, the more they have an investment in him.

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 him or his anointed ones, that the leader renews his or her legitimacy.

This accommodation between democracy and authoritarianism is, however, fragile. 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, co-leader with Modi of the Hindu nationalist movement, boasts that the BJP will be in power for the next 50 years, it is unlikely that he is 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.

Walden Bello is currently an International Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Walden is the author of Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering and Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.