Decoding Dynastic Politics

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Dr. D.K. Giri

Family rule, understood as dynastic politics is commonplace in India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari (Tamil Nadu). Starting with Nehru-Gandhi family, the political families have proliferated across the country. Abdullahs and Muftis in Kashmir, Yadavs in UP and Bihar, Patnaiks in Orissa, Thackreys in Maharashtra, Karunanidhis in Tamil Nadu, Badals in Punjab, Reddys in Andhra, Gowdas in Karnataka, Chautalas in Haryana, Sangmas in Meghalaya, the list goes on. Dynastic politics has often become the focus of political discourse in India and is derided by political opponents, intellectuals and observers. BJP won the 2014 general elections on an anti-dynasty plank. Yet the dynastic politics perpetuates getting endorsed from election to election. It is simplistic therefore to ideologically write off dynastic practice and electorally eliminated.

Arguably, dynastic politics is practiced not just in developing countries but it is a tendency that is being observed in long-standing democracies like the United States. New York Times commented, “if Hilary Clinton were to win and serve two terms, then for 28 years the White House would have remained in the hands of only two families”. In India, dynasty spreads beyond politics into business, entertainment and professional sector. Dynasty is perceived as antithetical to democracy. Yet, we live with it day in and day out. So in order to appreciate the functioning of the largest democracy in the world, it is in order that we understand the contours of dynastic politics and put it in a perspective.

What is meant by dynastic politics and how is it different form hereditary succession? What factors lead to the prevalence of dynasties in politics? Does dynasty defeat democratic consolidation? Does it murder merit? Addressing some of these questions should help us gain some helpful understanding of this vexed practice in politics.

Understanding the concept, dynasty may be defined by the succession of the rulers who belong to the same family for generations. Dynastic politics to be recognised as such, the successor must be nominated by the outgoing leader to a party position. In a dynasty, the nomination is imbued with legitimacy. So, dynastic politics is possible in political parties. But in order to be part of the government such leaders have to be elected to the Assemblies or Parliament. This is how their positions are legitimated. So technically, in the strict sense of the term, parties are dynastic but not legislatures.

Admitting that dynasties transfer their power from parties to legislatures as the party occupies either ruling or opposition space, we conceptually recognize the role of dynasties in politics. Then the question is, how does dynastic politics grow? The answer is, relevant for India and South Asia, is the nature of politics which is personalized and individualised. This is supported by caste, ethnicity and identity.

There are strong arguments by historians like Ramchandra Guha that it was Indira Gandhi who created her dynasty not Jawahar Lal Nehru. Guha, in a TV interview advised Sonia Gandhi to read Nehru. He quotes a letter from Nehru to Prabhavati, wife of Jaiprakash Narayan that he will not come for an inauguration of anything having his father’s name or his wife’s. He also quotes Frank Moraes who wrote in 1960 that “there is no question of Nehru attempting to create a dynastic of his own; it would be inconsistent with his character and career”. Guha

argues that in a weak moment, Nehru allowed Indira Gandhi one term as President. Other Congress leaders including Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad steadfastly refused to bring their progeny into politics. Later on other politicians brought their sons and daughters into politics. He suggested, “It is unlikely that they would have done so had the Congress not provided the legitimacy”.

Guha further argues that dynastic politics will not sustain against peoples’ common interests or state or national interest. The victories of Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, Narendra Modi in Gujarat and then in the Centre tentatively lead to confirmation of such observation. But the hypothesis will be put test in times to come in several states. The jury is still out.

I have a different take from Guha’s on dynastic politics. Given the nature of politics and society in Asia, in particular South Asia and India, dynastic politics may stay longer. It is too early to sound its death-knell. Ramchandra Guha is right that people have begun to separate performers from non-performers, development from dynasty, good governance from corruption, civil security from lawlessness etc. But the choice people do not have yet is a political culture where party is run through inner democracy, decentralised leadership and cadre-based decision-making. What we have is a centralised political culture which is euphemistically called consensus politics but consensus around a supreme leader.

Secondly, political parties are leadership-based; our social and political movements are driven by leaders with charisma. Collective decision-making is still not in practice. A single- leader model is seen to be good for risk-taking and decision-making. That is what is Narendra Modi is supposed to be representing. When Rahul Gandhi as the de facto supreme leader of Congress is compared to Modi people have reservations about Rahul Gandhi. Therefore, Rahul Gandhi will have to define his leadership, distinct from Modi’s. Rahul’s leadership could represent collectivity, harmony, pluralism and solidarity etc. Congress seems to be playing into BJP’s style and strategy without recreating its own. Remember, frequent temple visits and swearing to be a janaudhari Brahmin etc by Rahul was out of place.

But in the present model of a single party leader, if the leadership is coming from one political family, that holds the party together with control and discipline, so be it. One does not agree with Guha that “without inner party democracy, electrical democracy is itself corrupted and corroded”. There are different ways of running a party, but not the government which is based on constitutional structures. For instance, the Swedish Socialist Party never had leadership elections since it was founded in 1989 and has ruled for around 100 years in Sweden. Moreover, the stability of the democracy does not depend upon how a political party is run internally. Although a functioning democracy should have healthy political parties. There are other institutions in a democracy. What is important to underline is how a political party, especially a ruling one, deals externally with other institutions and actors.

On dynasty, if a member of a political family is informed, educated and equal to the task of understanding political processes and providing party the leadership it is acceptable to have that person lead the party. If elected by the people, (s)he can lead even the state or the country. So clearly, dynastic politics per say is neither good nor bad. It has to be played with due respect to people, processes and institutions. The dynastic successors will have to try harder and perform better. If they do not perform, they perish. They can lead the party but not the state or the country. Whenever people find a better alternative, they will dump the dynasties. In fact, ironically, people inheriting the mantle of leadership through a family route will have to be better performers than others to survive and succeed.

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