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 the Nehru-Gandhi family has been the PM in the past 25 years and no one can say whether one from the fabled family will become India’s elected PM in the foreseeable future. This dynasty has clearly seen better days. Democracy has been a great leveller. Other political families have not done any better.
Charan Singh, once a powerful CM of UP, became the first PM who never faced the Lok Sabha. His son Ajit Singh shuffles between various national political formations, barely able to hold his own in one corner of the state where his father was a legend.
In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena had been led by the firebrand Balasaheb Thackeray. He had been quoted for his desire to remote control the state government rather than take the responsibility of governing. Despite spewing fire for decades, Balasaheb could ensure the victory of his party only once in the mid 1990s, in a coalition with a national party. Today, his son and nephew are fighting over his political legacy and neither has any prospect of being the force the patriarch once was.
In Tamil Nadu, film-star turned politician MG Ramachandran dominated the 1980s, never losing an assembly election. His protégé, Jayalalithaa, a film actress, inherited MGR’s legacy. But unlike her mentor, every time Jayalalithaa went to seek re-election, the voters defeated her party. The other political family in the state, the Karunanidhis, have fared no better. Between these two, the power has oscillated every time at the hustings. Karunanidhi lost power in 2011 and his sons have fallen apart, trying to secure their own political pie with little prospect of living up to their father’s status.
In Punjab, the Badals have survived the past three decades. Parkash Singh Badal and his party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, had been exchanging places with the Congress at every election till the one in 2012 when he got re-elected. The Badals always needed the support of the BJP. Today, the Badals have more family members in the state Cabinet than any other political dynasty in India. But this is no assurance that the family’s political fortune will hold after the patriarch is gone.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the family of Sheikh Abdullah has been the pre-eminent political family since the 1950s. His son, Farooq, and grandson, Omar, have been CMs in coalition with the Congress. But their National Conference party has been exchanging office at every election with the PDP, headed by another political family, the Muftis.
There are lesser families that have survived but experienced diminishing political status, be it the Devi Lal-Chautala family in Haryana, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family in UP, or the Scindias spread over MP and Rajasthan, and across two major parties. Sharad Pawar, once a powerful Maharahtra CM, is struggling to leave a political legacy for his daughter and nephew. There are countless other examples of off-springs trying to wear the mantle of their ancestors, and failing.
Patnaiks in Orissa are an exception. Biju Patnaik was a stalwart, a friend of Nehru, and was CM for a short while in the early 1960s. He then became a Cabinet minister in the Morarji Desai government. He served a full term as CM from 1990-95. His son Naveen Patnaik has established himself, winning three assembly elections since 2000 and going into his fourth bid this month.
While every political party has its own dynasties, pre-eminent or localised, every party has tried to leverage a split in the dynasties to undermine the family brand. The most famous schism is in the Nehru-Gandhi family, where the widow and son of Sanjay Gandhi are prominent members of the BJP, whereas Sanjay is believed to have been complicit in many of the excesses of the Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule, including the arrest of opposition stalwarts including the founders of BJP.
The sons of Shastri, whose brief tenure as PM in the 1960s is part of popular folklore, have dabbled in politics, both in Congress and BJP, with little impact.
There are many MPs who come from political families. But there are many others who try to enter politics on the back of their family connections but fail to make a mark. The numbers in the latter category would be far larger than the former. Unfortunately, there is no register of documenting familial ties in politics.
Dynasties may exist but democracy has the power to equalise the dynasts. The diminishing power of the political families in India bears testimony to the deep roots democracy has struck in the country. Democracies have little to fear from political dynasties. As long as the elections are free and fair, it is the dynasts who need to fear political marginalisation or oblivion once the voters give their verdict.
Barun S Mitra
The author is director of Liberty Institute, New Delhi