Dynasty vs Dynamism in India

Posted on 11/27/13
By Ajaz Ashraf | Via Nepali Time
Sonia Gandhi with her son and political heir Rahul Gandhi. (Photo via Nepali Time)
Congress I leader Sonia Gandhi with her son Rahul Gandhi. (Photo via Nepali Time)


Over the next decade or so, a host of regional parties in India will have to confront the issue of who should succeed the leaders spearheading them. Should the successor belong to the leader’s family or be one of his or her trusted lieutenants? No doubt, these parties draw their energy from the charisma of their solitary leader, one who also symbolizes regional aspirations, or quests of subaltern castes, or a combination of both.

Some of these leaders are aging, yet they have desisted from naming their successors. Nor the few who are still relatively young seem to have accounted for the unpredictability of life – a fatal mishap, for instance. Don’t these leaders worry that the political ideas they embody could get disemboweled in their absence and their support base gobbled up by the national parties? Why do they imitate the Congress in building their party around their family and, unlike it, encounter rampant rebellion?

These questions have acquired an urgency, following the conviction of former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav in the fodder case. Unless the conviction is set aside by a superior court, Lalu won’t be able to contest election in the foreseeable future. Considering he’s already 66, does it not make sense for him to pass the leadership baton of his party – Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) – to someone else? Lalu hadn’t been prescient enough to groom one of his children to succeed him. Nor does he trust his lieutenants, fearing they would marginalize him and the family.

The issue of succession is particularly complicated because some of the regional leaders are single and don’t have children. In this category are AIADMK’s Jayalalitha, 65, BJD leader Naveen Patnaik, 67, BSP boss Mayawati, and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, both 57. Then there are leaders whose children are either disinclined towards politics, as is true of Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (U) leader Nitish Kumar, or in whose favor succession hasn’t been settled decisively.

Mayawati inherited the leadership mantle from Kanshi Ram and Jayalalitha from MG Ramachandran. Yet their anointment led to bitter squabbles. Then again, Naveen Patnaik was persuaded to enter politics by his father’s trusted aides, yet most of them were expelled from the party once he established control over power. The parties of M Karunanidhi and Sharad Pawar, too, would face succession battles once they are not around.

It is bewildering why the Congress, which adheres to the dynastic principle of succession, doesn’t experience convulsions over the issue of succession. Perhaps it is because the Congress under Indira Gandhi perfected the system of patronage – at the death or retirement of MPs their seats were assigned to their children and relatives, in case they wished to enter politics.

Thus has been created a mechanism through which satellite families orbit around the principal family, the Gandhis, with both benefitting from the symbiotic relationship. The former do not have, or were not allowed to nurture, an appeal powerful enough to win seats in different pockets of India. No wonder, over the last four decades, the Congress has been organized around the principle of charisma, perceived to have imbued the Gandhis. (The system, it can be argued, has begun to falter as the pan-India appeal of the Congress has diminished appreciably since its halcyon days.)

By contrast, outfits confined to a state emerged in response to the ideas of regional identity, pressure from subaltern groups to have a share in power, and social justice gathering momentum. These ideas challenged the Congress hegemony of the past – and, over the last two decades, put the brakes on the rise of the BJP as well. No doubt, some of the regional leaders mentioned above personify these ideas. Yet these ideas can be sustained through constant renewal and fresh articulations to attract the electorate.

Charisma is nebulous, in contrast to the ideas of, say, social justice and federalism. Voters demand proof of their implementation, or gravitate towards those considered most suitable to turn these ideas into reality, rather than repose faith in leaders who only happen to be the children of leaders who first voiced them. These ideas are also democratic and progressive in nature and harp on change.

The culture these ideas spawn in the parties propagating them leads to resistance against the leader who wishes to establish an authoritarian control over his or her party or transfer its leadership to his or her children. This resistance succeeds in India’s regional parties because their turf is infinitely smaller to that of the Congress, thus enabling the rebel to build a new social combination to vanquish the leader.

Indeed, the regional leaders, particularly those who have no children, need to restructure their party organizations, invoking not charisma as the organizing principle but ideas they have come to symbolize.

This article first appeared in Nepali Times, a leading English language weekly of Nepal.

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