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The power of charm

columns Updated: May 26, 2013 01:34 IST
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You don't have to meet him to know he has that winning quality. You can hear it in his voice, see it in his gestures and sense it in the stories newspapers tell of him. The Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, has abundant charm.

He came to Delhi at a difficult time. Our traditional distrust of China had been aroused and reinforced by the Ladakh incursion and Beijing's reluctance to withdraw. But that didn't make him reticent or stiff. Instead, he used his warm and engaging personality to break the ice and even, perhaps, win a little of our confidence.

There could be no better proof of the power of charm. Of our own politicians, Rajiv Gandhi had it. His boyish good looks, the dimples when he smiled and his informal manner of speaking won over many who otherwise disliked the Congress or distrusted the Gandhis.

In both cases, they exemplified the truth of the saying 'Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone'.

The trick is to know when and how to use your charm. A smile at the right moment can reassure. A joke can relax the atmosphere. Praise of your interlocutor or his country can change his mood.

More than anything else, a capacity to show human warmth and take a friendly initiative can bring forth a very similar response. After all, when someone smiles, you do so too. When someone tells a joke, you laugh. When someone speaks warmly of your country, you're pleased.

On the other hand, an overdose of charm or its misuse can make you recoil. One reason we dislike Zoltan Karpathy is because of Henry Higgin's description in My Fair Lady: "Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way around the floor … and with a voice too eager, and a smile too broad…" In this case, the charm was false and repellent because it was vastly overdone.

But done right, charm is always a winner. Which is why I'm surprised our politicians don't use more of it. After all, it's not that they are unaware of its power nor are they impervious to its effects when used by others. Indeed, many are easily charmed!

No, I suspect prestige or a misplaced sense of propriety restrains them. They are important, so they don't want to be the first to smile. They're exalted, so they can't joke. And knowing only how to bend to crawl, they don't know how to stoop to conquer!

Of the politicians my adult memory recalls, the one who used charm to greatest effect was Ronald Reagan. His foremost admirer was The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. Although her authorised biography by Charles Moore reveals she was aware he was dim and, often, uninformed, she was, nonetheless, completely bowled over by his personality. That's probably true of most people he met. And I bet that's why Americans still regard him fondly.

In contrast, think for a moment of Soviet leaders and you'll accept how the absence of charm can be telling. Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov or Chernenko are best forgotten. Gorbachev who, with his wife, Raisa, charmed the world, is well remembered. He knew when to smile. His predecessors could only scowl.

That's why we'll remember Li Keqiang. If our relations with China improve his personality will have something to do with it. If they don't, we'll say he beguiled but mislead us. Either way, his charm could lie at the core of the explanation.

Views expressed by the author are personal