They possess both electoral potency and a climbing democratic deficit.
On Monday, just before the newly-wed couple arrived at Patna airport, the bride Rachel Iris had been given a new name – Rajshri – by her father-in-law and Rashtriya Janata Dal president, Lalu Prasad Yadav.
No one really knows what Rachel, the new wife of Lalu’s son Tejashwi Yadav, feels about the new name, or the reasoning that it was “easy to pronounce”, according to her husband. But it is perhaps the first of many changes awaiting her as daughter-in-law to one of India’s many powerful political families, and as wife to a former deputy chief minister and current leader of the opposition in Bihar’s legislative assembly. The grand welcome she received from party workers and the constant media glare are early signs of what her life will be like as the wife of a 32-year-old Yadav scion – one who is within striking distance of power and who is young enough to be the chief minister in waiting.
The RJD, however, has pitched the inter-community marriage as an example of its “A to Z” democratic inclusion. This is intriguing because marrying outside the community hasn’t been a strain for the political elite in the state, across different political parties. The tokenism derived from private matters of top leadership is a shoddy attempt at democratic virtue signalling.
More significantly, such supposedly “inclusive” acts in private relationships cannot chip away the massive democratic deficit seen in the conduct and leadership of dynasty-run political parties in different parts of the country.
The day Tejashwi and Rachel reached their 10, Circular Road residence in Patna, thousands of km away in Karnataka, the HD Deve Gowda family was reported to have become the “second largest clan” in Indian politics. With the election of Suraj Revanna, the former prime minister’s grandson, as a member of the upper house of Karnataka’s bicameral legislature, the Gowda family now has eight members across three generations who have contested the polls. They are second only to the Nehru-Gandhi family in having the most number of family members in the electoral fray.
Like the continuing grip of the Gandhi family on the Congress party, the Gowda family also controls their party organisation, the Janata Dal Secular. While the lineage-centric control of a once formidable national force like the Congress has been much dissected, that’s a familiar story on how most regional political parties have been working.
In one of its intermittent commentaries on the Indian political scene, the Economist last month suggested that the Gandhis should quit the leadership of the Congress to facilitate the recovery of the key national opposition party. “Single-family dominance” repels talent from the party, the magazine argued. But today, the national opposition is more of an aggregate of regional parties holding their sway in their turf in various states. And the “single family” hold is as much a reality, if not more, for most of these regional forces.
Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, a West Bengal-based regional party that has of late been keen on expressing its national ambitions, has her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, as its general secretary. Abhishek has already been visible in running the party’s everyday affairs and is most likely to carry on the mantle from Mamata.
In Maharashtra, the Thackeray clan holds the reins of the Shiv Sena as much as its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party, is controlled by the Pawar family.
In the southern states, most regional parties resemble clan fiefdoms. For all its posturing of “progressive politics”, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu could not look beyond the family of M Karunanidhi in passing the baton of leadership. MK Stalin, the state’s current chief minister and Karunanidhi’s son, had another battle in securing his eligibility for the position when he overcame the challenge from his older brother, MK Alagiri.
In Andhra Pradesh, both the governing party and the main opposition – the Jaganmohan Reddy-led YSR Congress and the N Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party – are primarily family outfits. The former was inherited by the son, while the latter was wrested by the founder’s son-in-law after an intra-family struggle.
In Karnataka, as has been mentioned before, the JDS is the key regional player and an extension of the hold of three generations of the HD Deve Gowda family.
In the north, while the Abdullahs and Muftis control the reins of the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, respectively, the two key regional players in Jammu and Kashmir politics. The Badals are at the helm of the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab. In Haryana, the same is true of the Chautala clan and the Indian National Lok Dal.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party has seen its own share of succession battles and family feuds before Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, Akhilesh Yadav, could get a firm grip over the whole party organisation.
The occasional murmurs of such succession rifts are heard in Bihar’s RJD too, even though party patriarch Lalu Prasad Yadav seems to have settled the heir apparent question in favour of Tejashwi. That, however, is no guarantee, as Chirag Paswan found out the hard way. Following the death of his father and Lok Janshakti Party founder Ramvilas Paswan, Chirag’s uncle Pashupati Paras seized control of the party’s MPs and secured a berth for himself in the union council of ministers.
Regional party supremos who have remained unmarried – like TMC’s Mamata and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati – have also resorted to picking family members for leadership roles. While Mamata’s choices have been mentioned earlier, Mayawati appointed her brother, Anand Kumar, as the party’s vice-president and her nephew, Aakash Anand, as its national coordinator in 2019.
One does not know what the Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patnaik, party founder and bachelor, has in store for settling leadership claims of a party that has held the reins of power in Odisha for so long.
Among the Lohiaite parties that emerged in the Hindi heartland states, the Nitish Kumar-led Janta Dal-United in Bihar is one of the very few exceptions to the general stronghold of dynastic control over party leadership. Even after remaining in power for the last 15 years, the chief minister’s family is nowhere to be seen in the conduct of party affairs.
Political sociologists have often tried to explain dynastic parties in terms of the lure of “inherited charisma” and the immediate loyalty base. In organisational terms, some explain it as the organisational feudalism of having instant discipline – a blend of “tradition and charisma”, the two of the three sources of authority that Max Weber had identified.
While the merit of such explanations could be contested, some recent studies have also suggested the paradoxically broadening effects of dynastic politics on Indian politics. One such study by New York University-based political scientist and professor Kanchan Chandra and her fellow scholars (Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2016) had reflected on the electoral imperatives and opportunities within the fold of dynastic politics. However, Chandra was cautious about not being misread as endorsing the trend and its anti-democratic implications. Moreover, the study was less about the trajectory of family-run parties and more about the dynasties per se.
In his book The Good Boatman: A Portrait of Gandhi ( Penguin, 2000) Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and historian Rajmohan Gandhi dwelt on what happened in 1928 when Motilal Nehru’s term as the party president was nearing its end. The air was thick with the anticipation of either Vallabhbhai Patel or Subhas Chandra Bose taking over the reins of the party. But Motilal’s wife, Swarup Rani, pleaded with Gandhi to ensure a dynastic passing of the baton to her son, Jawaharlal Nehru. Rani wished to “see a king passing on the sceptre of the throne to his logical successor”.
Gandhi’s decision had unintended consequences, Rajmohan notes. “Gandhi, champion of the rights of the halt and the lame, the last and the least, had unwittingly launched a dynasty.”
If that’s the case, in the post-Independence churn of democratic politics, such political dynasties went beyond the Delhi durbar and spawned in provincial centres too. They controlled the levers of powerful regional parties. As an aggregate, such family-run political forces in different regions are far more electorally potent than the Gandhis-controlled Congress. However, their democratic deficit is mounting everyday, the family fiefdoms refusing to open any meaningful door for outside representation.
In such well-defined club rules of political participation, the “A to Z” promise of inclusiveness ends with the fairytale Tejashwi-Rachel Iris wedding.
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