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Counterpoint | Accidents of birth

Great societies and nations are not built from DNA, writes Vir Sanghvi.Can India overcome the cult of dynasty?

india Updated: Jun 25, 2006 04:22 IST

According to recent opinion polls, Hillary Clinton is emerging as the front-runner to be nominated as the presidential candidate on behalf of the Democratic Party. Jeb Bush, brother of the current President, on the other hand, has seen his prospects weaken and is now unlikely to win the Republican nomination.

As somebody with no strong views about Senator Clinton or Governor Bush and no stake in how America is governed, I really couldn’t care less about the next presidential election. Nevertheless, I have to say that I was a little disappointed to hear about Jeb’s sinking popularity. Till that point, I had been looking forward to a presidential election where the Democrats were represented by a Clinton and the Republicans by a Bush.

Dynasty is a funny thing, isn’t it? Just suppose Hillary gets to be the next President of the United States. In that case, this is how US history will look: George Bush — Vice President from 1980 to 1988; George Bush — President from 1988 to 1992; Bill Clinton — President from 1992 to 2000; George W Bush — President from 2000 to 2008; Hillary Clinton — President from 2008 to 2012 (at least).

That’s a lot of Bushes. And a lot of Clintons.

The world’s most powerful democracy will have been run by two families from 1988 to 2012. (And that’s excluding the senior Bush’s stint as Vice President.)

It always intrigues me that Americans are not at all embarrassed by the manner in which presidential elections have now descended to the level of family soap opera: more Dallas and Dynasty than The West Wing. Their view is that when members of a political family are elected in a fair and transparent manner, arguments about dynasty become irrelevant. It is not, they say, as though some reigning monarch has nominated his son to ascend the throne after him. Or as if some dictator has asked his wife to run his Banana Republic when he is gone.

Contrast their ease with our own initial discomfort over dynasty. I still remember how outraged I was when Sanjay Gandhi emerged as a mummy-appointed Youth Leader during the Emergency. And though Sanjay later won a parliamentary election from Amethi and claimed electoral legitimacy, I always regarded him as a symbol of all that was wrong with Indian politics, an example of how privilege had defeated merit, and how dynasty had defied democracy.

These days, most people find my indignation hard to understand. After all, Sanjay was followed by a reluctant Rajiv, who ended up winning the greatest electoral landslide in Indian history. And now, every politician has a son or a daughter or a wife who manages to win elections and to claim democratic legitimacy. Even those who believe, as I do, that there is something seriously wrong with a political system where the country is run like a baniya shop with son succeeding father, and the wife helping with the accounts, argue that the phenomenon is now too widespread to single out any one individual or family for opprobrium. Few parties — not even the BJP, though the Left is probably an exception — can escape dynastic succession. And regional parties — such as the DMK and the SP — are run as family businesses.

But, given the American example, do we have the right to object? After all, if a modern nation like America, with a population that is almost entirely literate, allows two families to dominate presidential politics over two decades, then can we protest if India’s electorate — with lower levels of literacy — decides that a dynastic succession is the best way to practise democracy?

Besides, why stick to politics? More and more of modern Indian life is becoming about dynasty. Take the example of the film industry which is now an incestuous, in-bred pool of genetic mutation where over half of all successful film directors are the sons of film people, and most of the heroes have been launched by their filmi fathers. It has now got to the stage where even music directors are the children of music directors, and stuntmen come from stunt families.

Ask the film industry about dynasty and it offers a variation of the electoral-legitimacy argument. A producer or a star can make a film starring his son but he cannot force people to come and see it. Yes, say industry figures, it helps if you have a father to launch you. But you cannot sustain that initial momentum unless your films are box-office successes. So, if you don’t like dynasty, then don’t blame the heroes. Blame the punters who go to see their movies.

Businessmen have their own variation of this explanation. GD Birla may have launched the family dynasty but you cannot attribute Kumar Mangalam Birla’s success to his great-grandfather’s commercial acumen. Dhirubhai Ambani may have been an entrepreneurial genius but, now, Anil and Mukesh manage to do very well without their father’s help. For every Sunil Mittal or Nandan Nilekani, who has come out of nowhere, there will be five Birlas, Ambanis, Tatas, Wadias, Godrejs and Bajajs who may have used dynasty as a launch pad but are the architects of their own success.

And yet, despite the compelling power of all these arguments, and the strength of the American example, I still bitterly resent the dynastic nature of the upper echelons of Indian society and the elite that wields political power.

I do not dispute that modern dynasties are sustained by mass endorsement which can take the form of electoral legitimacy, box-office success, or massive business profits. And I agree that no dynast can guarantee the success of his children. Delhi is littered with the sons of formerly influential politicians who find it hard to win a municipal election these days. Many heroes have flopped despite the backing of their fathers. And too many family businesses have collapsed over the last decade because of the ineptitude of the new generation.

My concern is not with success. It is with the process that leads to this success.

Do you seriously believe that all acting talent is concentrated in the gene pool of a few film industry families? Is it possible that the heads of family businesses are so much brighter than the rest of us that they would have encountered this success even if their fathers were chanawallahs? And is it at all plausible that in a country of over a billion people, the best available politicians are the children of other politicians?

The tragedy of Indian politics — and of Indian society in general — over the last two decades is that it has become even more restrictive in the entry-barriers that are erected to limit upward mobility at the top level.

The reason why sons of politicians get nominated to fight elections is because we no longer have a process that makes it easy for talented and capable young people to rise to the top of the political structure. Instead, politicians jealously guard their seats, preserving them for their wives, sons and daughters. Because all the top slots are dynastically determined, it is more and more difficult for outsiders to break into the system. Eventually, you end up with a situation where the sons of important politicians have access to vast resources which they use to fight elections against the sons of other important politicians. When one of the sons wins, the fathers sit around and lecture us about electoral legitimacy.

So it is with the film industry. If Shahrukh Khan can come out of nowhere and become India’s biggest star, then there must be thousands of others like him who are still waiting for the right break. But they know that they will probably never get it because nobody will take a chance on them. Instead, producers will launch their sons and stars will promote their families.

It is instructive that the great outsiders of Indian business — self-made men like Nandan Nilekani and Sunil Mittal — are people who took chances on new technologies in new businesses. The rest of Indian industry is peopled by the sons of older industrialists who rise to the top because of accidents of birth. Of course, some of them are brighter than the others. So some sons make it, and some don’t. But outsiders find it hard to get a look-in.

Research tells us that the new dominance of dynasty in American politics is also due to quirks in their political process. Presidential campaigns are now media circuses where among the key attributes required are a name-recognition factor, and a familiar face. Obviously, this works to the advantage of somebody called Bush or of Hillary Clinton who managed, in her eight years as First Lady, to become the most famous woman in America.

Americans, to their credit, are concerned about these faults in the process. But, despite the Bushes and Clintons, theirs is a more meritocratic society, one where talent is encouraged to rise to the top — in politics, films and business.

In India, alas, even as we brag about social mobility and a new emphasis on merit, we rig our processes to keep out those who were not born into the system. When the bizarre dynastic consequences of these flawed processes are pointed out, we either take refuge in the American experience or we fall back on some variation of the mass-legitimacy argument.

But the truth is that great societies and nations are not constructed from DNA. They are built on IQ. And eventually, the cult of dynasty will damage the India of the future.