Dynasties to The Fore as New India Govt Takes Power

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The new Indian government has been fully in-charge beginning Monday June 1. The first session of the Parliament with the new Cabinet in place opened on this day. There has been an air of expectancy among the common man as well as the business community since the election results a fortnight ago showed a clear majority for the ruling Congress party.

The new government emerged independent of the nagging Leftists who, in the previous avatar of the same government, were supposed to have been responsible for slowing down some of the well-meaning economic reforms on ideological grounds. This makes the industry captains happy. The stock exchange has reacted with uncharacteristic joy as evidenced by the electric rise in its fortunes.

The Congress song – or rather the song of its President Sonia Gandhi’s MP son Rahul – of bringing young faces into politics has been brought home with the victory of a number of youthful aspirants to the Lok Sabha, equivalent to the House of Commons.

But in the middle of this all-round euphoria about Young India being in command, there is something else which was promised by Rahul Gandhi about which questions are being raised. “It is undemocratic that the Congress is still led by a Gandhi . . . But it is a fact of life in India that success in politics depends on who you know or are related to. I want to change the system.” These are the words in which Rahul had promised to change the face of Indian polity by reducing the influence of dynasties. But unfortunately, as the facts on the ground and figures in the aftermath of elections show, this promise turned out to be little more than a rhetorical electoral slogan.

As things stand, 30 of the 545 members of Parliament in India this time came from political dynasties and 20 of them found berths in the Cabinet! Sons of late stalwarts Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot led the clan roster in the Cabinet, Sachin Pilot having the double advantage of also being the son-in-law of another dynasty – the Abdullahs who have largely ruled the volatile state of Kashmir since India’s independence. Agatha Sangma became the youngest minister at 28 – in a country where politicians aged 50 plus are called young – thanks to her being the daughter of former Parliament Speaker and Congressman.

And the party made no effort whatsoever to tell off its southern ally DMK, led by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi, when it imposed its entire eligible family on the Congress seeking cabinet positions. They were promptly obliged, the tussle hanging on the question of ‘how many’ and not on ‘why’?

While some commentators tend to dismiss the rise of the ‘dynastosaurs’ with the argument that having been ruled by maharajahs for centuries, attraction for dynasties is embedded in the Indians’ psyche, that does not explain why in monarchy-ruled Britain no prime ministerial dynasty ever came up. The truth of the matter is that the scions of political dynasties in India today tend to take up so much political space that little room is left for neophytes.

The prime example of this dictum is the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. While in the last 62 years those outside the Gandhi dynasty did occasionally rise to the top in the Congress, that was only when no dynasty contender was willing, or on hand, to fill the vacuum. Thus, Sonia Gandhi was hard-pressed to take over the leadership of the Congress in the wake of her husband Rajiv’s assassination in 1991 and it was only when she declined did Narasimha Rao become prime minister, while consulting her on every key decision. And even now – as in the previous government – Dr Manmohan Singh rose to be the Premier because Sonia Gandhi wanted him rather than herself to hold that position.

While in a true democracy there should be no room for ‘dynastic succession’, yet there is a section of opinion which believes the contenders do not win merely by wishing it but have to enter a level playing field and it is not their fault if, owing to the good work done by their forebears the voters trust and eventually vote them into power time and again.

And while the ‘menace’ may seem out of proportion in India, dynasties have thrived among India’s neighbours as well – the Bhuttos in Pakistan, the Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. And even in the US, which preens itself on its impeccable democratic credentials, if one remembers the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Bushes and in a way the Clintons!

Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don’t usually hear from the middle east country.