Any discussion on dynastic politics usually degenerates into a slanging match. One side tries to wrap itself in a democratic halo, who see political dynasties as anathema in democratic polity. The other argues that the dynasts have to get democratically elected and, therefore, are legitimate. In fact, hardly any political party is immune from their dynasties.
But how do political dynasties stand out in terms of political performance? Do successive generations measure up to their famous ancestors? Why some families make a mark politically while others fail? Is there legitimate space in a democracy for favoured families? Are political dynasties an aberration in a democracy where, at the time of the ballot, every citizen is seen as equal? Or does the focus on political dynasties diverts our attention from the truly equalising impact of a democracy?
The Nehru-Gandhi family is seen as the standard bearer of political dynasties. Since Independence, three members of the family have been elected as India’s prime ministers. A son became notorious for wielding enormous extra constitutional power without holding any elected office. A daughter-in-law came close to the ultimate political position but political necessity ensured that she renounce office. And another son who seemed reluctant to join the race and can’t figure out either to get off the track or take the plunge wholeheartedly.
This is the beaten track. However, what seems to have been missed by the critics and supporters of political dynasties is that there is a consistent diminishing return for dynasties in politics.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru won three successive general elections and was in office from 1947 to 1964. His daughter Indira Gandhi became the PM following the untimely death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966. Indira was in office through the tumultuous days of the emergency rule, till 1977, when she became the first of the many PMs since to lose a general election. Although she led her party to another victory in 1980, she was assassinated in 1984 by her bodyguards. Indira held the high office for about 15 years.
Rajiv Gandhi took office within a few days of his mother’s death and won an unprecedented three-fourths majority a couple of months later. He came in with great hope, but his government got embroiled in corruption scandals and political crisis and lost the general election in 1989. Since then the Congress has never been able to gain a majority. No one from