Rahul Gandhi was slammed for defending dynastic politics, but what could it tell us of Indian democracy?

Rahul Gandhi’s defence of dynastic politics is not as ludicrous as it may seem — it is true that most people in positions of importance in India owe their prominence to bequests. Very few of the biggest indigenous businesses are associated with first generation entrepreneurs and it is more common for business interests to be handed down. This happening in business is understandable since business interests are legally inherited — but what about entertainment and politics where new entrants need public acceptance?

Among the leading male film stars, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Hritik Roshan and Ranbir Kapoor belong to film families with either a parent or an uncle a former bigwig in the industry. In politics, leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav have installed their inexperienced sons in commanding positions despite having worked their way up themselves. Lalu could not have insisted on making his 28-year-old son deputy chief minister of Bihar on a ‘clean politics’ platform if he had not felt that it was the most natural move.

It would be easy to decry dynastic succession in politics, but the widespread inheritance practices in which even the ‘charisma’ (of a leader or a star) is seen to pass on from parent to child, make disinterested inquiry a more interesting option.

Rahul Gandhi’s defence of dynastic politics is not as ludicrous as it may seem. PTI/File Photo

Rahul Gandhi’s defence of dynastic politics is not as ludicrous as it may seem. PTI/File Photo

India is a democracy — but not from the same mould as the US, in which being self-made is valourised. Perhaps inquiring into dynastic succession in politics will help us understand more about India’s democracy. Politics in India is an under-theorised space and what follows is therefore, speculative — not based on specialised knowledge or privileged information but on social experience commonly available.

Beginning with the most visible aspect of a democracy which is the electoral process, a factor distinguishing India from the US would be the perceived tendency of voters to vote not as atomised individuals — which is what they might be encouraged to do in the US — but as members of local caste (jati) groups or religious communities. What is generally alleged is that an agent from each group, wielding influence within it, ‘delivers votes’ to a political party or a candidate in the elections against payment/favours. In the jati system, each group is usually identified with a hereditary occupation (e.g: yadavs as cowherds) within a relatively small territory, and a political party with national ambitions has to aggregate local support using a huge number of such agents distributed across the country. There is evidently hierarchy within the jati in which some are higher than others and the leader’s authority is respected. This factor may be assisting in the facilitation of group-based block voting.

There does not appear to be significant competition between jatis to move up the hierarchical ladder.  Competition between the jatis to ascend to higher positions might have destabilised them but they remain stable. By and large, jatis demand loyalty from their members and this loyalty may be coming to the fore in elections. It stands to reason that when a leader is from a jati constituting a larger section of the population she/he stands a better chance — because of electoral arithmetic — to become a political leader of an entire territory in which there are different jatis. This explains the strength of leaders like Lalu in Bihar and Siddaramaiah (from the kuruba or shepherd jati) in Karnataka, who lead populous communities. That jati is local is suggested by Lalu having no influence among yadavs in Uttar Pradesh.

One may also suppose that in jati categories more widely urbanised (like some Brahmin groups) jati affinities have weakened because of the breakup of communities and they are atomised as voters. Since each jati is traditionally based on a hereditary occupation in a specific territory and located horizontally within vertical caste structure, one would assume that its leadership will owe — in some part — to hereditary hierarchy, which explains the ease with which children are installed as political heirs. The fearsome power of the khap panchayats (like their doings in inter-caste marriages) may also owe to hereditary power exercised within the jati; it is significant that their much publicised brutality usually revolves around violations of jati protocol.

What has been said hitherto is very broad and hardly accounts for why Amitabh Bachchan’s son Abhishek should enjoy a natural advantage in Bollywood since the family is not traditionally from showbiz or film. But if one proposes that jati is not airtight but allows infiltration over periods of time when outsiders mingle and engage in the same kind of life as that of the jati, it could accommodate the phenomenon. This leads us to the next question, which is how without the assistance of a jati identity, the Nehru family became the dynasty to rule India for decades. This may be one of the most difficult of political questions to answer — especially since branches of the family not in power have enjoyed few privileges. It is evidently not ‘Nehru blood’ that gives Rahul Gandhi the boldness to stake his claim upon the ‘Delhi throne’.

Left-wing social theorists like to look upon the political process in India as proceeding through mass mobilisation but what is more likely is that political patronage has generally been the name of the game. The difference is that mass mobilisation is based on a political programme/ advance agenda and is a process that engages and motivates a wide range of partners and allies concurrently at national and local levels to raise awareness of and demand for a particular developmental objective through dialogue. Political patronage is the way votes are otherwise garnered in the absence of a spectacular political/economic agenda; groups are mobilised locally through benefits (like reservation) or promises and stitched together nationally.

One supposes that Indira Gandhi’s electoral victory in 1971 as well as Narendra Modi’s in 2014 owed to successful mass mobilisation when routine expectations from the elections were belied because of a visible/audible agenda (‘garibi hatao’ and ‘development’ respectively) that excited the public. The vote share may have gone up only by a few percentage points each time but that made a difference. ‘Ideology’ (Hindutva, secularism) does not assist in mass mobilisation and appears mainly a banner by which to knit coalitions of parties with independent constituencies constructed through patronage. Patronage backed by money power, one might propose, creates long-lasting structures/networks which can be compared to a FMCG manufacturer’s distributor/retailer network which need to be maintained and kept alive. Whoever controls the party controls the network which, though intangible, may be taken to represent its most valuable political asset. The falling vote shares suggest that the network is weakening across India.

Coming now to Rahul Gandhi’s claims upon power, we may propose that it is not the Nehru family but the Congress Party which has a steady following that prompts it. The Congress had a virtually unchallenged reign for over 20 years, despite the ignominy of the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and whatever opposition there was, developed within the party — which had its own right and left wings. The party might never have remained with the family if the ‘Syndicate’ (Kamaraj, Nijalingappa etc.) had not installed Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1967, judging her to be pliable.

There is no evidence that Nehru wanted to perpetuate a dynasty. After Indira Gandhi's resounding victory in 1971 she continued to run the Congress as an ideological coalition in which groups (like the Young Turks) were allowed but only until she perceived a threat to her personal position — when she systematically began to destroy the party by undermining inner-party democracy, making it a ‘proprietorship’ to be passed on and this ‘family business’ is what Rahul Gandhi has inherited. The leadership of the party being unquestioned and family-based has become one of its stable attributes for its constituency and this, together with its ‘patronage network’, is what guarantees the party a certain proportion of the votes regardless of the political circumstances of the period.

It is this guaranteed vote base owing to the stable patronage networks that translates into Rahul Gandhi’s perceived ‘charisma’ and the ‘public love’ that he is said to be recipient of. One may be sure that if the party decentralises and the family throws its weight behind local leaders in each state, the party’s fortunes will improve through strengthening of local structures — including the patronage networks — but that would also weaken the family’s hold upon the party by empowering potential rivals, and the party is the family’s principal asset. Replacing Rahul with Priyanka Gandhi is neither likely to affect this scenario nor improve the party’s vote base.  This situation, it would seem, is quite different from the publicly acknowledged right of a hereditary monarch to rule.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.


Published Date: Sep 16, 2017 12:24 pm | Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 12:24 pm