Review of Democratic Dynasties; State, Party and Family in Contemporary Politics

Updated on Oct 08, 2016 09:00 AM IST

A new book argues that dynastic politics is not an aberration but a systematic product of modern democratic institutions

HT Image(Ashok Dutta/Hindustan Times)
HT Image(Ashok Dutta/Hindustan Times)
Hindustan Times | ByShaikh Mujibur Rehman

Democratic Dynasties; State, Party, and Family in Contemporary Politics attempts to theorise the relationship between dynastic and democratic politics. Data on the composition of the Lok Sabha between 2004 and 2014 shows that, in 2004, 20 percent of MPs had a dynastic background. The percentage rose to 30 percent in 2009 before falling to 22 percent in 2014.

Kanchan Chandra, the editor of this volume, first became prominent for Why Ethnic Parties Succeed: Patronage and Ethnic Head Counts in India, a book that grew out of her Harvard doctoral dissertation on the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In the course of her research into ethnic politics, she grew interested in the rise of dynastic parties in India and has been researching the issue since 2009.

An attempt to formulate a theory of the relationship between dynastic and democratic politics, this book argues that dynastic politics is not an aberration but a systematic product of modern democratic institutions: state or party. The variation in degree and effect of dynasticism in various countries depends on the structures of state and party. The objective is to explain why and how dynasties like the Chavans of Nanded, the Reddys of Kadapa, the Naiks of Thane, the Yadavs of Saifai, the Abdullahs of Ganderbal, the Gogois of Kalibor, and the Dhumals of Hamirpur, or the Sinhas of Hazaribag flourish. Add a few more like the Patnaiks of Odisha, the Karunanidhis of Tamilnadu, the Ramarao/ Naidus of Andhra Pradesh and the Thackerays of Maharashtra to this list.

However, what is intriguing is the claim that the “term democratic dynasties in India brings to mind the Nehru-Gandhi family… but this book is about a different sort of political dynasty, less famous than the Nehru- Gandhis but more important for understanding contemporary democratic politics.” So the book does not study the most pertinent case. Apparently, this omission is based on the understanding that less famous cases of dynasty are more important than the most famous one. The reader isn’t given an adequate explanation for the omission. The term ‘democratic dynasties’ is also intriguing. Consider this: Papu Yadav, Siwan’s Shahabuddin, DP Yadav or Mukhtar Ansari have all been elected. Should we then describe them as democratic gangsters? I’m not sure it’s appropriate for scholars to use the term ‘democratic’ in such an easy way.

Read more: Family Ties: A new book on Indian political dynasties makes for a good read

According to Chandra, the causes of dynastic politics in Indian parliament lie in the structure of two democratic institutions: the state and political parties. The key factors that contribute to the emergence of dynastic politics include the large returns associated with state office and the organizational weakness of political parties. Dynastic politics then leads to a double form of exclusion: first, by creating a birth-based ruling class, and second, by enhancing the representation of dominant groups within this ruling class. Paradoxically, research shows that dynastic politics has also had an inclusive effect by allowing women, Muslims, backward castes and the youth to get into the political space.

Apparently, India is not unique among modern democracies. Nations like UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Bhutan, Thailand and Morocco have institutionalized space for dynasties in the form of the constitutional monarchy. Sub-national kingdoms such as Buganda in Uganda and Ashanti in Ghana have a reserved space for aristocrats in the legislature much like the House of Lords in the UK or the House of Chiefs in Zambia. These are good points. However, having a constitutional monarchy and dynastic politics through institutionalised dynastic parties is not the same thing. The former reflects an incompleteness of a formal democratic practice whereas the latter is a pernicious aberration that undermines the very idea of democracy.

A close reading of various chapters suggests that dynastic politics or parties are not as bad as people generally think. This encourages the belief that there is something useful about them. But we need to bear in mind that the core values of dynasty and that of democracy are quite antagonistic to each other and are inevitably incompatible. Democracy represents merit and equality as its key operative value system. Dynasty disregards this completely. To argue that there is empirical evidence to suggest otherwise only reflects a poor understanding of the idea of democracy itself.

Bal Thackeray flanked by his son Uddhav (right) and grandson Aditya during a Dusshera rally in Mumbai in 2010 (Santosh Hirlekar/PTI)
Bal Thackeray flanked by his son Uddhav (right) and grandson Aditya during a Dusshera rally in Mumbai in 2010 (Santosh Hirlekar/PTI)

Chandra has authored two of the seven chapters in the volume. One of America’s leading South Asianists, Amrita Basu, shows how dynastic politics has created the opportunity for many women to have a say in the power structure. In the usual course of things, the patriarchal nature of Indian parties denies women this opportunity and they are invariably under represented. Here, we need to ask if the women who make it as a result of dynasty are indeed liberated or whether they serve as agents of patriarchy in India’s political system. Tanika Sarkar made similar arguments about women’s liberation in the context of the Ayodhya movement. Other contributions by Francesca Jensenius, Adam Zeigfeld and Simon Chauchard provide useful insights on disadvantaged groups, dynastic parties, and their leaders.

This is an important volume on a pernicious problem plaguing Indian politics. But whatever good news it shares should not discourage us from arguing for a de-dynastification of Indian politics as the primary pre-condition for building a modern, merit-based India. Given that dynastic parties by their very nature would always place a higher premium on loyalty than ability, their shelf life is limited in competitive electoral politics. The decline of the Congress party is a good example of this trend. Still, this book deserves attention for trying to analyse an important question that has had a great impact on Indian democracy.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi. He is the editor of Communalism in postcolonial India: Changing contours (Routledge 2016)

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