In 1960, Frank Moraes wrote that “there is no question of [Jawaharlal] Nehru’s attempting to create a dynasty of his own; it would be inconsistent with his character and career”. Two things are significant about this statement: the year, and the writer. For Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, had just finished a term as President of the Indian National Congress. And by 1960, Moraes had become a sharp critic of Nehru’s policies.
After a year as Congress President, Mrs Gandhi retreated into domestic life. However, when her father died in 1964, his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, persuaded her to take a minor post in the Cabinet. When Shastri unexpectedly passed away in January 1966, the Congress bosses chose Mrs Gandhi as his successor, in part because they could not abide one of their own being placed a notch above the rest.
The purpose of recounting these (often forgotten) facts is to underline that it was not Nehru but his daughter who created the dynasty that now dominates the Congress. Indira Gandhi brought Sanjay Gandhi into public life. During the Emergency of 1975-77, he was the second most powerful person in India, despite not being a minister or even an MP. He contested the 1977 elections, and lost, but three years later was elected to Parliament. He was now appointed Congress General Secretary, a clear sign that his mother hoped him to succeed her as Prime Minister.
Six months later Sanjay died in a plane crash. Now, Rajiv Gandhi was drafted into politics by his mother, and made General Secretary of the Congress. This latter induction showed even more clearly than the first that the creation of a dynasty of her own was wholly consistent with the character and career of Indira Gandhi.
In a weak moment, Jawaharlal Nehru allowed Mrs Gandhi one term as Congress President. His fellow Congressmen, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad, steadfastly refused to bring their own progeny into politics. In passing on her mantle to Sanjay and Rajiv, Mrs Gandhi thus acted in violation of Congress tradition. Tragically for Indian democracy, through the 1990s and beyond, other politicians also promoted their sons and daughters to positions of influence and authority. It is unlikely that they would have done so had the Congress not provided the necessary legitimacy.
Once the oldest and greatest of Indian parties had decided that ideology took second place to genetics, why would the lesser parties stay loyal to their own past creeds? Consider the career of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). This was the first successful regional party in India, whose ideology embraced far more than opposition to the Centre. Apart from the dignity of Tamils, the DMK also promoted caste reform and gender equality. Now all that it worries about is which son of M. Karunanidhi will succeed him as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. And does anyone seriously believe that Bal Thackeray cares more about Maharashtrian pride than the future of his son Uddhav? Or that Mulayam Singh Yadav is more committed to socialism than to his son Akhilesh becoming a minister at the Centre or Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh? By now, perhaps a dozen parties have become family firms, their rather grand names notwithstanding. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) should really be known as Lalu, Mrs Lalu and Co.; the Janata Dal (Secular) as H.D. Deve Gowda and Sons; the Nationalist Congress Party as Sharad Pawar and Daughter Inc.
That so many of our parties have followed in the path of Indira Gandhi’s Congress has had a mostly negative impact on democracy in India. For the best political systems are based on free and regular elections, these contested by parties who choose their leaders regularly and fairly. Without inner-party democracy, electoral democracy is itself corrupted and corroded. If a party’s focus is the future of the leader’s progeny, how can it efficiently fulfil the mundane tasks of administration when in power, or provide a credible opposition when out of power?
Historians are not astrologers. Still, with suitable caveats and qualifiers, they may permit themselves speculation about the future, based on trends in the past. Thus, it may be that the allure and significance of dynastic politics has peaked. It may be that Indian voters are disenchanted with the placement of a family’s interests above those of the state or country. This might be one conclusion that one can tentatively draw from the recent electoral successes of Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and of Narendra Modi in Gujarat who, despite their ideological differences, are yet united in the public eye by the perception that they cannot forever be thinking of the interests of their sons or daughters or husbands or wives. Someone else who has gained from this perception is Nitish Kumar in Bihar, who (unlike Lalu) has stood away and apart from his extended family.
This hypothesis will be put to the test in the coming months and years. Will M.K. Stalin be humbled at the polls by a woman who is not a wife or mother, namely, Jayalalithaa? Will Uddhav Thackeray come to be Chief Minister of Maharashtra or even the remote control behind him? Above all, will Rahul Gandhi ever lead his party to a majority in Parliament, as his father, grandmother, and great-grandfather had done before him? If the answer to these questions are Yes, No, and No respectively, one might more definitively conclude that the heyday of dynastic politics is behind us.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy.