For all the bad press and sneers the idea of dynasty attracts in India, hereditary politics is alive and kicking.
As the examples of sons and daughters, wives and nephews being given tickets to contest the upcoming general election start piling up, one newspaper has estimated that as many as 50 children of established politicians are in the fray. By the time nominations close and a more careful count is conducted, I suspect the actual number of blood relatives and spouses is likely to be higher.
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi may be the most visible exemplar of this phenomenon and his party is easily the worst offender. However, no party, national or regional – other than the Communists, the AIADMK from Tamil Nadu and the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party – appears to be immune.
In the eastern state of Odisha alone, the sons of five former chief ministers are in the fray.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has been taunting Gandhi with the nickname “shehzada” or crown prince, but it is clear that his party’s list of hopefuls includes several princelings.
Prominent among these are the children of two serving and three former state chief ministers, as well as Jayant Sinha, son of former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, who is contesting from his father’s traditional seat in Jharkhand.
“Only after I declined to contest and suggested the ticket be given to the younger generation did BJP President Rajnath Singh ask me to allow my son Jayant to take my place, to which I agreed,” Sinha told reporters somewhat unconvincingly. He added that the young man, who is an investment manager, had been selected “on merit.”
At the other end of the country, in Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu, another Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, has thrust another ‘meritorious’ son onto the electorate, also from his own seat. Brushing aside the charge of neptosim, the younger – and clearly very precocious – Chidambaram said: “I have been politically inclined since I was 14. I addressed my first public meeting at six.”
Family in politics
Going beyond these individual examples, however, what does the increasing prevalence of dynasticism in Indian politics tell us about Indian democracy and its future prospects?
First let us consider the data. The historian, Patrick French, looked at the background of all 545 MPs in the outgoing Lok Sabha and found that nearly a third of them, 28.2 percent to be precise, had entered politics through a family connection.
Though most established democracies have what could be called a “political class” that is drawn disproportionately from particular professions (eg. lawyers), and all have examples of second- and even third-generation politicians from individual families, Japan is the only one where the familial presence approximates Indian proportions.
But there is something even more disturbing about the phenomenon of hereditary politics in India.
When French disaggregated his data further, he found that 69.5 percent of women MPs entered Parliament because of family connections, and that “there is a direct linear relationship between age and hereditary MPs: a greater proportion of younger MPs have a family political background, in comparison to others.”
So if you are young and want to join national politics, one of the only available routes seems to be through family connections
Specifically, more than two-thirds of MPs under the age of 40 were dynasts, as were all MPs under the age of 30.
“So if you are young and want to join national politics,” he concluded, “one of the only available routes seems to be through family connections.”
According to this data set, the parties most prone to dynasticism are the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Akali Dal, the Biju Janata Dal, and the National Conference.
Dynasts and even scholars might well ask why this matters. For one, it is not uncommon for children of parents in other professions – law, medicine, sports, or the military – to follow in the footsteps of their father or mother. Indeed, the fact that they get to observe how things are done from very close quarters might well give them an edge over others seeking to enter these professions without nepotism coming into play.
Patrick French has also argued, somewhat provocatively, that the most influential political leaders continue to be self-made men (or women) and that hereditary MPs are likely to end up as mere “foot soldiers” for their party rather than “in positions of paramount historical power”.
While Indian politics indeed abounds with self-made leaders – many of whom, of course, turn into founders of new political dynasties – there are four reasons for us to be deeply worried by the march of dynasties.
First, the hereditary principle corrodes politics from below and above, limiting the gene pool at both ends of the food-chain: the so-called foot-soldiers, and the leaders. The effects of this at the top are well-known. Now that Rahul Gandhi has signaled his readiness for high office, no Congress MP can ever hope to be prime minister, not at least for the next two or three decades.
To the extent to which personal ambition is always a factor in politics, this is surely a downer for the genuinely talented within the party.
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But what if dynasticism corrodes politics at the entry level too? Ironically, many of the internal reforms Rahul Gandhi has tried to introduce in the Congress organization have attempted to weaken the stranglehold of family and money in the distribution of political spoils. But these have not worked, leaving young people keen on involving themselves in politics as disconnected as before and more inclined to look at new formations like the AAP.
The BJP has made light of the creeping dynasticism in its own ranks, rejecting comparisons with the Congress. “The Congress dynasty is the dynasty of leadership. It is not about making someone an MP or an MLA. In the Congress, it starts from the top and percolates to the bottom and is dynastic in totality,” party spokesperson leader Prakash Javadekar said recently.
“In the BJP’s case, the party leadership, be it Atalji or Advaniji or even Rajnathji, no one has monopolised decision-making… In the Congress, only the Nehru-Gandhi family takes decisions … that’s the Congress’s legacy, the final decision maker is dynastic.”
Of course, the BJP’s optimism on this score is completely misplaced.
A party which used to boast of an embarrassment of riches when it came to credible aspirants for the top job is today in the thrall of a personality cult. And the irony is that “monopolised decision-making” is precisely what many second-rung BJP leaders fear once Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister.
A second reason to worry about dynasticism is that we are now beginning to see the emergence of hereditary chains which allow families to not just monopolise positions through time but also spatially. When an MLA gets a ticket for Parliament, for example, he lobbies hard to ensure his son or wife or daughter inherits the vacated seat. Or when an MP moves back to a state to become chief minister, Virbhadra Singh of Himachal Pradesh, for example, he insists his parliamentary seat be allotted to a close relative, in this case, his wife, Pratibha Singh.
As this trend takes root, more and more seats at multiple levels get removed from “general” pool and end up becoming family-dominated rotten boroughs.
Politics as a source of capital
Third, there are obvious similarities between hereditary politics and the “lineage endogamy” practiced by some business families and landholding communities who don’t wish to see their assets dissipated through matrimonial alliances with non-family members.
In other words, political office is increasingly seen as an asset or resource that generates economic rent to its “owner”, not unlike land and capital. The increase in dynasticism, then, could well be serving as a proxy for the increasing incidence of corruption in public affairs.
This brings us to the fourth reason for worry: The prevalence of family connections is a symptom of a deeper underlying problem, which is that there are very high entry barriers to political participation in India. One reflection of this reality is the wealth of both MPs and those who aspire to unseat them.
In a quick study of 188 Congress and BJP nominees for the upcoming Lok Sabha election, the Association for Democratic Reforms found that their average declared assets stood at Rs 5.68 crore, or nearly a million US dollars each.
If one considers the fact that most of these assets are hugely undervalued by candidates who list the “book” value of land and property rather than their market value, it is probably the case that the average candidate has assets running into several million dollars.
Family and business connections allow an aspiring candidate to tap into the kind of resources needed to compete on this very, very un-level playing field; others must strike Faustian bargains, usually with private companies, in order to fight an election at the national level.
This, then, may be the real burden that Indian politics is forced to bear – that it is becoming increasingly dominated and suborned by the richest sections of society. The politics of dynasties corrodes public life and political institutions, but nothing is quite as destructive as the politics of big business.
Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi. He was formerly the Editor of The Hindu.