Has dynastic politics been as anti-democratic as Indian political dynasties?

Narendra Modi has slammed the Congress for dynastic politics, but has it been that damaging for the country?

ByAnand Vardhan
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Has dynastic politics been as anti-democratic as Indian political dynasties?
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As the staple diet of electoral slugfests in recent years, the issue of dynastic leadership has again gained currency in the campaign for Assembly elections in three heartland states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has placed it at the centre of his combative barbs, while positioning himself as the antidote to the ills of dynastic politics.

But, what if, going against the grain of political equality, it’s argued that dynastic politics hasn’t been that bad for Indian democracy and that dynasties have had a paradoxical inclusive effect on it

That was one of the observations made in studies by New York University-based political scientist Professor Kanchan Chandra and her fellow scholars, and published in the edited volume Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2016).  Chandra duly registers the scale on which political dynasties in Indian democracy have worked as an entry-level violation of democratic participation and contest. However, she argues that dynasticism has worked as a quota-like protection and guarantee for social groups who would otherwise find it difficult to get representation in highly competitive contests among the resourceful.

In an essay summarising the study’s findings, she wrote: “Specifically, we found a high incidence of family connections among MPs of some social categories that struggle to find representation in politics through normal channels: women, Muslims, backward castes and youth—none of whom have reservation in parliament. In this sense, dynastic ties in India appear to perform a similar function to quotas for members of under-represented social groups.”

But such findings shouldn’t be seen as a legitimation of dynastic politics. The study doesn’t suggest this either—the scholars associated with the study are quite aware of its limited meanings: “This does not mean that dynastic politics is a normatively desirable channel to bring about political inclusion. But in an unequal polity, in which there are already high barriers to the entry of new groups into politics, dynasticism has become an informal, second-best means of overcoming some of them.”

That implies that though any democratic society would see dynastic politics as a subversion of democratic spirit via entry-level barriers, the context of fledgling and complex democratic societies like India can also push us to see it in a different light. It comes down to seeing collateral benefits of it in deepening democracy by enabling youth (held back by gerontocracy), religious minorities like Muslims, and social groups like OBCs in gaining dynasty-facilitated representation when pitted against a resourceful opposition.

Defining a political dynast as anyone who had at least one family member preceding him or her in electoral politics, the study analysed the structure of dynastic politics in Lok Sabha MPs elected in 2004, 2009 and 2014. So what was the edge in terms of, say, the re-election success rate, that dynastic candidates from weaker social socio-economic groups had vis-à-vis dynastic candidates of traditionally strong groups?

Taking, for instance, the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls as reference points, the study says in 2009, dynastic MPs from forward castes were 1.3 times as likely to get re-elected as non-dynastic MPs from the same group. However, dynastic MPs from backward castes were almost twice as likely to get re-elected as non-dynastic backward caste MPs. The same was true for dynastic MPs from scheduled castes (though SCs have some reserved constituencies) and Muslim ones—all of whom had greater winnability than dynastic candidates from forward castes.

In the 2014 polls, the success rate of dynastic candidates dropped across groups. But dynastic MPs from most subaltern groups were slightly more likely to be re-elected than dynastic MPs from forward castes.

Professor Chandra’s study, along with those of her fellow scholars like Simon Chauchard, revealed some important facts and, in the process, busted a few myths about the nature of dynastic leadership in India. One of the most interesting of them is that contrary to popular perception, political families don’t have a firm hold over constituencies, far from considering them as their fiefdoms. To put it statistically, only five per cent of Lok Sabha constituencies have been continuously represented by a dynastic MP between 2004 and 2014.

There is also the lack of a consistent pattern of the electoral success rate of political dynasties. It has varied significantly with each of the last three parliamentary polls. While it rose from 20 to 30 per cent in 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha polls, it again came back to 22 per cent in 2014.

