The dynasty gene is an enduring feature in the world’s largest democracy — India. It’s fascinating how it perpetuates and is now a feature, not a bug, of virtually all political parties in India. Those who rue and rubbish dynasty politics have mini dynasties on board, and as a historian, I can predict that there will be more dynastic off-shoots in the next 50 to 100 years.
I could list all the major political dynasties in India led by the ubiquitous fifth-generation Nehru/Gandhi dynasty in the Congress. But that would be like killing a butterfly on a wheel. Dynasties now occupy a broad spectrum across politics in India, from the national parties to the new regional satraps.
Sachin Pilot, Congress leader and son of the late Rajesh Pilot, told me that in many professions, children inherit their parents’ professions, like doctor’s children becoming doctors and lawyers handing over the practice to kids. He argued that while leaders introduce their children as next-generation politicians, the voters finally decide.
“We have to make it through the tough voter test. So in many ways, that is tougher than a successful doctor or lawyer handing the practice to kids,” Pilot said.
Now, Pilot is a successful dynast who argues convincingly, but he has ignored the fact that political dynasts have the clout to surmount barriers to elected office, unlike ordinary workers and people.
Political dynasties are also successful brands with a high public recall. Take the Gandhi family, for example. The Gandhi brand has a pan-India recall, and most voters, even in far-flung hamlets, recognise the Gandhi family. The ultimate sign of a brand is that the voters call them by their first name (Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka).
The brand recall adds to a leader’s persona, and significantly young or middle-aged leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, son of Madhav Rao Scindia, currently in the BJP and earlier in the Congress, have the advantage of a first-name check.
Take the case of Uddhav Thackeray, son of Balasaheb Thackeray, who founded the Shiv Sena. The dynast is the striking opposite of the father. After his coalition government collapsed, Uddhav is banking on his father’s image to prevent his party from being taken away from him. Thackeray underlined his bitterness by telling the rebels with Eknath Shinde that they should bank on their fathers and not Bal Thackeray, who only belonged to Uddhav.
The dynasts may be having a bad day in office but don’t write them off. They are far too many and, most importantly, control the party apparatus and the funds which grease the wheels of democracy. Anyone trying to dislodge them will face formidable obstacles.
The dynastic motif runs through democracies. The United States, one of the world’s oldest democracies, had a dynasty in the large Kennedy family that occupied several public offices, including the presidency of John F Kennedy. Younger branches of the Kennedy dynasty are still in politics across the US. The Bush family had two Presidents — George W Bush, the 41st President, and his son George W Bush (Junior), the 43rd President. Jeb Bush, another son, was the governor of Texas.
What makes dynasties click with the voters when the entitlement should turn away voters. Apart from the brand recall, the stories of these leaders — some cautionary and others fairy tales — lend glamour and stardust to these leaders.
All of America was fascinated by the story of John and Jackie Kennedy, the first the promise of Camelot — a young handsome, charismatic president who would reign like King Arthur in Camelot and then the unspeakable tragedy occurs — the assassination of Kennedy. The American public remained fixated on the family, and it was a public tragedy when John Kennedy junior died when the plane he was flying crashed.
In India, the voters may not be voting for the political dynasties, but they remain in thrall: the prime example is the crowds that turn out for the Gandhi family public meetings.
Despite the criticism of dynastic politics, it will not go away. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Stalin, son of M. Karunanidhi; Akhilesh Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh Yadav; Tejaswi Yadav, son of Lalu Prasad Yadav; Vasundhara Raje Scindia, daughter of Rajmata Scindia; Varun Gandhi, BJP MP and son of Maneka Gandhi, and Jaganmohan Reddy, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and son of Y.S. Rajesekhara Reddy, are proof of the enduring success of dynasties.