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Counterpoint: All in the Family

Now that Hillary has failed to get the nomination, why are so few analysts celebrating the end of dynasty? Vir Sanghvi examines...
By Vir Sanghvi | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JUN 14, 2008 11:07 PM IST

Can you believe that Hillary Clinton has finally conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama? For the last two months, I have watched in horrified fascination as she has continued her Kamikaze flight to inevitable defeat, refusing to accept that her bid for the nomination has failed. One British paper compared the Democratic race to a horror movie where they keep trying to kill off the monster only to find that the beast refuses to die.

The obituaries of Hillary’s campaign have been accompanied by the usual post-mortems. Many explanations have been offered for her defeat: from misogyny to the arrogance of her supporters who acted as though she had already been elected President.

I’m not sure which one fits the facts best but some of them seem to be too knee-jerk. I accept that it is difficult for a woman to win the nomination but I doubt if that is enough to explain her defeat — she did go into this race as the front-runner.

Nor is any criticism of a woman politician necessarily anti-feminist. Look at the things that have been said about male candidates. For much of his career, Bill Clinton has faced jokes about his weight and his fondness for junk food. His sex life dominated the monologues on the Jay Leno and David Letterman shows when he was President.

Consider now how feminists would have responded if similar jokes had been directed at Hillary or another female candidate. Call Bill Clinton fat and it’s funny. Say the same thing about a woman and it is a sexist remark. Portray Bill as a sex maniac who just wants to get laid and it is entirely acceptable. Make a single remark about Hillary’s sex life and you’ve crossed the line.

What intrigues me, however, is that while sexism has been discussed, dynasty has hardly come up. More than any other democratic country in the world, America has spent the last two decades being ruled by dynasties. From 1980 to 1988, George Bush was Vice-President of the US. From 1988 to 1992, he was President. From 1992 to 2000, Bill Clinton held the job. From 2000 to 2008 the White House has belonged to George W Bush, son of the first Bush. When the Democratic primary process began, many commentators (and probably the candidate herself) thought it more than likely that Hilary Clinton would take over from Bush and remain President till 2012, if not 2016.

Now that Hillary has failed to get the nomination, why are so few analysts celebrating the end of dynasty? I know that in India, where the educated middle class is fed up of dynasty, we would cheer the downfall of a political family. Certainly, we would be perturbed to see two families dominate our politics for 28 years.

To put it in perspective, let’s take an Indian parallel. The senior Bush became Vice-President in 1980, at around the same time that Indira Gandhi began her second reign. In the years since the first Bush was sworn in as Vice-President, there have been only two non-Bush family Presidents: Ronald Reagan was President when Bush Sr was Vice-President and Bill Clinton held the job from 1992 to 2000. Otherwise the Bush family has remained in office all the way. During that period, India has had nine Prime Ministers: Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, PV Narasimha Rao, HD Deve Gowda, Inder Gujral, AB Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.

So which political system is dominated by dynasty at the top? India’s or America’s?

And yet, curiously enough, dynasty is not a major issue in US politics. Nobody said — as we would have in India — “Isn’t it time we told these Clintons that the White House is not their family property?” I never read a single remark that went: “America has to see beyond these two families.”

What accounts for the difference between our two mindsets? Why are we, in India, so concerned about something that Americans regard as entirely normal?

I have a couple of theories. The first has to do with the difference in the ways in which political dynasties operate in America and the way they function in India. Our attitude to dynasty was sealed by our first real exposure to it. Right after she suspended civil liberties, censored the press and locked up the opposition, Indira Gandhi foisted her thug-like son Sanjay on the country. Because Sanjay’s elevation was so determinedly undemocratic and because he clearly had no patience with democratic norms, our very first experience pitched dynasty as the alternative to democracy, not as something that could be part of the democratic process.

Now, many politicians take it for granted that their sons will take over their seats. They bring their children up to learn statecraft and politics rather as a tailor may bring his son up to understand thread and fabric for the time when he takes over the shop. It is assumed that the son will be the successor.

In America, dynasty operates differently. When George W was growing up, the senior Bush held many different jobs —director of the CIA, ambassador to the UN etc — and few people thought it likely that he would end up in the White House. So it is with the Clintons. When Hillary met Bill, he was a long way from Washington. She didn’t marry him thinking he would be President.

So, there is little sense of having been born into a political dynasty or of inheriting your daddy’s job or of marrying a politician and becoming his successor. And even when established political families do exist, no succession is guaranteed to the next generation. Take the Kennedys: one brother became President, one was shot trying to get the job and the third stood for the Democratic nomination. But even though many of their children entered public life, none of them has come close to being regarded as a presidential contender.

Contrast that with India where nearly everybody from a political family who enters politics ends up in daddy’s chair.

There is a second difference between the American idea of dynasty and our own. Our politicians like to say that India is a democracy and that if voters do not like the sons and daughters of politicians, they don’t have to vote for them. This is true — Indian dynasty earns its legitimacy from electoral validation.

But while conflicts between parties are democratic, the parties themselves rarely are. The son, daughter or wife of a party leader will always go straight to the top. There is little, or no, internal democracy in most of our parties. Succession is determined by birth or marriage.

That’s not true of America. American parties are so democratic that even sitting Presidents have to fight for re-nomination at party conventions. Lyndon Johnson did not stand for re-election in 1968 after doing badly in Democratic primaries. Gerald Ford had to fight off a strong primary challenge from Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter had to battle Teddy Kennedy to be re-nominated.

If even Presidents cannot count on being nominated, their wives and sons have it even tougher. George W Bush had to struggle for the Republican nomination. And Hillary Clinton, despite belonging to the Democratic Party’s first family, has just been beaten by a one-term Senator who few people had heard of before the campaign began.

So, even when a member of the Bush family wins the nomination, Americans know that he has fought for it.

That’s simply not true of India where dynasties automatically nominate family members. When a politician’s son wins a seat, he claims democratic legitimacy. But we never ask him how he knows that somebody else from his party would not have done even better in the election to that seat.

Those two differences — the virtual absence of full-fledged political families and internal party democracy — may explain why dynasty has the legitimacy in American politics that is lacking in our system. In America, the surname may help with voter recognition. In India, on the other hand, it’s enough to ensure that you will rise inexorably to the top of your party.

Americans will now spend weeks trying to work out why Hillary lost. But they are right not to focus too much on the dynastic aspect of her candidacy. Their party system is strong enough to guarantee that only the best candidates get through. And then, it doesn’t really matter what their surnames are.

In India, on the other hand, we have much to learn from how America handles its own dynasties. The similarities are superficial. And the differences are crucial.

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