Summer 2010

Dynasty and Democracy: Of Families, Modernisation and Legitimacy

Karan Thapar

Are dynasty and democracy by definition incompatible or, if you think deeply, might there be a credible explanation that permits the former to play a legitimate role in the latter? In other words, could democracy actually be enhanced by the role and impact of political dynasties and their ability to popularise politics as well as personalise it?

This is a debate – some call it a conundrum – that never fails to stir controversy in South Asia. All the four democracies of the region – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – have spawned and nurtured dynasties. Nepal too, although its democratic credentials are presently in doubt. But in each of the big four, the story of the rise and fall of the ruling or competing dynasties is often an alternate way of recounting the post-independence history of these states.

Let me, however, concentrate on India, the country I know best. The liberal standpoint – or, perhaps, its better described as the anti-establishment position – is that the role of dynasty in India’s democracy is not just a contradiction of but also a denial of the country’s democracy. Take the Nehru-Gandhis, the premier example of this phenomenon. In the Congress Party their sway is undisputed. Sonia, the present head, is referred to as The High Command’, a description that ensures her authority is beyond challenge. Rahul, her son, will be her successor and he, alone or with Sonia, will determine when that will happen. No one would dare question that. Even questions by the press are either ignored or evaded.

Three important consequences flow from this. The Gandhi duo, both mother and son, are the core of the party. They are far and away the best known faces of Congress and have enormous popular appeal. Often they are better known than the party. Their status is akin to royalty. Second, their ancestors – from Rajiv, Sonia’s husband, all the way to Nehru, his grandfather, whom she never knew – are treated with veneration. Their views are never questioned. Indeed, in television debates to quote them is to effectively silence any dissent from a Congress spokesperson. In fact, if a Congress person finds he or she is at odds with what Nehru, Indira or Rajiv once said, they splutter with visible embarrassment. The confusion on their faces reinforces the hold of the family on their thinking. Third, Sonia or Rahul’s word is final. No one challenges their views and everyone wants to be on their side. Internal debate and difference is only possible till they have spoken. Thereafter it becomes dissent. If at all uttered, it’s in hushed whispers.

There is, however, another way of perceiving dynasty or, more accurately, dynasties, for there are several in Indian politics. The Nehru-Gandhis have set an example that has multiplied and proliferated through the system. In this case imitation is not just flattery but possible confirmation of efficacy and, even, legitimacy.

The opposition BJP has the Scindias and the Jaswant Singh family. Although the party is a virulent critic of the Congress dynasty and never fails to ridicule the Gandhi family’s hold it has, nonetheless, accepted, albeit limitedly, the family succession principle in these two instances.

However, it’s in India’s states that dynasties have truly flowered. From the Himalayan north to the Indian Ocean south political dynasties control regional and state politics. In many state capitals politics is little more than the rivalry of opposed families. Look at the list: there are the Patnaiks (Orissa), the Karunanidhis (Tamil Nadu), the Mulayam Singhs (UP), the Abdullahs (who’s Kashmiri lineage and story in every way matches that of the Gandhis), the Chautalas (Haryana), the Badals (Punjab) and the Lalu Yadavs (Bihar). And this is just the best known!

Indeed, its true to the point of being axiomatic that in India a successful politician with a child is likely to be succeeded by that off-spring, first in the constituency but, eventually, as leader of the party and then, if fortune so favours, as head of government.

Yet that only begs the question is this state of affairs necessarily or undeniably undemocratic? The answer is as beguiling as it is less than straight-forward. You might be tempted to express a firm yes. But pause and consider the following facts. First, political children have to win elections to get into the system. Daddy or Mummy can only ensure they become party candidates. The Indian people, ultimately, decide their fate. For most winning may be easy but even the Gandhis (Indira and, son, Sanjay in 1977) have on occasion lost.

Second, for their party to survive dynastic leadership has to inspire voters or survive the long period of drought when the response is adverse. The Gandhis survived the post-emergency period and the entire 90s, when the country refused to vote Congress. Smaller state dynasties, like the Bansi Lals or the Bhajan Lals of Haryana, did not and have more or less faded away.

Third – and this is fast becoming the biggest challenge – dynasties have to adapt to or, better still, channel and express the changing mood of a young resurgent India. Seventy percent of the country is under 65. They’re children of the IT age, of IPL cricket, of Bollywood romances, of 24×7 news and of defiant, cheeky, risqu’ repartee. They’re not likely to vote for someone they cannot identify with.

In these fluid circumstances, when it works, the advantage a dynasty confers on a political party could be substantial. Immediate recognition, mass appeal, a certain savoir-faire and a capacity to cement a party, bind its factions, resolve differences and provide a coherent central command-like control. Elected leaders, who can be challenged, often cannot deliver as much.

There is, however, one other quality a successful – or do I mean clever? – dynasty must understand and practice if it is to succeed and, more importantly, survive in to the future. Discretion. Because family rule can so easily be used by the opposition to provoke resentment and, worse, rejection, democratic dynasties need to tread carefully, never publicly exhibiting their writ and always behaving as if they are ordinary politicians.

It’s not easy. It means behaving like Cameron or Blair when you are, in fact, born a Gandhi and destined by birth to rule. In such circumstances controlling your attitude, behaviour and even thinking can be problematic. Convincing others is even more difficult.

However, Rahul Gandhi seems to have perfected this modesty. At times he even questions the dynastic fortune that has given him an advantage over every other Congressman. Such self-deprecating humility – which always sells well in India – hides and thus de-toxifies the undemocratic truth.

So how long can India’s political dynasties survive? Will the 21st century and the cascading consequences of modernisation and development end their run? No doubt educated, middle-class, urban India has started to question, if not criticise, the institution of dynasty. But even at 250 million it’s barely a quarter of the country’s population. Rural India, steeped in tradition and more accepting and understanding of the hallowed principle of family inheritance, is three times bigger. As long as Sonia and Rahul – or the generation after them – can win elections with their support the story of political dynasty in India will continue.

From the standpoint of political parties and how they see their self-interest the answer is equally clear. As long as India’s dynasties deliver, political parties will accept, defend and promote them. Even when they stumble, if they retain the capacity to recover, they will survive. So far no major sub-continental dynasty has fallen so low its fortunes have irretrievably collapsed. But undoubtedly that test will one day have to be faced.

The challenge to dynasty will come from within their own parties, not outside of them. That could be the point at which India’s political system becomes easier for western observers to analyse and, even, understand.

Karan Thapar is a leading political columnist and television interviewer, and President of Infotainment Television