Indian politics is anything but predictable, and forecasting political fortunes has generally been risky in a country that is going through such rapid change as it constantly juggles parliamentary, state, municipal and national polls to keep its gigantic democracy ticking along. Yet the awesome pace of development in this country of 1.2 billion people is being checked by something far less dynamic — the rampant rise of dynastic politics.
India’s political system is replete with cases of power being viewed as a cherished family heirloom to be dusted off, polished and handed down to sons, daughters, spouses and grandchildren with little apology or embarrassment. And the phenomenon has now assumed national proportions, leaving few, if any, regions unaffected.
In May, India voted into office its 15th Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament). And, on the surface, things looked like they might be changing in a country where age is usually seen as synonymous with wisdom. The 543-member Lok Sabha now has 81 members of parliament who are 40- years old or younger (although the average age of MPs remains stubbornly high at 53, despite nearly 60 per cent of the Indian population being under 35). The elections also broke new ground after an unprecedented 59 women MPs were voted in — the first time female representation in India’s highest elected body has hit double digits. But scratch away the surface of this fresh, ‘new’ parliament and a more troubling picture emerges. Of the 81 young lawmakers elected this time, 50 came from political families, with 33 of the 50 MPs following in their fathers’ footsteps into politics. Meanwhile, of the 59 women representatives, almost two-thirds have close male relatives who are politicians.
Such facts come as no surprise to close watchers of Indian society, who say that the country is still trying to democratise itself, including by replacing traditional ties like family, caste and creed with modern connections such as trade unions, political parties and other representative bodies.
‘This isn’t really confined to politics,’ says Vinay Sitapati, a political columnist based in New Delhi who has closely followed dynastic politics in India. ‘Professions here are based on filial relationships even in business, films, law and medicine.Family is the building block of our society. And, these trends are validated by social acceptance.’
This trend toward dynasties goes right to the very top of the country’s politics. India is ruled by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a coalition of nine political parties. Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an erudite technocrat, is the head of the government, it is India’s worst kept secret that Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is the real source of power.
Rahul Gandhi, Sonia’s 38-year-old son, is also an MP and General Secretary of the Congress Party, while Rahul’s father Rajiv, paternal grandmother Indira Gandhi and great -grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru all also held the premiership. Indeed, Rahul could probably be prime minister tomorrow if he wanted, though he has indicated an apparent keenness to learn the ropes properly first.
But while the Nehru-Gandhi family may be the most prominent of the nation’s political dynasties, there are countless others across the country. In Jammu & Kashmir in the country’s north, for example, the Abdullah family has managed to produce three generations of chief ministers. In Tamil Nadu in the south, meanwhile, the Marans constantly have to divide the spoils equitably between a large network of children, step-children, nephews and nieces. And in recent state elections in Western Maharashtra state, several political heirs locked horns — including Raosaheb Shekhawat, son of Indian President Pratibha Patil. The trend has set alarm bells ringing in recent months. ‘Rather than being a democracy, we’ve become an oligarchy where a political caste takes charge and then keeps everybody else out of the process,’ wrote Vir Sanghvi, one of the country’s most read political commentators, in a recent column for The Hindustan Times.
Yet some politicians defend the practice, arguing that lawmakers should be judged on results, not their background. ‘I don’t know why we’re so input focussed in India,’ says Kalikesh Singh Deo, a 35-year-old freshman MP. ‘There’s a lot of talk about who has gotten into parliament — whose son, whose daughter, what family. We need to look beyond this. We need to be output focussed. What’s important is not who is in Parliament but what they manage to achieve there.’
Kalikesh, whose constituency is located in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, hails from the Royal Family of Bolangir, while his father, A U Singh Deo, is a key minister in the Orissa cabinet. Kalikesh is an alumni of Doon School and St. Stephen’s College (the Indian equivalent of an Oxbridge education) and left his US-based management post at Enron in the United States to challenge for a seat in Orissa. There he became the state’s youngest legislator as a Member of the State Legislative Assembly, before securing his Bolangir parliamentary seat with an impressive margin against a tough opponent. But Kalikesh says that although his lineage certainly gave him political advantages early on, there have been diminishing returns. ‘There really isn’t anything easy on the journey to electoral victory. A family background in politics comes with its own degree of higher expectations,’ he says. ‘I don’t mind that though. It helps me set tougher benchmarks for my performance.’
Yet many in India are less sanguine, arguing that the rise of dynasties is symptomatic of the downward trajectory of politics in India from a noble calling of selfless public service to a profession seen as guaranteeing unbridled power and unaccountable wealth.
‘Our political system has become privatised,’ says Dr. Anand Kumar, a political sociologist at the premier Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. ‘It makes great business sense to invest in politics.Once you get access to that sort of authority and capacity to make money it becomes necessary to protect and guard your interests. That’s when filial and familial resources come into play. You can’t trust anybody else as much.’
The practice is a legacy of the ‘Indira model of politics,’ Kumar says, noting that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in her pursuit of power, allowed younger son Sanjay to become an extra- constitutional authority in the 1970s. ‘What really sowed the seeds was the fact that she succeeded despite her extremely grave mistakes,’ he says, adding that the coronation of elder son Rajiv Gandhi after her bloody assassination in 1984 effectively validated the phenomenon.
