Resurgence of personality cult in politics
IT was generally believed that with the end of Cold War and the dawn of an era of remarkable technological advancement, easy access to information, growth of value chains and increased interdependence of economies, the age of Personality Cult Leaders was finally waning and paving way for democracies to flourish and develop.
However, during first two decades of this century, partisan’s mild dislike for their opponents has been transformed into a deeper form of animus.
Spread of democratic ideas themselves and subsequent development of mass media enabled political leaders to project a positive image of themselves onto masses as never before.
It is this enabling environment in 21st century that has facilitated resurgence of personality cult leaders.
In his 2013 paper, “What is character and why it really does matter”, Thomas Wright stated, “Personality cult phenomenon refers to idealized, public image of an individual consciously shaped and moulded through constant propaganda and media exposure.
As a result, one is able to manipulate others based entirely on the influence of public personality.
Personality cult leader focuses on often shallow, external images that many public figures cultivate to create a heroic persona.
”A personality cult leader is invariably narcissistic with grandiose self-image, lies with ease, strokes fear and paranoid, harasses critics, lacks empathy and claims absolute authority with a numbing mind control of his followers.
Cult members speak in loaded language and thought terminating clichés,’ present things in black and white, good versus evil, demonstrate irrational and volatile personality traits and are incapable of questioning the leader and his doctrine or policies.
Advent of Internet and the World Wide Web in 21st century has enabled the renaissance of personality cult phenomenon.
Disinformation via social media platforms and twenty-four hour news cycle has expedited widespread dissemination and acceptance of deceptive information, propaganda, big lie, fake news, spectacle, misplaced patriotism and sponsored demonstrations and rallies.
Personality cult leader are common in totalitarian countries but also exist in monarchies, theocracies and failed democracies.
Consequently personality cults have grown and are flourishing in many countries from the Americas to the Pacific.
In recent history, Napoleon III initiated personality cult phenomenon in France, but it was Mussolini in Italy in the 1920s who devised the model of dictator-as-cult-figure that was emulated by Hitler, Lenin, Stalin and others, using the propaganda powers of a totalitarian state.
The term was actually coined in 1957, by Khrushchev in his speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”.
In his speech, Khrushchev criticized lionization, and idealization and policies of Stalin whose personality cult negatively impacted on USSR.
South and Latin America linked cult leader to the concept of the caudillo, a strong leader like Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser.
These populist strongmen enhanced their authority through use of the cult of personality tendency that can be traced back to Juan Peron of Argentina.
In Europe Mussolini was portrayed as the embodiment of Italian Fascism. Personality cult surrounding Mussolini became a way for him to justify his personal rule.
Italy’s war against Ethiopia was portrayed as a revival of Roman Empire, with Mussolini as first Roman emperor Augustus.
To improve his own image Mussilini declared himself to be the “Protector of Islam” during an official visit to Libya in 1937.
Similarly Nazi propaganda began to depict Adolf Hitler as a demagogue figure and the almighty defender and saviour of Germany.
According to Nazi propaganda, only Hitler could save them and restore Germany’s greatness, which in turn gave rise to the Führer-cult with disastrous consequences for Europe and rest of the world.
North Korean cult of personality surrounding the Kim family has existed for decades. Marshal Tito, Pinochet, Castro, Jim Jones, Mugabe and others are examples of personality cult leaders.
Associating one leader with revolutionary transformation and deliberately treating him as a benevolent “guide” for the nation without whom the claimed transformation to a better future could not occur, generally become the justification for personality cults
Indian Prime Minister Modi has created a personality cult around him. Despite bad governance and several political setbacks, Modi’s charisma and popularity helped BJP return to power in 2019 elections.
BJP sought votes only in Modi’s name and won. This has created a fascist monster who is using influence of his personality cult to destroy secular fabric of India and create a Hindu state.
Inspired by Modi’s policy of hate, otherization, exclusion and fanaticism, his blind followers are playing havoc with the hapless minorities of India particularly the Muslims.
USA witnessed the divisive power of fear and hate policy of Trump that has damaged harmony and political correctness, irrationally pitching citizens against each other on the basis of political ideas.
His cliché to make America great again implied that every leader before him destroyed and damaged USA and he was the only one capable of restoring the image of America.
This negative partisanship and affective polarization will probably take the USA decades to recover from.
Pakistan is also gripped by this resurgent trend. In a fragile society already living along fault lines of sectarian, religious, ethnic, linguistic, social and political differences, resurgence and proliferation of negative and acrimonious personality cult leaders can only be a harbinger of doom.
What is worse is that there is not one but several personality cult leaders in Pakistan, dividing and compartmentalizing the country exploiting existing reconcilable differences.
This trend should ring alarm bells as it is threatening to push Pakistan towards chaos and fragmentation.
Unless the nation takes an urgent and conscious decision not to fall victim to negative and damaging influence of cult personality leaders, it may become too late to save our society from falling in the abyss of divisions, hatred and under development.
It is, therefore, time for deep introspection to understand the political, governance, economic and social mistakes made in the last 75 years of independence by the successive leaders, bureaucracy and other stakeholders that has created a sense of deprivation and betrayal in the masses which is pushing them towards the cult leaders for redemption.
—The writer is former Ambassador, based in Islamabad.