The Pulse

What Explains the Enduring Resilience of Political Dynasties in India?

Despite widespread rhetorical condemnation of dynastic leadership in political parties, the trend shows no sign of abating.

By Ambar Kumar Ghosh and Avishek Jha for
What Explains the Enduring Resilience of Political Dynasties in India?

Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi, center in white, accompanied by his sister Priyanka Vadra in red arrives to file his nomination papers for the upcoming general elections in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh state, India, April 10, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh

The decline of the Indian National Congress (INC) in the recently concluded national elections and Rahul Gandhi’s resignation from the post of party president owing to its dismal performance have once again raised questions over the vitality of dynastic politics in Indian politics. With the election deemed as a vote against the politics of hereditary entitlement, epitaphs are being written on the legion of dynastic parties in India. However, the sense of total paralysis that has struck the Congress party over the last month and a half and the sycophantic display of protestations over Rahul Gandhi’s attempts at ensuring a sense of accountability are representative of the tremendous amount of support and trust the family enjoys in the party, despite the continuous political decline of the Congress.

Besides the Gandhis and the fate of the Congress, the recently concluded general spelled doom for several other family-based parties as well, including the Yadavs of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, the Gowdas in Karnataka, the Pawars in Maharashtra and the political fiefdoms of Haryana. It is curious to see that despite the electoral debacle, no dynastic heads have rolled in other political parties that performed poorly. In fact, in Bihar, the anointment of Laloo Prasad Yadav’s younger son Tejashwi Yadav as the chief ministerial candidate in the state assembly elections of 2020 despite a massive electoral setback is the only glue preventing the implosion of the party and furthering the Yadav family’s dominance over it.

Individual ambitions and historical legacy alone do not explain dynastic politics in India. It is important to focus on the structural factors that facilitate the unrestricted control of dynasties over political parties in India despite the parties suffering from massive electoral losses under such leadership. The rigid hold of dynasties over the political parties in India can be attributed to three fundamental factors, which are institutional, functional, and societal in nature.

In India, dynasty-driven politics is perpetuated by several organizational flaws in a majority of political parties. Most parties suffer from a total lack of established principles of inner-party democracy. Centered around few hegemonic dynasties, these parties thrive on the prevalence of patronage-based party structures and clientelistic relationships, which are often directly linked to loyalty toward the powerful political families. The political families at the helm of these parties often deter the emergence of an alternative leadership outside the family so that the unquestioned authority of these dynasties is not threatened and political power is centralized in the family. The very existence of the party and the allegiance of its workers are owed to the presence of the dynasts. This fundamental weakness makes these parties, barring the few cadre-based parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties, entirely dependent on the appeal of such political dynasts for electoral mobilization. Furthermore, in the absolute abandonment of a party ideology, the family becomes the guiding force around which a party sustains itself, further weakening the party system.

Second, the resilience of political dynasties cannot be explained only from the prism of institutional conditions. Despite the BJP’s high decibel anti-dynasty rhetoric, almost  44.4 percent of all dynasts elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014 hailed from the saffron party, thus demonstrating their functional value. In electoral politics, dynasts come with immense local, regional, and national popularity, which is believed to be of paramount importance for ensuring electoral victory in Indian elections. Higher indices of recognition are believed to be a significant facilitator for the dynast to remain at the forefront in politics. Research suggests that dynasty “gives candidates name recognition, some political experience and better access to allies and resources when running for office.” Political scientist Milan Vaishnav further argues that besides enhanced name recognition, factors such as greater exposure to politics, ideas of family experience, political networks and connections, and the belief in an enhanced capacity to deliver services influences voters to support dynastic candidates. Therefore, multiple functional advantages of dynastic leaders in electoral politics keep their influence largely unblemished despite leading their respective parties to humiliating defeats.

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It will be difficult to have a complete understanding about the deep-rooted influence of dynastic leadership in Indian democracy if we miss out on the natural societal affinity toward family lineage in the Indian society. Despite the advent of a modern nation designed as a republican democracy in India, family-based continuity in occupation remains one of the most perceptible trends in Indian politics. The continued rise in dynastic candidates across political parties, as suggested by research conducted by scholars at Harvard University in the United States and the University of Mannheim in Germany, shows that while the national parties are “comparably dynastic,” similar trends can be seen in smaller and regional parties. Sociologist Andre Beteille succinctly observes that deep-rooted loyalty for family, kinship, and community in Indian society overrides the sanctity of constitutional government by prioritizing family name over merit in politics. Despite the popular rhetoric against dynastic entitlement in the 2019 elections, it is a crucial fact that nearly 30 percent of the newly elected Lok Sabha comprises of dynastic MPs, cutting across party lines. The recent rise of dynasts such as Jaganmohan Reddy from Andhra Pradesh, Conrad Sangma in Meghalaya, and Abhishek Banerjee in Bengal are glaring examples of the resilience of familial charm and acceptable dynastic lineage even today.

Such prevalence of dynasticism in democratic politics poses a great challenge to the foundational principle of equality of political opportunity, which is a hallmark of political democracy. If electoral politics in Indian democracy is to become more open and accessible, the question of deep-rooted control of dynastic politics at the institutional, functional, and societal levels has to be adequately addressed.

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata.

Avishek Jha is a Young India Fellow, Class of 2018, and has been a Programmes Fellow with the Academe India Foundation.