The pre-Independence era was not really dynastic even though freedom fighters included, very often, complete clans, brothers and even tribes. But in post-Independence India, arguably, the first political dynasty was started when former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was appointed Congress president. In the rest of India, there were regional satraps who were independent leaders, not dynasts. Whether we consider Biju Patnaik in Odisha or the Swatantra Party leaders, they were freedom fighters who grappled alongside Congress leaders and later, in their own states, they became dynasts, while they also launched a resilient anti-Congress politics, especially after 1967. That anti-Congressism, incidentally, is what installed the federal structure that we still have today in India. After 1967, the Congress under Indira Gandhi managed to lose its hold over no less than 13 major states. Each of these was taken away by the ragtag Opposition of the day, which was not dynastic. So, we owe our federal structure to the ‘non-Nehru freedom fighters’.
Thereafter, this leadership, which had a distinct regional flavour, gave way to a second round of provincial powerhouses. We saw Jaiprakash Narayan, a strong anti-Emergency crusader, and this wave went all the way to Chaudhary Charan Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar. But these leaders were not related to each other. Nor did they inherit their parties. At the time, party mantles were handed over more in the guru-shishya parampara style. This is also evident in how, in 1989, the Samajwadi sections won the elections in Uttar Pradesh after Rajiv Gandhi’s rout.
Mulayam’s faction actually got more votes than Charan Singh’s that year. That is why the SP patron became the chief minister. At the time, within the rank and file of Samajwadi politics, dynasty had not taken hold. Even in Haryana, Chaudhary Devi Lal did not automatically transfer the mantle of power to Om Prakash Chautala, his son.
All this was also true for the Congress till the children of the freedom-fighting generation were controlling the party. So, after Nehru’s death, Indira could not become PM. The baton was passed to Lal Bahadur Shastri. His death was the cause for the party’s slide into dynasticism. Now everybody is examining Priyanka Gandhi’s nose to see if it’s similar to Indira’s. I have nothing against Priyanka Gandhi but if she feels she can wave her hands and swoop into politics, then it is not going to happen. This generation is not in awe of the Congress’ role in the freedom movement.
Without merit, without the capacity to further the legacy one inherits, a dynastic leader will flop. The Chautala clan have not been able to add political capital to the legacy of their ancestors. As in a corporate structure, the non-meritorious is bound to fail. Same is the question with Rahul Gandhi: whether or not he is in a position to take the Congress forward depends on his merit. Sachin Pilot, another dynast, fought really hard for three years to improve the Congress party in Rajasthan. Jyotiraditya Scindia, a dynastic scion himself, had merit too. They were not taken as chief ministers despite Scindia even being considered the most popular leader. But that’s for Congress to decide.
Only in the 1990s, after Rajiv Gandhi got into the saddle following Indira Gandhi’s murder, slowly regional satraps drifted into dynasty rather than meritocracy. They decide at this point that it is better to pass on the legacy within the family. That is why even in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and Samajwadi Party, political dynasties took hold. Even so, the sons and daughters in different political parties did contest elections but they had to struggle. For example, consider Akhilesh Yadav. He had to find his way up after contesting elections and doing work on the ground.
Similarly, Naveen Patnaik inherited Biju Patnaik’s legacy but had to maintain a working profile so people kept appreciating him. Dynastic succession, in this way, is as good as any capitalist inheriting his legacy from his parents. He could eat up the dividends of his company, if he is not talented enough.
Of course, political parties must encourage talent from outside. But even the Congress was by and large democratic under Mahatma Gandhi. It was only in 1959 that we saw somebody being handed over the party reins. And to say that Indira Gandhi was a freedom fighter and, therefore, inherited the mantle is wrong. Yes, she proved her strong leadership, but she didn’t get the party president’s post for having led it. She only got it because she was Nehru’s daughter. Otherwise, there were enough leaders toiling away in the Congress who could have inherited the party.
Yes, the BJP is less dynastic, but that has everything to do with the RSS. Even a senior BJP leader like Rajnath Singh’s son had to fight the elections from the ground up. He was not made minister. Same with Poonam Mahajan, Pramod Mahajan’s daughter, or Anurag Thakur. Gopinath Munde’s daughter could not become chief minister though Devendra Fadnavis could become CM because of the RSS style of functioning.
Inheritance has to come with inherent mettle. Without meritocracy even inheritance is meaningless.
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