The recent by-elections in the country were news-makers mainly in terms of Jaganmohan Reddy's routing the Congress in Andhra Pradesh. But in north India, two apparently ordinary but important electoral events unfolded. Both were in the UP. One was the Trinamool Congress winning the Mat seat and opening its account in the UP and second, Dimple Yadav, wife of UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Singh Yadav bagging the Kannauj seat unopposed. The second instance was significant for in the state like UP, which always witnesses a fierce four-pronged (or more) fight every time it goes to the polls, a candidate winning unopposed is unique.
An integral part of our political culture
But this is the nature of dynastic politics in India. The very idea of fielding the wife of a CM hailing from a heavyweight political family in UP and that too in the seat which had been vacated by the CM himself, made it clear for the opposition parties that it would be futile the challenge proceedings. Dynastic politics still commands a fair degree of legitimacy in the national politics.
A study has shown that near about one-third of the MPs in the current Lok Sabha come from political families, mainly those below 30 and 40. The Congress has the highest number of such instances while several regional parties stand close second. What the study also revealed is that North India is more marked by family politics compared to the southern parts. The communist parties and the saffron BJP are the only outfits which are least affected by any family lineage.
Often family politics is slammed in popular space as bad, for it is allegedly anti-democratic and breeds corruption. But there is denying to the fact that it is an integral part of India's political culture. In fact, dynastic politics can be seen among our neighbours and around the world. Bangladesh is a country which is alternatively ruled by two women with clear family ties with politics. The current Pakistani President is the husband of a assassinated popular politician. In countries like Sri Lanka, the Philippines, North Korea also we find dynastic politics have played a significant role in the country's national life, irrespective of its political system.
India is not new to dynastic politics
In India, dynastic politics is nothing new. We have seen this or that dynasty ruling our land for thousands of years. One dynasty getting weakened after a time to be dethroned by another new dynasty. There were big central dynasties as well as the regional ones. Now, one may ask that was the age of monarchy. To that, my counter-argument is: We as a nation are just 60-odd years old but our history goes down for several thousand of years. It is absolutely naïve to expect that just proclaiming a constitution and a democratic state, the feudal character of a traditional society will be done away within a few years.
Reasons are valid
A dynastic culture was something which we inherited from our past. The colonial rule which followed after the dynastic Mughal rule, gave it a licence to thrive, even though unknowingly. The British, themselves, might have had established an administration based on merit and efficiency, but at the same time, they had instilled seeds of mutual suspicion among the Indians. It is primarily because of this that even today, we find Indians are comfortable keeping their own thing, be it a family business or political party, in their own hands. Years of colonial rule marked by several instances of betrayal might have helped in evolving such a mindset. Another consequence of the colonial rule is that it has instilled a sense of servitude to remain under a 'higher' authority and hence the 'superior' family of the leader.
The urge to control the finances is another key factor. Running a political party and contesting elections is an expensive affair. Sources of such funds are not always transparent and thus keeping the key in the family's own hand is the safest bet. These family-centred political parties, after assuming power, bind its lower leadership/sycophancy with a politics of patronage and ensures loyalty to remain in the thick of things. The Congress party, since the late 1960s, was made to function in these lines, away from the democratic ideals of Jawaharlal Nehru. Some also believe that had Lal Bahadur Shastri did not meet an untimely death and had continued for a decade or so, Congress might not have got trapped in dynastic politics and things could have been different today.
However, a more significant explanation for the strong grip that dynastic politics enjoy in India is the very nature of political practices in the country. In a country where castes, hegemony, hierarchy still call the shots, elections invariably mean a client-patronage business. The political parties engage more in patronage politics to keep their vote-banks safe and instead of emerging into catalysts of structural change moved by ideals, remain cults of personalities and families. The voters too, sometimes bound by the legacy, aspire to support a particular leader or family. Lack of enough transparency in the Indian electoral system helps such a system to survive.
Parties like the Leftist ones and the BJP are more ideology-based and structural ones owing to historical reasons and are not affected by any family politics. But then, these parties are often found to be hit by internal chaos without a central power-structure. Dynasties, if are considered to be the biggest bane of some parties, they are also their strongest assets. Sonia Gandhi, a case in point in contemporary India. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Trinamool Congress are also not dynastic parties of course, but while in the case of the former, the lineage has been a mentor-follower one, the latter is just a one-personality party.
Another factor that encourages dynastic politics is the easy entry that politics offers in our country and that too, leading to a position of great power and wealth. A doctor's son or daughter will have to get through all possible screening before taking up the family occupation, but for a politician's kin, it is just a cakewalk due to the abovesaid reasons. Even cricketers and film stars' children can not take it for granted to the extent it is possible in politics.
Indian society not yet a democratic one
Dynastic politics is not conducive to democracy, no doubt, but how much democratic is the Indian society yet? For a society which is still largely feudal with group and clan loyalty or individual worship still the rule of the game, just organising procedural elections after regular intervals would not change the practice. If we are to uproot family politics today, we need to lead a comprehensive movement to change the very nature of India's democratic practice. Personality cults must be sacrificed in favour of struggles for true ideals and overall reforms, something India had witnessed just after the Emergency was imposed by the authoritarian Indira regime. But again, the fresh political leadership which arose amid the struggle could not gel and soon the dynastic rule was back to the helm. This is where we fell short of the standard set by the western democracies. Dynastic politics can be seen the USA too but never more important than the institution of democracy.
Weakening, but still some way to go
India, like most other developing countries, has seen its democracy being built from top down and not bottom up, which gives an undue advantage to the politically/economically privileged sections to call the shots, leading to family rule. While some countries has gone to the way of family dictatorships, India at least remained a democracy. Withering the dynastic democratic rule can not be done in a day as has been said. But what is certain that with deepening of democracy and increasing fragmentation of India's socio-political milieu owing to several compelling factors, the grip of family rule is bound to loosen. We have already seen that the Congress, despite remaining a family stronghold, is not that powerful an entity compared to what is was during the days of Indira Gandhi. A new electoral class comprising young, educated Indians, the ever-widening scope of the media, assertion of rights by newer socio-economic groups, an increasingly mature Election Commission, all these will help the Indian democracy deepen its roots further in days to come and reduce influence of dynastic politics.