The game of the name
Families that produce generations of politicians are not unique to the Congress. They exist in all major parties, including in the BJP’s allies, writes Jayanthi Natarajan.india Updated: Jul 11, 2013 23:34 IST
Arun Jaitley, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, in his article On the road to 2014 (Hindustan Times, July 8), made two unexceptionable points. He stressed that the dynamics of assembly and parliamentary elections were increasingly diverging, and voters were learning to distinguish between these. Second, he argued that the Third Front was a ‘failed idea’ and a government without either the Congress or the BJP as a central pillar was just not feasible. While it is indisputable that a strong national, pan-Indian party has to necessarily form the underpinning of a stable central government, the BJP, especially after it lost its only government in south India, Karnataka, is neither strong nor a national party.
Having made these valid points, Mr Jaitley moved to an extremely limited and tendentious reading of the UPA government’s record in office. He then ended his article with that old chestnut — the claim of a so-called dynastic leadership allegedly foisted upon the people.
‘Dynasties function only on the strength of charisma … [and] of surnames rather than proven ability’ Mr Jaitley wrote. He went on to make some loaded remarks about Rahul Gandhi, the vice-president of the Congress, and accused him of silence on major issues.
These accusations are clichéd and without substance. It is time to debunk them. The only reason they are frequently made by the BJP is a feeble attempt to paper over the disarray within and public collapse of the party. The BJP may argue the permanent cliché of dynasty, and attack the Gandhi family.
However, this does not mask the fact that the BJP is today leaderless and rudderless, with Narendra Modi making desperate efforts to be projected as the prime ministerial candidate, opposed publicly by no less a person than the senior-most BJP leader, LK Advani. The Congress has a clear hierarchy of leadership in Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi, a record of achievement to take to the people, the support of the youth of India, and a clear manifesto of future action.
As for accusations of ‘dynastic politics’, this is nothing but a bogey conjured up for self-serving reasons. A different perspective would be my own strongly held view that generations of Congress supporters from families spread all over India, are the greatest strength of the Congress, a precious human capital, which no other party can possibly lay claim to. To dismiss this inter-generational support as ‘dynastic politics’ would be simply denying the most obvious strength of the Congress. It is an obvious truism that merely belonging to one prominent family cannot and is not a disqualification to contest for public office, and the democratic election to public office cannot be belittled. Time and again, members of the Gandhi family are viciously defamed, despite having led the Congress to democratic victory at the polls.
Further, it has to be recognised that political families — as in families that produce several generations of politicians — are not unique to the Congress. They exist in all major parties in India — including in the BJP’s two biggest allies in what remains of the NDA — and indeed in all major democracies. Some reports show that 28% of India’s elected representatives are the product of ‘dynasties’.
Take the United States. Since 1980, every elected president and/or his running mate have represented a political family. The Clintons and Bushes are well known. In the UK, Macmillan’s Cabinet in the 1950s had 11 members who were related to each other. The so-called concept of dynasty is neither unique to politics nor even to India.
In the BJP itself, children of some of the party’s stalwart chief ministers in the past — from Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan — have sought either organisational positions or elected office, or both. As for the supposed distaste for surnames, how does the BJP explain making Varun Gandhi a general secretary as well as handing him the Lok Sabha seat his mother had nursed? For many in the BJP, Varun Gandhi’s only attribute is he is Indira Gandhi’s grandson.
Politics is not a clinical construct. It has a human, emotional and instinctual element, quite apart from — though clearly complemented by — objective and verifiable criteria by which to measure achievement.
I come from a family that has spent several generations in the Congress. I have worked among voters who come from families that themselves represent several generations of Congress voters. The equation between a political leader and his/her voter or supporter is an intricate tapestry of identification, legacy, memory, delivery and responsiveness.
A family name may give a particular candidate a head-start but in the absence of performance and service delivery to the public, re-election is not guaranteed. Indira Gandhi was recognised by virtue of being Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter but her subsequent electoral victories were a result of her making good on her promises to voters, not the appeal of being her father’s child.
Politicians are tested by the public every five years and subjected to the most exacting standards. If Amethi re-elects and reposes its faith in Rahul Gandhi, it doesn’t just do so because of his family name but because he is injecting new ideas and a new energy into the constituency and is making sense to contemporary voters.
By and large, politicians can be divided into two categories: talkers and doers. In commenting on Rahul Gandhi, Mr Jaitley disparages what he terms his (Rahul’s) silence on key issues. Pray, where is this silence? Mr Gandhi has spoken in Parliament; he has spoken at numerous forums for youth and students all over the country. Earlier this year, his address to the Confederation of Indian Industry was an exposition of his world view: economic growth, inclusive development and a legislated, rights-based support for those who don’t have the basic tools and resources to allow them to compete in an environment of equals. This is not an abstract aspiration. It is exactly what the UPA government has done over nine years.
Yes, speaking on a philosophy of governance and on big-picture subjects is not the same as expressing a glib opinion on the topic of the day. There is a difference between a thoughtful public leader and a talking-head on prime-time television. In that Rahul Gandhi has made his choice. Has the BJP?
Jayanthi Natarajan is minister for environment and forests
The views expressed by the author are personal.