‘Blood is thicker than water’ — this was the presiding dictum in Indian politics for as long as I can remember. If you got a foothold into politics, it was up to you to bring in family members, people you could trust with your life and career.
In fact, for many, politics had become a family business yielding high returns. And for the longest time, Indian voters were used to blindly opting for the sons, daughters or relatives of well-known politicians, often to their disappointment.
But today, it would seem that a famous surname is not nearly enough to ensure that you will sail through the hustings. Look at some of the crumbling dynasties around us. At one time could you have imagined anyone challenging the mighty Shiv Sena ruling family? But hardly had the patriarch Balasaheb Thackeray died than challenges to his son Uddhav arose. Today, Uddhav is putting on a brave front and hoping against all hope that the BJP does not abandon him in favour of his feisty cousin, Raj Thackeray.
Perhaps, the most pathetic spectacle we see today is of Bihar strongman Lalu Prasad. At the pinnacle of his power, he calmly made sure that the fodder scam did not mean that his family would relinquish power in the state. His wife, whose only qualifications till then had been to look after the home and hearth and rear a vast number of children, was propelled into the chief minister’s seat where, according to one breathless reporter, she would demonstrate amazing skills like chopping up a cabbage within a minute. But if Prasad expected that the people would love his witticisms in perpetuity, he was wrong. Now that he is trying to foist his wife and daughter on the electorate, even his faithful aides have turned against him. And the people seem fed up with his Peter Pan gimmicks.
The other Yadav chief, Mulayam Singh Yadav, once a feared and respected leader in Uttar Pradesh, today has to run around proclaiming his credentials for prime ministership. His son’s stewardship of the state has been unremarkable and it is not longer a done deal that la familia Yadav will continue to call the shots in UP come the elections. So the family magic seems to be wearing thin. Down South, the DMK patriarch’s squabbling children seem to have been overtaken by events. One son has left the fold, the other is his father’s favourite for now and his daughter is facing an uncertain future. And it is not as though the people of Tamil Nadu are racing out on to the streets to protest in favour of the Karunanidhi clan.
I could go on to cite examples of how political families can no longer take for granted their longevity in politics. The fact is that even Rahul Gandhi, the scion of what is arguably India’s most famous and powerful dynasty, has not been able to guarantee that come the elections the Congress will be on sure ground. So, I must come to the question: Have Indians slowly distanced themselves from political dynasties? I would say that the public today is far more discerning. They are not terribly bothered about a person’s lineage. They are far more bothered about what that person can bring to the table.
There are parties in which there is no line of succession at all, like the BSP, the AIADMK, the Trinamool Congress, the JD(U) and the BJP, to mention a few. They are doing well enough for themselves. Of course, the flip side is that like the Shiv Sena, after the exit of the main leader, the party could fall apart. But that, to my mind, is preferable to having an undeserving relative thrust upon us. But, then again, the party may throw up a good successor as the BJP has done. The saffron party may have many faults but propagating dynasties is not one of them. So, we had a Vajpayee, followed by an Advani and now a Modi, all of whom came up from the ranks.
Even the once seemingly invincible Badals in Punjab are facing dissension from within their own family.
The AAP phenomenon also suggests that dynastic politics is one of diminishing returns. People whom we had never heard of won elections in Delhi. Now they are trying their hand at the national level. Much as politicians may try to reverse the trend, today’s young Indian is in favour of merit. With a very active judiciary and civil society, the scope for family power to get jobs, admissions, etc, is lessening. The popular mood seems to be ‘if I have to compete to get a job, why should the son or daughter of a politician be guaranteed a lifelong job?’ Political inheritance is no longer a birthright.
Of course, there are deserving family members who have worked hard for their positions in politics. But, equally, there are many who take it for granted that the electorate is akin to a herd of sheep who will vote for a family name. So, maybe relatives of politicians should hedge their bets and make sure they have the qualifications to compete in the world where we do. Because a seat or a position in politics may not be your birthright in the days to come. That seems to be the game of the name.