Mohan Guruswamy | Dynastic politics in India: Long live our democracy!

Except for the CPI(M) and the BJP, every political party in India has a dynastic line of succession, or more aptly inheritance

Update: 2022-12-19 18:30 GMT
It is now up to Rahul Gandhi to nurture inner-party democracy by deferring to Mr Kharge as the leader and letting him run the party. (Representational Image)

In recent days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been lamenting the rise of dynastic political parties. He is right. They are a real danger to democracy because they stifle inner-party democracy and destroy elected party hierarchies. But then so do the cabal-controlled parties. When did the BJP last elect its leadership?

Mani Shankar Aiyar once chose justify the Congress’ succession system by relating it with the Mughal succession. It was self-pejorative. For the record, Aurangzeb had to wage wars against his siblings and even the imperial army to become emperor. He was a proven general much before he became a claimant to the throne. To be like Aurangzeb also means to be accomplished and with a successful track record. Rahul Gandhi is no Aurangzeb.

Unfortunately, Mr Modi is more like the Aurangzeb we know. Aurangzeb was an intolerant zealot and bigot and was perpetually campaigning. He reduced Golconda by bribing the commander of the gate, like we saw recently in states like Goa, Manipur and even Gujarat. He built an empire that was only second in size to Ashoka’s. But when he died, he left an empire that just crumbled.

But there can be little disputing that the Congress is a dynastic party. The rest of the grand edifice of dozens of PCCs, the AICC, CWC is mostly a façade. Even after Mallikarjun Kharge was elected as the new Congress president, it was still Mrs Sonia Gandhi summoning a meeting to decide on Mr Kharge’s successor as leader of the party in the Rajya Sabha. (Ultimately, it was decided that Mr Kharge would continue in that role.)

For a man like Rahul Gandhi, who had a liberal Western education at Cambridge, like Mani Shankar Aiyar, the idea of a dynasty in a Western-style democracy must be jarring. Recently, an embarrassed Rahul Gandhi tried to answer that by rather lamely suggesting that it was the prevalent way of doing things in India. He cited Abhishek Bachchan, for instance. Young Bachchan was a bad example. His meagre acting skills and stage charisma made him a sports impresario. This choice is not apparently available to Rahul, and he labours on.

Sometimes, someone in the concert like Shashi Tharoor strikes a discordant note. He challenged Mr Kharge, and lost handily. How he is treated now is a test of the Congress’ democratic culture? Like Jawaharlal Nehru nursed democracy in Parliament and public life as a whole in the early years, it is now up to Rahul Gandhi to nurture inner-party democracy by deferring to Mr Kharge as the leader and letting him run the party. But the inner court still doesn’t know how to do that.

Except for the CPI(M) and the BJP, every political party in India has a dynastic line of succession, or more aptly inheritance. Some have more than one. M. Karunanidhi’s DMK had three, each from a different wife. The original heir apparent, M.K. Muthu, preferred drink to the rigours of politics and fell off the pedestal. Just like Bindu Madhav, Bal Thackeray’s older son. Mulayam Singh Yadav has two, Akhilesh and the children of the second wife. Inner-party democracy in such parties is restricted to the palace intrigues for succession. Prakash Singh Badal and his son, Sukhbir, control the Akali Dal.

This is now endemic. RJD is the marquee name for the Lalu Prasad Yadav family, just as the Shiv Sena is for the Thackeray family, BJD for the sons of Biju Patnaik, and so it goes.

Nowhere is it as blatant as the TRS (or BRS) of K. Chandrasekhar Rao and the TDP of N. Chandrababu Naidu. This evolution has completely de-ideologised politics and has made them all about palace intrigues, with full drama and often entertaining theatre.

The only parties outside this system, ironically enough, are the BJP and the CPI(M). The BJP, however, is now merely a front for the RSS, which is committed to the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra and a renaissance of the post-Vedic Brahminical system, which is a far cry from the liberal and modern democracy that Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani tried to mould by putting the RSS in its place — to booth management. Make no mistake, the PM, who is the RSS’ choice, is truly representative of its mindset.

The CPI(M) is committed to establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. We saw how the “people” had seized power in Russia over a century ago after ousting Kerensky. To them, elections are just steps to full and total political power, and the gulag for the rest. In China, the party killed millions to usher in the proletariat heaven.

We have seen the transition of democratic styles in many of the world’s established democracies. The United States saw power passing from a self-nominating convention nomination process to a primary-based system that binds the convention to the choice of individual party members. We saw this at work when Britain’s Conservative Party chose its leadership after Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

This did not happen in India. On the other hand, we migrated from a system where parties consisted of equals sharing a common purpose and sometimes goals to one where power passed into the hands of a self-perpetuating political aristocracy.

This system is in fact akin to the democracy of the Kouroukan Fouga of the great Mali Empire, where clans (lineages) were represented in a great assembly called the Gbara. We had a similar system in the form of the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan. Even the Lichavi democracy in the post-Magadhan period was akin to this.

Clan democracies are implicit with concentration of power with a very few and the manifestation of dictatorial tendencies. The bottom-up system thus transforms itself into a top-down system. Power then flows from a position of power. There is another consequence to this. When we have a clan democracy, issues pale and the capture of power becomes the sole driving force. Since issues have to be dealt with, we quickly get an ideological consensus, as we see in India now. The clans are quite satisfied with a system that gives them a share of power and the pelf that goes with it.

This has happened in India, and unfortunately the social scientists have not seen in it a failure of democracy. That’s why what Che Guevara said in 1961 in Uruguay: “Democracy can’t consist solely of elections that are nearly always fictitious and managed by rich landlords and professional politicians.”


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