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Family matters

India has become an oligarchy. For true democracy to flourish, political parties must allow talented people to join politics, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Oct 26, 2009 10:24 IST

Each time I complain about the influence of dynasty on Indian politics, I get the usual responses: we are a democracy so if people vote for the sons and daughters of politicians, how can you complain? Or: in India, everything from business to movies is about dynasty so why should politics be any different? And so on.

I do not deny that there is some merit in the response. But the truth is that even as we engage in these arguments of principle, the influence of dynasty is growing exponentially. Very soon, all argument will be pointless because all politics will be about dynasty.

This was driven home to me by the recently concluded assembly elections. A worrying proportion of the candidates had some family connection with politics.

At the very top, Maharashtra politics is dynastically driven. Hardly anybody bothers to mention it any longer but Chief Minister Ashok Chavan is a dynast; his father was former Home Minister (and Maharashtra Chief Minister) S.B. Chavan.

The Shiv Sena-MNS story is entirely about dynasty. Bal Thackeray’s son Uddhav heads the Sena. His estranged cousin Raj broke away to form the MNS. The BJP in Maharashtra is largely the creation of two men: the late Pramod Mahajan and his sister’s husband, Gopinath Munde. This time around, Mahajan’s daughter was in the fray and the Munde family had three representatives among the candidates. The NCP is also now becoming a family affair. Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule and his nephew Ajit Pawar will battle it out for the succession.

Down the line, the trend towards dynasty continues. Former Chief Minister (and present Energy Minister) Sushilkumar Shinde’s daughter won from Solapur. Former Chief Minister (and present Heavy Industries Minister) Vilasrao Deshmukh’s son won from the family region of Latur. Former Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal’s son won from Nandgaon. The President of India’s son won from Amravati.

There were many other dynasts in the fray: Kalpana Patil, Nirmala Danve, Rahul Aher, Prashant Thakur etc. What was most worrying was that the role of dynasty in selecting candidates cuts across party lines. Even the BJP, which claims to be different, nominated several dynasts.

In Haryana, politics is about dynasty, and has always been. The state has been ruled by a handful of political dynasties: Bhajan Lal and his family; Devi Lal and his kids; Bansi Lal and his brood etc. There are lesser-known dynasties too. The sitting Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda is the son of a former minister, for instance.

So not only was the election fought on the basis of dynasty but even the post-election squabbles were dynastic. Hooda did not get a majority, so O.P. Chautala (son of Devi Lal and father of A.S. Chautala who also won his seat) staked his claim thereby increasing the relevance of Bhajan Lal (whose wife stood and lost) and his son Kuldeep Bishnoi.

Politics in the North-east is just as family dominated as it is in the rest of India.

For years, Arunachal politics was dominated by Gegong Apang who introduced his son, Omak, to politics as his heir. This time around, the Apangs lost as did the wife of former Chief Minister Mukut Mithi but Takam Tagar, younger brother of millionaire Congress MP Takam Sanjoy won. (I’m indebted to Friday’s Indian Express for much of this information).

I could go on but I think I’ve made my point: the hold of dynasty on state politics is stronger than ever. And it grows with each election.

This exponential growth in dynastic politics weakens the traditional argument about ‘democratic dynasty’. If there are so many dynasts in the fray and if so many battles pit one dynasty against another (as in Haryana and increasingly in Maharashtra) then where is the element of real choice?

Voters are not being offered true democracy. They are being asked to choose between competing dynasties. Democracy is about choice and once you restrict the choice (as all parties now do), you destroy the very basis of democracy.

Moreover, as politics becomes about dynasty, you make it impossible for outsiders with ideas or capabilities or even sincerity and integrity to join the system. All parties will give most of their nominations to sons and daughters of politicians.

Not only does this harm India because we are denied the politicians we deserve but it also greatly weakens our claim to be the world’s largest democracy. In a true democracy, candidates would emerge from the hundreds of millions who are eligible to stand.

But in today’s India, easy entry into politics is limited to a small group, numbering not more than a lakh (if you include the states) which gets to fight elections.

Rather than being a democracy, we have become an oligarchy where a political caste takes charge and then, keeps everybody else out of the process.

The only way to change this is for parties to create mechanisms that allow talented people to join politics, no matter who their fathers are. There was a time when the BJP could boast of such a mechanism (and it threw up many of their current national leaders) but recent trends suggest that state BJP units are taking the dynastic route as well. Only the Left parties remain resolutely undynastic but their presence is restricted to two states.

Ironically, it is the Congress, a party that has been dynastically driven for many years that is now looking at creating such a mechanism. And even more ironically, it is Rahul Gandhi, who owes much of his popularity to his family background, who is spearheading the move to create an alternative to dynasty by introducing genuine democracy and fair elections in the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India.

It is not an easy task but because of who Rahul is, people believe him when he says that he can guarantee that good people who come up through the system will get the ticket. (And he demonstrated this in the Lok Sabha election.)

I hope he succeeds. Because otherwise, we can kiss Indian democracy goodbye. And learn to be governed by a ruling caste of dynastic politicians.

The views expressed by the author are personal