The ideology of the political class is to eschew ideology on the altar of self-promotion.
India may be the world’s largest democracy in numerical terms, but are we also so in terms of the practice of democracy? Free and largely fair elections, supervised by a vigilant Election Commission, are, no doubt, great achievements. However, politicians and the public that vote them to power, refuse to take head on certain fundamental questions that seriously question the credentials of our democratic attitudes.
One of these questions is the acceptance of dynastic rule by political parties. There is something abhorrent about the world’s largest democracy considering dynastic succession par for the course. While there can be no legal injunction on political leaders appointing their progeny to succeed them, the increasing propensity to do so, and the lack of public outrage at such a practice, is frankly repugnant to the very spirit of democracy.
The founding fathers of our Republic would be shocked at the incremental legitimisation of dynastic succession. Mahatma Gandhi actively discouraged his children to cash in on his political legacy, as did leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Dr Rajendra Prasad. In 1959, when Indira Gandhi became president of the Congress Party, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to face criticism for promoting his daughter. Significantly, he was quick to deny this was his intention. “I am certainly not grooming her as my successor”, Nehru told his critics. “In fact, for some time I was mentally opposed to the idea, but she was chosen, and we worked more like political colleagues than a father-daughter combination”.
Congenital haters of Nehru may not believe what he said, but the significant point is that there were critics then who had the courage to question Nehru, and Nehru had the honesty to publicly say that he was “mentally opposed to the idea”. But, today, what was questioned has become the norm, and what is worse, supinely accepted.
Apologists of dynasties argue that if an “heir apparent” is able to win elections his or her choice is legitimised because it reflects the will of the people. Such a defence is rubbish. It is hardly difficult for the “chosen” one to win in a constituency carefully nurtured by the parent for precisely this purpose, and for which the entire party works to ensure victory. It is also argued that dynastic succession is valid if the “ruling” family has made great sacrifices for the nation. This logic devalues the sacrifices by advancing a base reason like the succession of one’s progeny as reward.
To be fair, a family’s preeminence in politics gives its progeny a natural advantage. This is a dividend that cannot be denied. Nor is there anything intrinsically wrong about a politician’s son or daughter following in the footsteps of the parent. But to automatically give to the children of leading political parents the unchallenged status of heir apparent is repugnant. It devalues the party, its leadership, and the principles of a healthy democracy.
Why, then, have dynasties become the norm in so many political parties? Is it only because political leaders — far from being “mentally opposed to the idea” actively promote it — or are the political class and the public as a whole also guilty of acquiescing in the perpetuation of family fiefdoms? I think the answer to both these questions is an emphatic “yes”.
The ideology of the political class is to eschew ideology on the altar of self-promotion. If this requires the veneration of those in power, irrespective of their credentials to hold it, so be it. The aim is to be a beneficiary of the fruits of power, not to question the undemocratic usurpation of that power. Such an approach breeds the most deplorable sycophancy. No one dares to even remotely question the writ of the dynastic patriarch or the heir apparent. Any deviation from the sanctified script of reverence is immediately equated with disloyalty or revolt. Retributive action is swift and surgical. The result is an atmosphere of frozen conformity and intellectual inertness that is reminiscent of oppressive feudal courts in the era of absolute monarchies.
Citizens are also to blame. It is their lack of discrimination and disapproval that allows political dynasties to flourish. Very often they too are a part of the more extended power system. The local MLA or MP whose favours they need would immediately withhold them if he finds that a supplicant has the temerity to question the supreme leader from whom, at the intermediate level, he, himself, derives power. It is a top-down chain of compromise and accommodation that has made public servility a higher goal than all other principles.
The time has come to ask the seminal question why a politician whose power is ascendant will always find enough Indians to salute him, irrespective of the merits of an issue. Are we congenitally servile, or have we just allowed “pragmatism” to perennially overcome principles? “Chadhte sooraj ko sab salaam karte hain (Everyone salutes the rising sun)”, is an old Indian saying. If hierarchies are secure and unchallenged, the person at its pinnacle, and those who are perceived to be within its orbit, receive unquestioned loyalty.
That is why, for instance, chief ministers can get away with appointing their wife, who is a housewife with no experience of public life, administration or governance, to take over the reins of a state. That is why also, a political party, at the national level, whose founding fathers proudly upheld the freedom of opinion and democratic transparency, has today so many of its members who know what needs to change but don’t have the courage to say so. And frankly, that is also why, even in those parties where dynasties have not taken over, there is so little freedom of dissent and debate.
India is a vibrant democracy with an undemocratic malaise at its core. Either this must change, or the label that India is the world’s largest democracy should be amplified to read: India is the world’s largest democracy with the largest number of undemocratic leaders at its helm.