There is a well-known syndrome in Indian politics known as the Dhritarashtra syndrome. Last week as expelled Samajwadi Party (SP) heavyweight Amar Singh held forth on the fate that has befallen the party and listed his grievances in detail, it became clear that once again another political ‘outsider’ had fallen victim to this syndrome. The blind parent, blindly partial to his own bloodline, alienates the second-in-command. In a fit of self-destructiveness, he fatally damages his own political achievements and legacy by becoming intent on anointing his son.
Dhritarashtra, the blind king of Hastinapur, has many 21st century avatars. His spirit enters the bodies of men, who are always clever politicians who have built political parties, yet men who throw their cleverness to the winds, when it comes to the political future of their sons.
The main reason for my departure, Amar Singh claimed, is because the SP has become a family empire. And indeed Mulayam Singh Yadav, grassroots netaji, Uttar Pradesh’s political prize-fighter, once a fierce critic of the Congress dynasty, has not only created his own ruling Yadav dynasty in the SP but also made sure that, irrespective of whether or not it makes political sense, son Akhilesh will be his chosen heir. After all, Amar Singh, despite being branded a political fixer, was a resourceful, English-speaking face of a party which needed to build bridges across UP’s caste and community divisions.
Mulayam isn’t the only politician possessed by the ghost of Dhritarashtra. The famous dark glasses of M. Karunanidhi have always rendered him sightless when it comes to his sons, Stalin and Azhagiri. Karunanidhi lost his key lieutenant, the fire and brimstone orator Vaiko, when the Dravida patriarch made it clear that when it came to political succession, the crown would be passed only to his son. Similarly, Bal Thackeray must have known in his heart that it was his crowd-pulling nephew Raj who was more his political heir than his shy, retiring, wildlife photographer son, Uddhav. But once again, when it came to choosing his successor, son Uddhav was anointed, leading to Raj’s departure, and the consequent weakening of the Sena.
S. Siddaramaiah was the Kuruba leader of Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) and held the backward caste votebank for the party and was recognised as Deve Gowda’s unquestioned second-in-command. But when Deve Gowda had to choose a chief ministerial candidate, he opted for son H.D. Kumaraswamy, leading to the departure of Siddaramaiah and the loss of significant backward caste support for the JD(S). Congress warhorse in Kerala K. Karunakaran had been acknowledged for his political acumen, but his insistence on making his son K. Muralidharan a future leader forced him to lose his way in the party.
At the heart of the Dhritarashtra syndrome is the gradual decline of the party system. Most regional parties do not hold democratic organisational elections, even though they are mandated by law to do so. The result is that the so-called political party is akin to a tightly-held family business where the spoils of power are shared by only those who bear the family surname. Then, whether it is Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar or the Abdullah family’s National Conference, the political party is now a private limited company, where those who are not part of the family can never aspire to go beyond a certain point. Even Sharad Pawar, who has publicly spoken out against dynasty politics, has made daughter Supriya Sule the Baramati MP.
The more complex case is, of course, the Indian National Congress. Born of the freedom movement, the post-Independence Congress was expected to symbolise the heartbeat of the new-born democracy and literally bring power to the people. Instead, particularly in the last decades, the Congress leadership has been monopolised by the khaas admi: defined as those who belong to privileged political families.
Political observers believe that the process of turning India into a dynastic democracy began with Indira Gandhi, whose decision to hand over the Congress to son Sanjay in 1975 resulted in not just the imposition of Emergency, but also in the institutionalisation of family rule. With the rise of Sonia Gandhi and her incredible success in holding the party together, only reconfirming the belief that the Congress is best run by single family control.
Rahul Gandhi has indicated that he would like to change the power equations, that he would like to ‘open up’ the Congress to new talent. But a majority of the ‘young’ MPs who have emerged as the party’s next line of leaders are the sons and daughters of prominent Congressmen. Congressmen must beware of the syndrome: political legacies may not be best served by political bloodlines.
Perhaps our feudal tradition has simply overpowered meritocracy. The ‘blind’ Dhritarashtra stayed silent during the dice game that cost the Pandavas their kingdom. He stayed silent as Draupadi was disrobed in public, even though it was his moral duty to act against his offspring. Perhaps Dhritarashtra’s ghost still walks, to prove that in India the duties of responsible kingship always evaporate when it comes to affection for one’s own son.
Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal.