Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the former President of Sri Lanka, has among her photographs a collector’s item taken when she was an 11-year-old girl. Crowded into the frame are no less than five South Asian Prime Ministers who served at different times over five decades in the 20th Century: her father S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike, herself (she was Prime Minister before she went on to win the presidential election in 1994), Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. There might have been six Prime Ministers in that photograph had Mrs. Gandhi taken her son Rajiv along on that visit to Colombo in 1956.
Another scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family is now preparing to lead his party into an electoral battle that could see him become the fourth Indian Prime Minister from his family. The waves of doubt about his suitability for the top job crash hopelessly on a rock called There Is No Alternative. Indeed, if there is an alternative, that too is believed to exist in the same family.
Rahul Gandhi is only the latest evidence that there is something seemingly inevitable about dynasty in democracies across South Asia – a widow stepping into her slain husband’s shoes, a widower stepping into his assassinated wife’s shoes, a daughter stepping into her father’s shoes, a son stepping into his mother’s shoes. In India, it’s not just the Congress either. Everywhere, political dynasties are the norm, be it the National Conference, the Akali Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Shiv Sena. The Left parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party are exceptions. The dynastic bug extends beyond the leadership to members lower down the hierarchy – and here the BJP is no exception – who treat constituencies like fiefdoms and pass them on from generation to generation. In Pakistan too, the Pakistan People’s Party’s Bhuttos are counterparts to the Gandhis, along with the Sharifs and others. Just like in India, political families are spread across parties.
It would be reasonable to think that there comes a time in the life cycle of a party when it begins to question the diminishing returns of dynasty, when it asks if it would not be better off under a leadership that is not inherited. Going by the foremost examples, that point has not been reached in India.
Despite suffering several electoral routs in the last five years, and the dynast’s own evident struggles to find his leadership feet, the Congress continues to believe its salvation lies in the Gandhi family. Despite being bruised by the ugly infighting between the siblings of the first family over succession to the leadership and the inability of its fading patriarch to do anything to stop them, the DMK remains subservient to its own dynasty. Murmurs of disagreement, if any, are muted. The problem, of course, is that dynasties do not mentor non-dynasty ‘others’ with leadership capabilities. That in turn ensures, in a self-fulfilling prophesy, that there are no real alternatives or challengers when crunch time comes.
Incredibly though, there is in South Asia an example of a dynasty that, through a combination of political circumstances and personal choices, cut itself away from politics. When that photograph in Ms. Kumaratunga’s collection was taken in 1956, the Bandaranaikes could not have known that four years later, they would inaugurate the first political dynasty in the world. A grieving Sirimavo was persuaded to take on the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party after her husband’s assassination in 1959. Sixty years later, the successor to Sirimavo would also be South Asia’s first and possibly only political dynast to give up control of a party founded and nurtured by her family, and retreat from politics. In a political landscape filled with the opposite, it is an example that does not get told enough.
Ms. Kumaratunga succeeded her mother as party leader and was President for two terms until 2005. She would have perhaps stayed on to lead the country longer had it gone according to her script. But the Constitution, as it was then, had a two-term limit for the Executive; her project to bring in a Westminster-type parliamentary democracy with a Prime Minister as executive, a position she hoped to continue in, was scuppered by elements within her own party opposed to her, and by the Opposition. Indeed, her prime ministerial ambitions are cited as one reason why her devolution proposals for the northeast, part of the same package of Constitutional changes, did not see the light of day.
Ms Kumaratunga did try to stay on another year on the ground that she was sworn in for her second term only in 2000, a year after her re-election, but the court ruled that swearing-in ceremony as invalid. Mahinda Rajapakse had for years been a challenger, and he seized the opportunity. Politically and legally outmanoeuvred, Ms Kumaratunga was quick to read the writing on the wall, and stepped down. By then, her popularity as party leader was not the same as it was in 1994, when she was chosen by her mother to take over the leadership. She put aside her animosity towards Mr. Rajapakse, and backed his candidature for president, even though she could have chosen her brother Anura. In the end, Anura, with a stronger dynastic sense of entitlement, never did scale the pinnacle of his ambitions. He had even joined the opposition for a period to demonstrate his pique against his mother’s choice of Chandrika as her successor over him. He was single and died in 2008. The eldest Bandaranaike daughter Sunethra, opted out of politics early.
Chandrika made no lateral attempt to retain any family influence over the Sri Lanka Freedom Party through loyalists. Unlike the Congress’s first family who never shut the door on the party, she felt no need to keep a corner for herself as insurance for herself or future generations of the family. She slipped easily into private life, and though no admirer of her successor, has largely kept her counsel.
Ms Kumaratunga’s decision to retire was perhaps made simpler once she had made up her mind not to induct her children into politics. Not that they were not old enough when she stepped down — her daughter Yasodhara was 25 then, and working in the U.K. as a doctor, and her son Vimukthi was 23, studying to be a veterinarian. Whenever she encounters surprise that neither of her children took up the mantle, Ms Kumaratunga’s reply is that she “brainwashed them against it” from early on. Today, both continue in their chosen careers, living outside the country and keeping a low profile. The survivor of a deadly assassination attempt, unlike both her father and husband who fell to their assassins’ bullets, Chandrika never made any secret of her fear for the lives of her offspring in the country of their birth.
Over the last few weeks, there have been rumors about a comeback bid by Chandrika as resentment brews in the SLFP against President Rajapakse, who has replaced the Bandaranaikes with a sprawling dynasty of his own. But there is certainly no clamor for her or her children to take over the leadership of the SLFP. And if she does decide to return, it might not even be to the original party.
How does it matter that we inherit our positions, dynasts in South Asian democracies often ask, when we too have to fight elections in order to earn our legitimacy. The answer to that is another question: Would Stalin or Omar or Rahul or Akhilesh have got the leadership opportunity they did had they not been part of a dynasty? By getting a privileged foot in the door – both feet actually — they effectively foreclosed the opportunity for others who might be better qualified for those positions.
It is heartening that Rahul Gandhi understands this — he did say once that he would not be where he is had it not been for his father, grandmother and great grandfather. But any expectation that he might turn his back on the privilege of dynasty was belied. It takes a Kumaratunga to pack up and quit.
This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India. The author can be reached at email@example.com
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