Different degrees of dynasticism could be seen across political parties in the electoral fray. Expectedly, among the larger parties in the current Lok Sabha, the Congress has the highest percentage of dynastic MPs—48 per cent—while its average percentage of MPs with a family background in last three Lok Sabha polls is around 37 per cent. In that context, though the Bharatiya Janata Party isn’t a dynasty-free entity, it’s far less populated by dynastic MPs. In the 2014 Lok Sabha, only 15 per cent of the BJP’s MPs had dynastic origins.

There is also an argument, as articulated by scholars like Adam Ziegfeld, that older parties have more generations of leaders and patronage and would be more dynastic than new political forces, like the regional parties. That may not, however, apply less to cadre-based old parties or parties with civil society presence. As far as regional parties are concerned, the fewer number of political dynasties in them is somewhat attributable to their age but nullified by their concentration of power—on an almost autocratic scale—in the hands of the founder or top leaders of the party and, by extension, their families. The structure of leadership in the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Rashtriya Janta Dal in Bihar, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu demonstrate such trends.

Amidst all this, a very significant fact is that very few pre-Independence political families (including royals) could retain their hold as powerful political families in the post-Independence phase of democratic politics. Families holding political clout in the first half of the 20th century—landlords, feudal power magnates and royals—accounted for only three per cent of the total membership in the last three Lok Sabhas. There are only a few which adjusted to democratic dynamics and continue to hold sway, like the Scindias in Madhya Pradesh. Among the professional elite, the most striking exception from the pre-Independence era was that of the Gandhi-Nehru family, which emerged as the most powerful political dynasty in post-Independence India—in fact, the most powerful political family in modern India, dynastic or non-dynastic.

The journey began with Jawaharlal Nehru succeeding his father as Congress president in 1929, had the landmark of his daughter Indira Gandhi becoming Congress president in 1959 while he was Prime Minister, and took a decisive turn after his death when Indira herself became Prime Minister in 1966. However, it got its institutional shape only in the Seventies. Perhaps a blend of its pre-Independence origins and dominance at the top of national leadership have combined to make it the most visible of dynastic politics subjected to critical scrutiny in India.

Besides such important exceptions, most political dynasties which populate the Indian electoral scene are post-Independence developments—whether they are the Yadav families in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Thackerays in Maharashtra, or the family of Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu.

So there may be some merit in the argument that they are products of the democratic process. However, that applies more easily to the first generation leaders of these post-Independence dynasties. These leaders somehow tried to convert that democratic capital into family fiefdoms. A lot of factors might be responsible for it, including organisational weaknesses, lack of intra-party democracy and a trust deficit in the next line of leadership.

The conventional explanations for the appeal of political dynasties in India have been in terms of “inherited charisma”. It’s somehow the blend of tradition and charisma that German sociologist Max Weber had conceived as two separate claims on authority. But recent trends show that in the absence of the institutional support of the party system, such factors have not helped dynastic politicians in winning electoral battles.

Even in Chandra’s study, one cannot miss this point: ” Parties are important. No dynast in these three Parliaments (2004, 2009, and 2014) who has fought outside of a party structure has won.”

Among plausible explanations for parties preferring dynasts in certain constituencies is the party loyalty factor that historical baggage brings for the candidates. It becomes more pronounced at levels of party organisation where there aren’t predictable ways of knowing party affiliation. So, though the role of credibility can be handy as well as counterproductive in some cases, the loyalty factor of the leaders to the party becomes important for the parties in retaining dynasts in certain constituencies.

Therefore, one may argue that the paradoxical role of some dynasties in deepening democratic politics in its post-Independence role isn’t rooted in the nature of those dynasties but a product, and imperative, of the institutional set-up and party system they inhabit.

India can be placed at the mid-level of dynasty-favouring democracies. Countries like the Philippines are far more embedded with a dynastic pattern of democracy while others like Belgium and Canada are far distant from dynastic connections as terms of political eligibility.

Still, in many ways, dynastic politics in India fits in as a third world case study of parallel and sometimes intertwined trends of inherited terms of political eligibility with the gradual deepening of more inclusive terms of political contests. To an extent, the complexity of the process mirrors the nature of political society in India, which is trying to shape and be shaped by electoral democracy in its own evolving image.

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