But the trend is not confined to the Congress Party — nepotism has reared its head even in determinedly faction-based parties like the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
In the 1990s, the BJP came to power on the back of its pledge to be a ‘party with a difference’ — one that shunned vested interests and where a party worker could become party president based purely on merit. But although much of the BJP’s top leadership has climbed the party ladder based on merit, some second-tier leaders are trying to plant the seeds for future political family trees. In the Maharashtra state assembly elections in October, for example, BJP General Secretary Gopinath Munde managed to arrange party three tickets so that his daughter, son-in-law and niece could fight elections.
Untroubled at the Top
Despite growing concerns among the nation’s commentators about the spread of dynasties, the inner circles of the Congress Party appear unperturbed. Indeed, senior Congress MP and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee suggested India was no different from the United States and Britain in this respect.
At a recent high-profile meeting of opinion formers in New Delhi, he said, ‘Of the 56 Prime Ministers in the UK, as many as 21 were related to each other and as many as six US Presidents have been related to each other.’
But Sitapati says there are some crucial differences between India’s dynastic politicians and their Western counterparts. ‘We need to examine our entry routes to politics,’ Sitapati says. ‘How do people get into politics here? In other countries, there are many filters that candidates pass through before entering into politics.’
He says that the need for politicians to prove themselves is coupled with a party culture that thrives on frank and open discussions. He cites the example of the Blue Dogs, a group of moderate to conservative Democrat senators, who have demanded changes to US President Barack Obama’s health care legislation. ‘Can you imagine that in India? Can a Congress MP publicly go against the high command or the prime minister? There’s very, very little internal party democracy in India,’ Sitapati says.
But in an interesting twist, it is the poster boy of dynastic politics, Rahul Gandhi, who is trying to change all of this. As General Secretary of the Congress, Rahul is in charge of the party’s youth wing, the Indian Youth Congress. He insists he’s committed to the role, and that he has repeatedly declined a Cabinet role to instead focus on galvanising his party and empowering young people to engage in politics.
Rahul admitted this year that young people in India have lost interest in entering politics, in part because they think only a well-entrenched bloodline will get them elected. In an explosive press conference in May, Rahul said: ‘It’s undemocratic that the Congress is still led by a Gandhi…But it’s a fact of life in India that success in politics depends on who you know or are related to. I want to change the system.’
To counter disillusionment among young people and encourage more of them to enter politics, Rahul has launched an ambitious revamp of the Indian Youth Congress that includes a handpicked team of energetic young officials to help introduce internal, democratic elections for office bearers at all levels through an independent election authority.
The Indian Youth Congress says it will be a transformative process driven by open membership, internal elections, a code of conduct, professional training, nationwide programs and performance management. But although this all sounds like something straight out of a corporate human resources manual, it has already been met with some early success.
Membership drive campaigns organised in states including Tamil Nadu, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand and Rajasthan have met with excellent responses — In southern Tamil Nadu state, the Indian Youth Congress says it received an impressive 1.3 million applications for membership within two weeks of Rahul Gandhi’s visit there in September.
If it’s Broke, Fix It
Many believe that any revolution in Indian politics will need to begin with the party system. Inexplicably, political parties are not even directly mentioned in the Constitution of India. This ‘lack of status’ has helped political parties operate in a legal vacuum with no guidelines to govern their funding mechanisms or inner democratic structures.
Also, because parties don’t work with government granted cash, they need to turn to patronage to fill their coffers. This has led to a muscle and money culture where a party worker who brings in wealth — regardless of how he gets it — is rewarded with greater influence.
‘It’s critical that we bring transparency to party accounts. We need to know who gives them money and how that money is used. Party accounts should be audited by professional firms,’ says Anil Bairwal, National Coordinator, Association of Democratic Reforms, a non-profit founded to strengthen democracy in India by transparent electoral processes.
‘It’s strange there’s no law to govern political parties in India. We have laws to govern everything else, don’t we? There’s even a law for pavement dwellers. We find ourselves in a strange situation now. Our polity has to legislate such a bill. Obviously, there’s little will to do that, to regulate their own activities,’ Bairwal adds.
In a report in May 1999, The Law Commission of India submitted a detailed roadmap for such reforms. In addition to advocating the need to implement a law governing political parties, it also recommended introducing the ‘none of the above’ option on ballots and a requirement that only a candidate who bags more than half the votes can be declared the winner. Merely getting more votes than other contenders should not be enough, the report stated.
Many of these suggestions have been supported by the Election Commission of India, the autonomous, quasi-judiciary constitutional body responsible for conducting all elections. The Election Commission believes these provisions will compel parties to identify and field candidates capable of transcending caste, religion and a popular dynastic background. Yet successive governments headed by different parties have at best paid lip-service to these recommendations.
‘Rahul has the right idea. We have to invest in party building,’ Kumar says. ‘This needs to be done before it’s too late.
‘There’s been a rapid decline in the legitimacy of all our representative institutions. Nepotism and democracy can’t go together,’ he says. ‘There has to be an overhaul. We need to prepare for a new democracy. It now depends on the people of India. We need to stoke our disenchantment, our disillusionment. We need to voice how we feel.’