The ongoing family drama in Uttar Pradesh signals once again the inherent fragility of political dynasties in the country. But then the fact remains that with each succeeding elections, whether national or at the state level, the number of political dynasts entering electoral politics is increasing. With the possible exception of the Left, most parties have encouraged the phenomenon of family politics. These political parties have promoted or tolerated the family-cult in the distribution of party tickets at both the national and state levels.
A recent study has shown that political dynasts occupied 20 percent of the 2004 Lok Sabha and 30 percent of the 2009 Lok Sabha. In the 2014 Lok Sabha, the percentage has come down to 22, but it is still a significant number. Take the case of Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose rebel-son Akhilesh Yadav happens to be the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Five of his family members, including himself, are Parliamentarians in the present Lok Sabha. This trend is visible in other parties too.
The list of resourceful former state Chief Ministers, who have successfully inducted their kin to the Chief Minister’s office is growing. Prominent examples include Biju Patnaik-Naveen Patnaik, Sheikh Abdullah-Farooq Abdullah-Omar Abdullah, S.B. Chavan-Ashok Chavan, M.G. Ramachandran-Janaki Ramachandran-J. Jayalalitha, Lalu Prasad-Rabri Devi, H.D. Deve Gowda-H.D. Kumaraswamy, Ravi Shankar Shukla-Shyama Charan Shukla, Devi Lal-Om Prakash Chautala, and N.T. Rama Rao-Chandrababu Naidu.
Why do people vote for political families? As Prof. Ishtiaq Ahmed says: “In South Asia, there is no doubt that we tend to idolise our heroes, probably more than any other part of the world. Film heroes and heroines and our political idols enjoy a semi-divine status in our lives. I think this must have something to do with our folklore and cult traditions. Our tradition is replete with stories about the constant struggle between good and bad, evil and pious, and so on. Founders of nations or mass movements who are killed tend to gain our sympathy, and we are willing to transfer that sympathy to their family because that seems so natural.
In sociological terms, the thing to notice is that the founder of the dynasty represents a larger-than-life figure to whom we can render loyalty that transcends the narrower tribal, clan, and caste affiliations upon which we are used to building support networks and alliances. Commitment to ideology and party programme has not taken such deep root; rather the former founder of the dynasty personifies ideology and our idea of the good and pure. Having said this, if the idol also signifies martyrdom or at least suffering then the person enjoys the sympathy of the voters. The person’s progeny can draw upon that sympathy more easily rather than the party or party leadership because individuals rather than the party represent the good associated with our idol. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty did not start with the martyrdom of Jawaharlal Nehru, but his daughter Indira Gandhi filled that requirement later.
In India, apart from some exceptions, politics revolves around identities, be it of caste (Brahmins, Yadavs, Dalits, etc.), religion (Hindus and Muslims), regional (Marathas and non-Marathas), and language (Tamils and non-Tamils). In such a political culture, political parties are often equated with a particular identity and the will of a few powerful personalities. Their families become established brands having a high recall value and the true believer hopes to find emotional continuity with family heirs becoming political successors. For a voter used to voting on the lines of identity, a family pedigree provides legitimacy (to the candidate) and convenience (to the voter) at the time of choice.
Of course, India’s political dynasties have a point that there is nothing wrong if their children enter the “family business”. They argue that if a professor’s son can become a teacher or an actor’s son can aspire to be a star; there is nothing wrong with a politician’s child opting for politics as a career.
India’s political dynasts have also benefited from the ever-rising costs of succeeding in politics. A political career requires tremendous start up outlays. Although there are laws which limit spending by candidates, in practice, it is often found that the actual costs to contest and campaign for any election is very high. Further, despite substantial investments, the returns are unpredictable, risky, and more importantly, uniquely binary. Either you win, or you lose. A candidate’s loss by the narrowest of margins is as much a loss to everyone else in the fray. Only those who can afford to lose the time and money and have the requisite resources find an entry into what is often an exclusive if not a closed club, can pay for this profession. Political lineage helps facilitate this entry in two ways.
First, a person from a political dynasty needs lesser money in political campaigns compared to others. Second, the established political families in India are also among the country’s richest. The wealth generated has been facilitated through long reigns of political power, given India’s politics of patronage that has been sustained initially by license-permit raj and then by politician-businessman-criminal nexus. In fact, one of the motivating factors for a son or daughter following his or her political parent is to ensure that the purse-strings always remain within the family. That is why one invariably sees blood-relatives of the candidates handling these campaigns.
Are political dynasties an indicator of weak political institutions? To the practitioners of dynastic politics and their supporters, the answer will be an emphatic “no”. Sachin Pilot, Agatha Sangma, and Tathagat Satpathy, all winning elections and following the footsteps of their parents, admit that the family background can give them an initial push, but not beyond a point. Politicians can win an election once by taking the family name, but not the subsequent one if they do not deliver. In each subsequent election, they argue that politicians are judged on their performance and the more powerful and mighty a family they represent the chances are the voter will judge them that much more critically at the time of elections. In a democracy, it is ultimately the people who decide and if they are unhappy they can vote leaders out. After all, in India, as powerful a politician as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was voted out of power.
Viewed thus, there is no real incompatibility between democracy and political dynasty. In that sense, a political family should not be equated with hereditary dynasties. All told political dynasties are part of the democratic political process. In fact, the supremacy of more political families instead of one or two is a healthy development over the years and that the phenomenon is a sign of growing democratisation.
However, in my opinion, this is a weak argument. Given the fact that India’s is essentially a plebiscitary democracy, i.e. the people are asked to vote for the promises made by the candidates rather than the candidates, who usually should highlight the demands coming from below, it is always better to have fewer political dynasties. Here, at least there is a possibility of the emergence of dynamic leaders with new ideas from the general masses against a dynasty. The need, therefore, is to devise ways to “contain” the undemocratic growth of political dynasties.
However, one cannot “eliminate” the phenomenon as in a democracy. Everyone, including the dynasts, has the right to contest elections. Therefore, the best way to contain the growth of political dynasties is to have a suitable amendment to the Constitution that will limit the ministerial positions at the Centre and States to two successive terms and prevent the immediate blood relatives of outgoing ministers for a period of at least one term of the respective legislatures from succeeding in the vacated offices. Let the true sons and daughters of the dynasties wait and work among the masses for five years to earn, not inherit, the popular mandate. Here, ensuring inner-party democracy through regular party elections and accountability of party funds will go a long way. Additionally, legislating rules to limit money power in politics will also help.
(Views expressed are strictly personal. The opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Millennium Post, and this newspaper does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)