The emergence of dynastic politics in India and its antidote – The New Indian Express

Dynasties in Indian politics are a recurring theme for commentators. But the analyzes focus more on symptoms than causes. Positions often change depending on the analyst’s political leanings. Ever since Narendra Modi entered the race for the prime ministership, he has opposed the ‘Parivarvad’ (dynasty) especially in the Congress. But people who used to criticize political dynasties began to find virtue in them, drawing a flawed equation with the smaller dynasties within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi, they feel, is cultivating a sycophantic culture in the BJP similar to what is seen as the scourge of dynastic parties.

Some political science experts are more forgiving of dynasties than personality cults, whom they believe may pose a greater threat to democracy. While their fears of nascent fascism and dictatorship are highly exaggerated and alarmist, there is a sense of cynicism about the possibility of eradicating dynasties and personality cults from Indian politics.

As the euphoria of the freedom struggle and the wave of nationalism continued, the political dynasties did not show their heads. Only in the seventies did the first signs of dynastic power appear in national and regional politics. Nehru’s continuation by Indira Gandhi was not a done deal. Even after becoming the prime minister, his position was not reliable within the party. This manifested itself in the form of the challenge faced by the ‘syndicate’ led by K Kamaraj which led to the split of the Congress. Only after consolidating his position in the Congress(I) did he sow the seeds of dynastic succession. The rise of regional parties was observed in the same period. Stretching a bit, it can be said that M Karunanidhi, who assumed the post of Chief Minister after Annadurai’s death, marked the beginning of a cult of personality that lasted more than five decades in South Indian politics. This manifested itself in different ways in different parts of the country as identity politics and dynastic culture, with the Gandhi family as its fountainhead in Delhi.

It can be instructive to look at what is happening in our neighborhood at the same time. The two global powers at the height of the Cold War began to actively develop relations in South Asia. Doing so made it convenient to bet on single families only for sustainability. It may be no coincidence that our neighborhood has seen the rise of political dynasties – the Bhuttos in Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, Bandaranaike and Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka. Although Nepal is a monarchy, the rise of the Koirala family was an undercurrent of the same trend. However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that South Asian political dynasties flourished under foreign patronage. It was perhaps the flavor of the season and a local phenomenon in all these countries.

Although empirical data on the grant is hard to find, anecdotally there has been a sharp rise in corruption by political families at the same time. This probably occurred as a new generation of populist leaders realized that political capital alone was not enough to hold power.

They also needed financial support. Thus, acquiring wealth was a way to buy political insurance and raise the barrier to entry for potential competitors. After the Emergency and the implosion of the Janata Party, there was a phase of atomization in Indian politics. The disaffected satraps quickly learned the Gandhian dynastic formula. They built family war chests in tandem with regional empires. Thus, in the late eighties, new dynasties were born from the Yadavs (Mulayam, Lalu), Pawar, Badal, Lal, Patnaik, Soren, Naidu, Mayawati, Thackeray, Reddyand, now Banerjee.

Only two Communist Parties – the CPI(M) and the CPI – and the Bharatiya Janata Party remained immune to this trend because of their DNA. But it’s not quite like that. The CPI(M) has unwittingly fallen into the trap of identity and personality. Much of the credit for his three-decade rule in West Bengal must go to Jyoti Basu. During his time, the CPI(M) in Bengal was more the Party of Bengal than the Communist Party. The same can be said of the CPI(M) under Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala.

The BJP realized that only a strong leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee could use the ground after the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. After his retirement from active politics, the BJP sank. Its fortunes could only be revived by another charismatic figure in the form of Narendra Modi. So, by default, BJP also promotes its cult of personality.

But does it matter to the common people? The bigger question is perhaps whether people have a choice. Elections have become so expensive that they are beyond the reach of any ordinary citizen unless they have powerful patrons or the support of a major party. Lok Sabha polls reportedly cost between €20 and €30 per candidate. According to officially announced figures, the expenditure of major parties runs into hundreds of crores, even for parliamentary elections. Even a lateral entrant like Arvind Kejriwal has to play an ID that could soon become another dynasty line. For the same reasons that made the Gandhis indispensable in the Congress—namely, brand name and control over the treasury.

Modi and the BJP have identified an opportunity here. “Congress-free Bharat”, they have now launched a massive fight against other dynastic parties. The BJP is hoping that young leaders who have been stifled by ‘Parivarvad’ in family-owned parties may join its ranks seeking a level playing field.

At the national level, only Congress can oppose it. But for that, he will have to fundamentally reinvent himself by restoring meritocracy—where he provides a big tent for women and men of caliber, where the dynasty can at best be first among equals. Fake intra-party democracy will not work.

(Tweets @SandipGhose)

Sandeep Ghose
Current affairs commentator


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