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The Paradox of Dynastic Politics in India

The following is an excerpt from the chapter titled ‘The Paradox of Dynastic Politics in India‘ – written by Neelam Deo and Arjun Chawla – which appeared in the book, ‘Democracy Under Threat‘, published by Oxford University Press.

Resistance to Dynasty

Notwithstanding the history of mistrust and scepticism between different regional parties, there have been some significant eff orts by regional parties to join coalitions to govern at the centre. The first success at interrupting the continuous rule of the dynastic Congress Party was with the creation of the Janata Party in 1977 under politician and activist Jayaprakash Narayan to oppose the national emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. The Janata Party was an amalgam of political parties opposed to the national emergency. In the general elections held in 1977, it defeated the Congress to form the government under the leadership of Morarji Desai. However, this government lasted barely three years, beleaguered as it was by internal conflicts, intra-party rivalries, and shifting alliances and loyalties. By 1980, the Indira Gandhi-led Congress was back in power; the failed experiment of the Janata Party only reinforced the value attached to dynastic stability according to observers.

Similar efforts to loosen the hold of dynastic succession characterized the creation of the National Front (1989–91) and United Front (1996–98) governments. Sadly, like the Janata Party government in 1977, they too were short lived, unable to transcend the political betrayals and administrative incompetence that have marked the Third Front governments, formed together with the BJP.

Dynastic rule may appear rather more stable than the ad hoc nature of these hastily cobbled together alliances, but by its very nature, it gives political inequality free rein. A parallel can be drawn between political inequality and economic inequality in India where the first is the mirror image of the second. Just as politics is dominated by a few dynasties, Indian business continues to be dominated by a few well-connected families. This perpetuates the political corruption, perfected during the era of industrial licensing that was designed to influence government policy in favour of big business houses. As in developed countries, lobbying by businesses continues to influence policy in a manner that deepens economic inequality.

These two trends of increasing concentration of wealth and dynastic succession in India further reinforce each other as the cost of succeeding in politics skyrockets.

The Upside of Dynastic Politics

But, as always in India, there are complexities and nuances to be considered, and dynastic politics can play a paradoxically inclusive role. This happens by politically empowering marginalized communities in Indian society. The focus here is on two such social groups: backward castes and women.

There is a high incidence of family connections among MPs belonging to the constitutionally notified Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/and Other Backward Classes. Political aspirants from these communities struggle to find representation in politics through normal channels. In a sense, dynastic ties appear to perform a similar function as quotas for members of under-represented social groups. In the 2009 national elections, dynastic MPs from the general category were 1.3 times as likely to get re-elected as non-dynastic MPs from the same category. But dynastic MPs from backward castes were almost twice as likely to get re-elected as non-dynastic backward-caste MPs.

A second major positive impact of dynastic politics has been the facilitation of women in political roles globally. Patriarchal structures and discrimination against women are embedded in all societies and cultures, and the difference is only one of degree. Even in liberal Western societies such as the U.S. and the UK, it is monumentally more difficult for women politicians to rise relative to their male counterparts. This is why Hillary Clinton’s ‘character’ was scrutinized and questioned much more than that of Donald Trump, or any other man running for president in the past. In fact, not only was she held accountable for her own actions as Secretary of State, but also those of her husband before and during his term as president 16 years earlier.

While there was wide consensus in the international community, at different times, to abolish slavery and colonialism, there has been perpetual resistance to end gender discrimination in all spheres of public life, including politics. For example, in the exclusionary political structure in the US, a society with a history of embedded racism, non-white men were granted the right to vote in 1870, 50 years before it was extended to white women, in 1920.

Thus, while it is mostly men who are beneficiaries of dynasty, it remains one of the only ways for women to enter, and sometimes rise, in politics. In the current Lok Sabha, 130 MPs—that is 23 per cent—come from political families. Out of a total of 62 women, 25–40 per cent—come from dynastic families. Also, only 11.3 per cent of the MPs are women, compared to the global average of women’s representation in parliaments, which stands at 22 per cent. What is more, even after being under consideration for 20 years, the male-dominated Indian parliament has failed to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill due to unprecedented opposition that is based on the apprehension that women elected from the reserved constituencies would represent male relatives by proxy, as if that argument did not apply to male descendants.

Since democracy must evolve in a social system, there can be no one size-fits-all model. Theories often fail, especially when they are forced onto different societies that may valorize different objectives and to different degrees of priority. The dynastic principle within democracy operates in developed and developing democracies, occasionally widening the representation of previously excluded groups, and sometimes yielding stability at difficult moments in a nation’s history. The Indian experience shows that if democracy can be understood as a process, and not a product, then there is hope for more representative forms of governance to continue to evolve.

Neelam Deo is Director at Gateway House and a former Indian Ambassador

Arjun Chawla is a former Researcher at Gateway House

This is an excerpt from the chapter titled ‘The Paradox of Dynastic Politics in India‘ which appeared in the book, ‘Democracy Under Threat‘, published by Oxford University Press. Is is republished here with permission.

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