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9 August 2012, Gateway House

Dynastic democracies

Dynastic politics is as diverse as politics itself in South Asia. There may be some benefits to dynastic rule, but a political system founded on democratic principles rejects the very idea of dynasty.

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Dynastic politics has been a feature of human history ever since we established a division of labour and some people specialised in the provision of security and governance. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to be more democratic, selecting leaders based on ability rather than genealogy. But once some people develop an expertise in ruling, the question arises: to whom will they pass on their expertise?

The easiest and obvious answer tends to be—to their children. After all, the children can begin training from birth—forging personal connections with their parents’ friends and supporters, absorbing the rules of politics within that society, and usually being able to access the best teachers who also serve as their parents’ advisers. Inheriting the duties and rights associated with ruling normally should work better than most other means of selecting a ruler. It could even introduce a degree of stability and predictability to the matter of succession, thus reducing conflict and uncertainty as the current ruler ages.

There are major exceptions—especially when the offspring of the ruling family are incompetent or corrupt, partly as a result of their elite status. Born with a silver spoon in their mouths, they can lack resourcefulness, worldliness, and empathy.

This becomes a problem in the case of a democracy. A political system founded on democratic principles rejects the idea that a person’s station in life is determined by birth. Instead, at the core of democracies is a requirement for competitive and meaningful choice in rulers, exercised by the sovereign people. In order to rule, one must appeal to the people and win their approval, rather than be the favourite son (or daughter). This mechanism keeps politicians accountable and the political system responsive to the needs of voters. Democracy would seem to be in some tension with dynastic succession. But even in such a meritocratic system, the advantages of dynastic politics can remain, especially if the society is not deeply unequal, where political power also translates into economic and religious power.

Dynastic leadership takes root in all political systems across the world. In the U.S., the multiple senators, presidents, and governors from the Bush family exemplify the working of dynastic politics in a democracy. The personal connections and access to elite circles first developed by Prescott Bush was passed on to George Bush Sr. and then to his sons George and Jeb Bush.

In Myanmar, Aung San and his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi are an example of dynastic politics in a non-democratic context. The memory of Aung San as a freedom fighter helped sustain the legitimacy of his daughter’s fight for a more democratic Myanmar, even during her long years of house arrest. On the other hand, the looming succession of power in Egypt from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal Mubarak was a key grievance of the revolutionaries of the Arab Awakening. These examples show that dynastic politics is as diverse as politics itself, both in terms of how people receive dynastic succession and its effects on political outcomes.

Many complexities exist within the democratic-dynastic dynamic. For example, the condemnation of dynastic politics in democracies is often a way to delegitimise female politicians. In India in particular, after the 1992 constitutional amendment reserving for women one-third of the seats in village-level panchayats and urban municipal governments, women entered local-level politics in substantial numbers. This led to a dismissive discourse about women merely working as “proxy” politicians for the men in their families. Even as far back as 1966, when Indira Gandhi was selected as the leader of the Congress party, she was derisively called a “gungi gudia”—a “dumb doll.” Like many other women who enter politics through familial links, she turned out to be a strong personality with a distinct policy agenda. Now it is likely that Sonia Gandhi will hand the party over to Motilal Nehru’s great-great grandson Rahul.

Dynasties have had a corrosive effect on Indian politics. The Nehru-Gandhi family is a prime example. Since Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress leaders have promoted politicians based on personal equations and loyalty rather than on the basis of ability and popularity. They have centralised decision-making within the party and made its workings undemocratic. It has proved so successful for the party that this process is now mimicked by all other parties. After initially bypassing dynastic politics, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s leaders are now promoting their sons and nephews; the Samajwadi Party, the Shiv Sena, the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Akali Dal have all demonstrated dynastic and undemocratic tendencies. Only the Communist parties in India have, so far, not wholly been given over to personal and dynastic rule.

In some cases the children of politicians are indeed best trained to become the leaders of the party; today, however, they are being promoted at absurdly young ages. Dynastic politics in India has spun out of control. By eating away at democracy within political parties, it has undermined competition between political parties and given us a class of politicians both incompetent and entitled, who view political office as a means to secure ill-gotten wealth and prestige rather than as a form of public service.

The pernicious effect of India’s dynastic politics has not only impacted our own national and local politics, but is also evident in neighbouring countries. The spectacle of Benazir Bhutto willing the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party to her teenaged son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, as if it were a family possession rather than a public institution, is a stellar exemplar of dynastic arrogance in South Asia. This arrangement was accepted because in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan, political parties are held together through kinship and personal loyalties rather than policy or ideological cohesion.

On the positive side, the legitimacy of dynastic politics has also meant that India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh have all had women in positions of great political power. This alone cannot legitimise the interconnections between politics and family in South Asia, but it can, perhaps, temper our judgement of dynastic politics.

Nandini Deo is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Lehigh University, Philadelphia, U.S.A.

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