In December 2008, I spoke at IIT-Madras on the imperfections in Indian democracy, such as the conversion of political parties into family firms. I was followed by Kanimozhi, who began her talk by seeking to refute parts of mine. She said I sought to prohibit young Indians from following a career of their choice. If the son of a cricketer could become a cricketer, and the daughter of a musician become a musician, then surely it was undemocratic to disallow the son or daughter of a politician from taking to politics?
I wasn’t persuaded. For one thing, the relatives of political leaders enter politics at a high level — they come in as MPs (as did Kanimozhi and Rahul Gandhi) party general secretaries (Rajiv Gandhi), and even as chief ministers (Rabri Devi). Someone with no connections would have to start as an ordinary party worker. For another, relatives of politicians enjoy an unfair access to state power and patronage. The commercials that Yuvraj Singh makes and is paid for are a direct consequence of the runs he makes and the wickets he takes. (The fact that his father also played cricket for India is irrelevant.) On the other hand, it is scarcely conceivable that Alagiri or Dayanidhi Maran would have become Cabinet ministers had they not been the sons of very powerful politicians themselves.
The entry into politics of the children of major leaders tends to degrade the parties they lead. The DMK and the Akali Dal both began as parties of social reform. The first sought to equalise castes, the second to rid the Sikhs of control by corrupt priests. Both articulated the interests of the region against the Centre. The Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal claimed to stand for the interests of the backward and the excluded. In these cases — and more — the policies of the party’s were, in its early years, animated by its ideology. With the entry of children, however, their leaders became preoccupied with the process of handing over power, and the fruits of power, to them.
Ten, or even five, years ago, the attitude of many middle-class Indians to these criticisms was fatalistic. It was, I was told, in our DNA. In living memory, most parties had been run as family firms. How or why should it be otherwise?
Now things may be beginning to change. Just before the Bihar elections of 2010, Lalu Prasad unveiled his young son before the state’s electorate. The RJD was routed in the elections by an alliance led by two leaders — Nitish Kumar and Sushil Kumar Modi — who have kept their own families away from politics. Before the Tamil Nadu elections, M Karunanidhi reminded the voters of his many decades of service to the Tamils. The appeal was rejected. The Tamils admired his contributions to literature, but the conversion of the DMK into a family firm they wouldn’t abide.
Many pollsters predicted the scale of Mamata Banerjee’s victory in West Bengal; no pollster said the race in Tamil Nadu would be anything but close. Even more than Bihar, this election result must be read as a rejection of dynastic politics. Nor, I think, are these straws in the wind. Knowledgeable observers tell me that the decline of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh began with the projection of Akhilesh Yadav as his father Mulayam’s successor, whereupon middle-ranking leaders who felt slighted by the young man’s undeserved elevation left for other parties.
The move towards the rejection of dynastic parties is clear, but not, of course, comprehensive. Next year, when Punjab and UP go to the polls, the fate of the Badals and the Yadavs will be decided afresh — so, too, the fate of the Gandhis, in-so-far as Rahul Gandhi has laid great store by the revival of his party in UP. Still, I think that recent trends suggest that the aam aadmi is, so to say, now more on my side than Kanimozhi’s.
In fact, there are indications that the aam aadmi may be coming increasingly to prefer politicians who either have no families or have no visible connection with their families. I mentioned Nitish Kumar — no one knows who or where his siblings and children are. Some other chief ministers are even more distant from their families. Mayawati, Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee are all unmarried. Without question, the visible absence of kin has allowed them to project themselves as devoted to the interests of their state as a whole, rather than to the tiny slice of the electorate with whom they happen to share some genes.
The Indian democrat may be permitted to raise one cheer for the decline of the family firm. Only one, since the beast may yet revive, and because what is replacing it is not exactly in the best traditions of democracy itself. At least half-a-dozen states of the Union are now captive to the will, or whim, of a single individual. As chief ministers, Mayawati, Modi, and Jayalalithaa have all behaved in an authoritarian fashion. Their party, and their state, have been treated as an extension of themselves. Banerjee may soon follow suit. She was once always known as ‘Didi’; but in the past year, when she was very clearly chief minister-in-waiting, her party colleagues began calling her ‘Leader’. After her win, this has been changed to ‘Supremo’.
Personal fiefdoms or family firms — asked to choose, I would probably choose the former. But I would rather not have to make the choice at all.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the author are personal.