Political Dynasties: need for curbs
by Prakash Nanda on 22 Sep 2009 2 Comments

The current political spectacle in Andhra Pradesh reminds us once again of the phenomenon of “dynastic politics” in India. The deceased chief minister YS Rajshekhar Reddy’s son Jagan Mohan Reddy is virtually dictating to the Congress high command to accede to his claim over his father’s “throne.” Irrespective of the merits of his claim, the phenomenon merits a closer look. Is this healthy for the growth of genuine democracy? What could be its adverse fall-outs? And most important, how best could these adverse fallouts be contained?

True, dynastic politics is not something peculiar to Indian democracy. The United States, where the recent death of Senator Edward Kennedy highlighted the saga of his clan, has already witnessed a father-son duo (the Bushes) occupying the country’s highest office. The just concluded national elections in Japan saw the grandsons of two former prime ministers – the incumbent Taro Aso of the Liberal Democratic Party and the challenger and eventual winner Yukio Hatoyama, head of the victorious Democratic Party of Japan – leading their respected campaigns.

Nearer home, there are examples of the Bhutto family in Pakistan; the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka; the Koiralas in Nepal; the Rahmans in Bangladesh; Sukarno in Indonesia and Suu Kyi in Myanmar. All these families tower over their respective country’s politics even today.

It could be argued that in a democracy ultimately it is the people who through elections legitimise dynastic successions. Children of famous parents enjoy the initial advantage of public recognition and political connections, and one cannot do much against it as long as people approve of it through a democratic exercise. This practice is in sharp contrast to what prevails in authoritarian and totalitarian countries such as North Korea and Syria, where the political succession of sons is automatic (Kim Il Sung - Kim Jong Il – Kim Jong Un in North Korea; Hafez al Assad – Bashar Assad in Syria).    

On closer scrutiny, however, the story of “democratic successions” is not that easy. Emotional content because of the contributions of famous parents is an important factor behind the success of offspring, but alone cannot ensure it. Equally important are factors of monetary and administrative resources that come aplenty for the children of established and ruling politicians, whether directly or indirectly. Only when political lineage is buttressed by money and other factors, political succession is guaranteed, not otherwise. If lineage were enough, then the blood-relations of Mahatma Gandhi, Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad and Jaya Prakash Narayan would have been ruling India today. In fact, grandsons of Mahatma Gandhi have lost Indian elections. 

Secondly, in India, we are now witnessing too many political successions. In the United States and other western countries, there are political families, but their number is not proliferating as in India. For instance, as many as four members of the Nehru-Gandhi family are members of Parliament today. Parliament also has many others who have exploited their family names – such as Meira Kumar, Milind Deora, Jyotirao Scindia, Ajit Singh, Akhilesh Yadav, Supriya (Pawar) Sule, Sachin Pilot, Priya Dutt, and the Gowdas, Marans, and Reddys. This list is only illustrative, not exhaustive. And this phenomenon has pervaded almost all political parties, the Left being a notable exception.    

Worse, the phenomenon is not limited to central politics; it is deeper rooted at state level. The list of blood relations of successful and resourceful past chief ministers becoming chief ministers is growing – Biju Patnaik-Naveen Patnaik; Sheikh Abdullah-Farooq Abdullah-Omar Abdullah; SB Chavan-Ashok Chavan; MG Ramachandran-Janaki Ramachandran; Lalu Prasad-Rabri Devi; Deve Gowda-Kumaraswamy; Ravi Shankar Shukla-Shyama Charan Shukla; Devi Lal-Om Prakash Chautala; and NT Rama Rao-Chandrababu Naidu.

Then, the likes of Mehbooba Mufti in Kashmir, Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, Ajit Singh in Uttar Pradesh, K Murlidharan in Kerala, Kuldip Bishnoi in Haryana, Sukhbir Singh Badal in Punjab and Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh are waiting to ‘succeed’ their fathers as chief ministers of their respective states. In fact, junior Badal is already deputy chief minister. In Tamil Nadu, chief minister and DMK supremo Karunanidhi has already revealed “his will” that son Stalin, now an important minister, should succeed him.

It will be instructive to study dynastic succession as far as “ordinary” MLAs and MPs are concerned. It can be safely guessed that the phenomenon is assuming serious proportions here as well. Altogether, there might be at least 1000 to 1500 political families in India, which have successfully promoted dynastic succession at various levels, be it national or provincial.  As it is, there are cases like that of Mulayam Singh Yadav, where the family head, his brother, son and daughter-in-law have contested for the same Parliament. This is happening in other states also.   

It could be argued that the supremacy of more political families instead of one or two is a healthy development, and that the phenomenon is a sign of growing democratization of the polity. But this is a weak argument. Given the fact that India’s is essentially a plebiscitory democracy – here people vote for the promises made by candidates rather than for candidates who respond to demands coming from below, it is always better to have fewer political dynasties. Because then at least there is a possibility of the emergence of new dynamic leaderships with new ideas from the general masses.

When there are more political dynasties, there is every possibility of the electoral battles becoming predictable. Imagine what will be the scenario if in Maharashtra elections are confined to the Chavans and Pawars on one hand, and Thackerays on the other. What will happen to democratic growth if Andhra politics gets reduced essentially to a battle between the NTR family and Rajshekhar Reddy family? Will Kashmiris enjoy democracy if their choices are limited to the Abdullahs and Muftis? How will democrats react if in future only Rahul Gandhi and Varun Gandhi vie for India’s premiership?

It is high time the country devised ways to contain the undemocratic growth of political dynasties. One cannot eliminate the phenomenon as in a democracy all, including dynasts, have a right to contest elections. The best way is to have a suitable constitutional amendment to limit ministerial positions (including that of prime minister and chief ministers) at the centre and states to two successive terms, and prevent immediate blood relatives of outgoing ministers (after two successive terms) from succeeding to the vacated offices for a period of at least one term of the respective houses. Let worthy sons and daughters of dynasties wait and work among the masses for five years to earn, not inherit, the popular mandate. 

The author is a senior journalist


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