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India’s Political Dynasties

Updated: February 27, 2010 1:44 pm

If public perception, as reflected in the Indian media and coffeehouse talk, is anything to go by, nothing can prevent Rahul Gandhi son of India’s late former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of Indira Gandhi, arguably the most powerful Indian prime minister, and great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister from becoming India’s next prime minister.

            In fact, many believe that he is already the country’s de facto prime minister. His words are the law of the land. Senior ministers and civil servants give more weight to what Rahul Gandhi says and does than what is said and done by the de jure Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. More often than not, Singh and his government follow what Rahul Gandhi dictates.

            If anything, the development underscores the importance of the Gandhi-Nehru family in Indian politics. But then in Indian democracy, the world’s largest, Gandhi is not the only political family to dominate the political scene. There are many more.

            The venerated Nehru-Gandhi family has four members in Parliament today the mother-son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress Party and the mother-son duo of Maneka and Varun Gandhi belonging to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

            Maneka Gandhi is the widow of Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay Gandhi. The Indian Parliament also has many other members who have exploited their family names the likes of Speaker Meira Kumar and ministers such as, Jyotiraraditya Scindia, Murasoli Maran and Sachin Pilot. The list is illustrative, not exhaustive, and the phenomenon pervades almost all political parties with the notable exception of the leftists.

            Worse still is the fact that the phenomenon is not limited to national politics but is also deeply rooted at the state level. The list of blood relatives of successful and resourceful former state chief ministers becoming chief ministers is growing: Biju Patnaik-Naveen Patnaik, Sheikh Abdullah-Farooq Abdullah-Omar Abdullah, S.B. Chavan-Ashok Chavan, M.G. Ramachandran-Janaki Ramachandran, Lalu Prasad-Rabri Devi, Deve Gowda-Kumaraswamy, Ravi Shankar Shukla-Shyama Charan Shukla, Devi Lal-Om Prakash Chautala and N.T. Rama Rao-Chandrababu Naidu are some leading examples.

            One is also aware of the likes of Mehbooba Mufti in Kashmir, Akhilesh Yadav and Ajit Singh in Uttar Pradesh, K. Muraleedharan in Kerala, Kuldip Bishnoi in Haryana, Sukhbir Singh Badal in Punjab and Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, who are focused on emulating their fathers in becoming chief ministers of their respective states. In fact, the junior Badal is already the deputy chief minister. Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has already

revealed his “will” that his son Stalin, now an important minister, will succeed him.

            The point is, India has many more political dynasties today than it had in the past. Of course, political dynasties also exist in the United States and other countries. But their numbers are not proliferating the way they are in India.

            It would be instructive to do a detailed study of the dynastic succession as far as “ordinary” members of the Legislative Assembly and the Parliament are concerned. It can be safely guessed that the phenomenon is assuming serious proportions there, too. In other words, taken together, there might be at least 1,000 to 1,500 political families in India that have successfully promoted dynastic successions at various levels, national or provincial.

            All this raises certain questions. Is this a healthy sign for India’s democracy? Will it have adverse fallout? And most important, how can these adverse effects be contained?

            It can be argued that in a democracy it is ultimately the people who through elections legitimize dynastic successions. Children of famous parents enjoy the initial advantage of public recognition and political connections, and one cannot do much against this as long as people approve it through a democratic process.

            Under closer scrutiny however, the story of “democratic succession” is not all that simple. Emotional attitudes stirred by famous parents are an important factor behind the success of their offspring. But that alone cannot ensure it.

            Equally important are the monetary and administrative resources that come in plenty for the children of established and ruling politicians, directly or indirectly. Only when political lineage is buttressed by money and other factors is political succession guaranteed. In other words, if the political dynasties are thriving, it is due to their money and muscle power. And this is not welcome in any democracy.

            It can also be argued that the supremacy of several political families instead of one or two is a healthy development over the years and that the phenomenon is a sign of growing democratization. But this again is a weak argument.

            Given the fact that India is essentially a plebiscitary democracy people vote for the promises made by candidates rather than for candidates who respond to demands from below. It is always better to have fewer political dynasties, as there is a possibility that new dynamic leaders with new ideas could emerge from the general public and threaten a dynasty.

            However, electoral battles are more predictable if there are more political dynasties. Imagine the scenario in the state of Maharashtra if elections are confined to the political dynasties of Chavan and Pawar on one hand and Thakeray on the other.

            What will happen to democratic growth if politics in the state of Andhra Pradesh are reduced essentially to a battle between the NT Rama Rao family and that of Raj Shekhar Reddy? Will Kashmir enjoy democracy if choices there are limited to the families of Abdullahs and Muftis? How will democrats react if in future only Rahul Gandhi from the Congress Party and Varun Gandhi from the BJP vie for India’s premiership?

            It is high time India devised ways to contain the undemocratic growth of political dynasties. One cannot eliminate the phenomenon, as in a democracy everyone, including the dynastic families, has the right to contest elections.

            However, the phenomenon can be contained by suitably amending the Constitution to limit ministerial positions, including those of prime minister and state chief ministers, to two successive terms and preventing the immediate blood relatives of outgoing ministers, after two successive terms, from succeeding in the vacated offices for a period of at least one term.

            Let the worthy sons and daughters of India’s dynasties wait and work among the masses for five years to earn, rather than inherit, the popular mandate.

By Prakash Nanda

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