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Politics of inheritance

columns Updated: Aug 26, 2009 20:43 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The first thing that needs to be said about the Cabinet-making exercise is that it took far too long. The results came in on a Saturday and by the following Saturday there still was no government in place. We had to wait a further six days — something like 12 days after Manmohan Singh had been re-elected to know who the new ministers would be.

That said, there’s no doubt that the Prime Minister and his party have much to be proud of. By most standards, this is a well-chosen ministry with well thought-out portfolios. The obvious crooks have been kept away from the money-making ministries (at least in the case of the Congress ministers) and there is every reason to expect that those who have been appointed will now deliver.

My concern is less with the portfolios than with the provenance of many of the ministers, and indeed, of those MPs in opposition.

If you had any doubts that politics in India has now become a family business, you need only to go down the list of newly-appointed ministers. A disturbing proportion of them were born into political families.

Farooq Abdullah is the second generation of the political dynasty founded by his father Sheikh Abdullah. (His son Omar is Chief Minister of J&K.) Prithviraj Chavan is from a well-known Maharashtra political family. Salman Khurshid’s father was a minister in Indira Gandhi’s government. Dayanidhi Maran is the son of Murasoli Maran, a minister in A.B. Vajpayee’s government and is a close relative of M. Karunanidhi. Selja is the daughter of former Union Minister Choudhary Dalbir Singh.

G.K. Vasan is the son of G.K. Moopanar. M.K. Azhagiri is the son of M. Karunanidhi. Parneet Kaur is the wife of former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. Ajay Maken is the nephew of noted Delhi leader, the late Lalit Maken. Bharatsinh Solanki is the son of former External Affairs Minister Madhavsinh Solanki. D. Purandeshwari is N.T. Rama Rao’s daughter.

Tushar Choudhary is the son of the former Gujarat Chief Minister Amarsinh Choudhary. Jyotiraditya Scindia is the son of Madhavrao Scindia. Sachin Pilot is the son of Rajesh Pilot. Jitin Prasada is the son of Jitendra Prasada. R.P.N. Singh is the son of former Union Minister C.P.N. Singh. Prateek Patil is the grandson of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Vasantdada Patil.

Agatha Sangma is the daughter of former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma. D. Napoleon is the nephew of former state minister K.N. Nehru, who made him his personal assistant.

I could go on but it would be wrong to focus only on the Cabinet. Even within the non-Congress parties, politics is about dynasty. Naveen Patnaik is Biju Patnaik’s son. Chandrababu Naidu is NTR’s son-in-law. The Janata Dal in Karnataka consists largely of H.D. Deve Gowda and his son. In Punjab, the Akali Dal is a family business run by Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and his millionaire son, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.

There are political parties that are largely free from dynasty but even there, family connections are all too apparent. The BJP in Rajasthan is full of second-generation leaders: Vasundhara Raje is the daughter of the Rajmata of Gwalior, her son Dushyant Singh is an MP. Manvendra Singh is the son of that noted Gurkha leader Jaswant Singh and so on. Elsewhere in the party there are many with family connections: Ravi Shankar Prasad’s father was a stalwart of the Sangh Parivar and even L.K. Advani’s son has said that he is not averse to entering politics.

The young dynasts offer many explanations. First of all, they say, it is an Indian tradition for people to follow in the footsteps of their parents. If actors, doctors and lawyers can do it, then why not politicians?

Secondly, they argue, India is a democracy. No politician can nominate his or her son or daughter to any post. Every one needs to be elected. And as long as the voters are content to elect dynasts then who are we to object?

Both explanations have their strengths but neither is particularly convincing. A doctor is welcome to nominate his son to take over his practice. But medicine is quite different from politics, which is in the public domain, where representatives are supposed to emerge from within the people, not spring forth from the loins of senior politicians.

The other argument is a little more convincing but it is almost exactly the same as the defence offered by every gangster, mafia don and hoodlum who enters politics: if I am so bad, then how come people elect me? And if people elect me, then how can you object?

But the point is: we do object to criminals joining politics, even if they win elections. And I think we are as right to be concerned about the children of politicians dominating the electoral process.

Once politics becomes entirely a family business, it will become even more disconnected from the people. Nor will anybody have a choice: in UP for instance, Ajit Singh’s son is in politics, so are Mulayam Singh’s children, so are assorted Congress dynasts etc. Where are the non-dynasts going to come from? The only option will be to vote for one dynast rather than the other.

The great thing about democracy is that it is supposed to empower people. In America, for instance, it is a matter of great pride for the nation that Barack Obama, a half-Kenyan candidate with a Muslim middle name who came from very ordinary circumstances, was able to get to the White House. For our democracy to be as vibrant as America’s, we need to provide similar opportunities to all Indians.

But family-dominated politics is a closed shop. Entry is open only to those with the right credentials of birth. Outsiders are banned from entering. And slowly but surely, true democracy is replaced by a kind of feudalism in which the peasants are given the right to choose between various aristocrats. The peasants can never enter the ruling class because the wrong blood flows in their veins.

On a TV programme on Thursday, Neerja Choudhary, who was a fellow-guest with me, predicted that if this trend continued, within five years we would reach a situation where the political class would become a self-perpetuating dynastic elite. She was right. And she accurately recognised the threat to Indian democracy.

So is there a way out?

In the short run: no.

But in the long run, yes, there is.

One of the great ironies of Indian politics is that it is a dynast, Rahul Gandhi, who is doing more than anybody else to democratise entry into the Congress. He has held elections for the NSUI and the Youth Congress in several states and hopes to create a mechanism whereby people with no family connections can join politics. And if the mechanism holds, then merit rather than birth will be the determining factor in political advancement.

So far at least, the process seems to be on track. And that, for me, is the real triumph of Rahul Gandhi in this election.

Forget all the sloganeering about youth power and reform. If Rahul can make Indian politics more representative, less dependant on dynasty, and more open to those with talent, then this election may mark a watershed in our history.

Democracy is about opportunity. It can never be about dynasty.