Character, good looks, sex appeal (in the broader sense of the word), reaching out to the hearts of the people — all these qualities have a role to play in the highest level of politics and the art of statesmanship. But there is something more — the elusive quality of charisma. I guess this quality often turns out to be a crucial factor at the level of personal politics which could be the turning point in vital election battles.
The ‘good looks’ factor can be discovered in myth, history (ancient and modern), fairy tales, tales of superstition, fiction and so on. One finds them in epics of all nations which featured powerful heroes. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are packed with tales of heroes and warriors. Why, in our own epics the Divine residents including the 33 crore Devas are all depicted to be fair, divine-looking and against them are multitudes of mean, greedy, rapacious ‘Rakshasas’, often portrayed as deformed in body and spirit. Myths are highly biased, often portraying gods aiding and in the company of the ‘devas’, ignoring such good qualities as objectivity. The inmates of Heaven could do no wrong and the doomed occupants of Hell were cursed with permanent deformities and villainy was offered no salvation.
THE elusive quality of charisma often turns out to be a crucial factor at the level of personal politics which could be the turning point in vital election battles.
These myths continued for several mega-centuries and always with the same theme i.e. good vs evil. Indian myths without exception offered exception in all kinds of art forms, portrayed goodness and divinity in the form of fair-complexioned gods and goddesses shown in gorgeous colours, costumes, golden chariots and what not. Even the Cecil B. De Mile movies portrayed the gods in a favourable light but no such favours were shown to the demons and devils. Indian mythology was worse. Raja Ravi Varma churned out high quality paintings where the Indian goddesses were super perfect. But books on Indian mythology were less than fair to the Rakshasas. They were always depicted as deformed demons who could transform themselves into the forms of more hideous creatures. This tradition continued with the earlier Indian mythological films which were a boon to exponents of grotesque art. Remember how Baby Lord Krishna sucked out the life from demon Puthana and her original monster form was restored after her death? The more grotesque the killed form appeared to be, the better it was appreciated!
Such myths appear in all religions. Even the gods appreciated beauty and good looks. In the Homeric Age, the Greek gods frequently visited Earth. They interacted with humans and rewarded the favourites. Often the favourites were handsome men and beautiful women. One of them, Trojan Prince Paris, judged a beauty contest in heaven where he chose Venus as the best in beauty with brain. Highly pleased, the Goddess of Beauty helped Paris obtain Helen, the queen of Greece and acknowledged the most beautiful woman in the world despite the fact that she was married to King Menelaus of Greece. The proud Greeks would not take it lying down. They waged a long and bitter war against the Trojans and won it using the strategy of the ‘Trojan Horse’ – a term which has gone down in history.
Gods and human beauty often had the misfortune of being linked. During the most recent Miss World contest, the judge declared Miss Colombia instead of the legitimate Miss Philippines as the winner. Colombia burst into joy but then the error was rectified and Manila got its due and began its celebration. Even judging a beauty contest has its own pitfalls. Fortunately, neither did the two nations go to war nor did they build a wooden horse!
In more recent years, Philippines showed the world that it still retains its affinity. How else can one define the reign of former first Lady Imelda Marcos who, in an effort to bolster her good looks or just appear as tall as other first ladies, splurged on shoes and reportedly even built a special palace to accommodate them! Perhaps too many shoes did spoil her reign; she slipped and fell becoming, in the process, another Humpty Dumpty.
Many first ladies realised the advantages of sheer good looks and commanding personalities. During the early days of his Presidency, John F Kennedy realised Franco-US relations were not as good as they should have been because of the haggling over nuclear weapons. Kennedy used his trump card — he decided to take along his wife Jacqueline with him who charmed France, where beautiful women were greatly appreciated. Even the mighty General thawed. The nuclear power impasse ended and at the end of the US trip, Kennedy acknowledged to the French media, “I am the person who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris.” That is the power of beauty — it can easily outscore routine diplomacy. Charisma exists in various channels. With Jackie, it was sheer beauty and feminism. Former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi seldom used the feminism factor and were keen to prove they were as powerful and enterprising as any male leader. Hillary Clinton had a different kind of strength. She had as much political acumen as her husband. But during the Monica White crisis which shook the White House, she proved her strength and helped the Bill Clinton government to retain its clout. Mind you, Eleanor Roosevelt was not known for her looks but her special charisma.
The latest among such leaders, though new to the job, is the young Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Canada in many ways (natural resources, strong economy, limited population) is a blessed nation but minus leaders of repute. Their foreign minister Lester Pearson was an international diplomat. Pierre Elliott Trudeau saw Canada attain international repute. The Prime Minister vied with Kennedy in charisma and charmed India with his youthful dynamism. His visit to India was a great success and Canada under him reached its full potential in diplomacy. Trudeau shared good vibes with Nehru, charmed Indian media and was an effective leader of liberal ideas. But the Trudeau charm waned in view of lacklustre successors, from John Difenbaker to the most recent one, Steven Harper, when Canada had nothing to offer to the world except being the glorified neighbour of the US. Well, it even became the favourite refuge of the Akali Sikh terrorists.
The Canadian Right is not happy and tried to revive the Playboy image. But the world has changed and there is more awareness of environmental disasters, stockpiling of arms or racism. Unfortunately, there is nothing in common between Trudeau and the Indian political leadership. The elegant youthful Canadian may not establish much rapport with a 56-inch chest or gaudy and badly stitched clothes.