Elegant classical columns, Indo-Saracenic domes, latticed balconies, turrets: the shining white home stands in the middle of lush wheat fields, a mansion born from mud. Nearby, there’s a guest house, a sprawling office complex, and a state-of-the-art stadium. Few of those driving down the spanking-new Yamuna Expressway past the town of Karhal even notice the village of Saifai, home to just 7,000 people. Yet, the white house is the sun at the centre of a universe of power.
From its rooms have emerged no less than 14 political careers: brothers, nephews, cousins and daughters-in-law of Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, as well as his son, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh.
In an election cast as a contest between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi, along with his sister Priyanka Gandhi—the humble chaiwalla against the scions of the great Nehru clan—this house holds the clues to understanding what political dynasties really mean to Indian democracy.
From the figures, it is clear that the fruit of the family tree plays a key role in Indian politics. In the 2014 Lok Sabha, the scholar Kanchan Chandra records, 22% of the Members of Parliament were the children of MPs—down from 30% in 2009, but about the same as in 2004. Even though Prime Minister Modi has been critical of privilege, almost a quarter of his Cabinet—24%—is made up of dynasts.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha, 69% of the 33 MPs not yet 40 years old were dynasts—evidence that the shade of great trees is making it increasingly hard for new seeds to sprout. Fifteen per cent of all BJP MPs came from dynasties in 2014, to the Congress’ 47.73% and the Samajwadi Party’s 80%.
But then, there’s also these, perhaps-surprising, facts.
First, dynasts aren’t winning easily: in 2009, children from political dynasties had average winning margins of only 2 percentage points higher than their peers, and the gap has been declining, Chandra has shown. And in both the 2004 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the dynasty’s children were shown to be no more likely to win than those without pedigree.
Are India’s great political dynasties headed, then, towards demise?
From his cot in the Yadav family’s cattle shelter, Abhayram Singh—Mulayam’s brother and father of another MP, Dharmendra Singh Yadav, who represents Badaun—watched his workers milk buffaloes and pour the frothy liquid into clattering steel buckets. “Everybody is in their constituencies,” he says, “but they’ll return on Holi, to celebrate with the entire village.”
Dharmendra is contesting again from Badaun, while Mulayam, despite fading health, will fight from Mainpuri, the constituency in which Saifai falls. Tejpratap Singh Yadav, who is the Mainpuri MP, and assorted relatives are also likely to be accommodated.
“The capable ones in the family get to join politics,” says Abhayram, defending his party against the charge, levelled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, of being a family and caste enterprise.
It isn’t news that Indian politics is built around families: lineage counts for everything, in everything — from medicine and law, to Bollywood. Families generously expend their wealth, clout and caste affinities to ensure children inherit their parents’ empires.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that despite that birth-based discrimination that dynastic politics embodies, it doesn’t seem to carry a pejorative meaning in Saifai, particularly among the Yadav family’s own caste.
“Mainpuri, Etawah and Etah were jungles in my youth,” recalls Abhayram. “The roads were terrible, people could barely afford chickpeas and farmers had no manure, water or seeds”. “The old days were hungry days, but Netaji changed everything,” says Granth Yadav, a Saifai farmer.
Such is Netaji’s appeal for Yadavs, who make up a 35% per cent of the population in the Eta-Etawah-Mainpuri belt, that other parties hardly put up a fight in Saifai.
Families like the Yadav clan, thus, see themselves as catching up in the empire-building game that the upper castes have long had a lead in.
From the outskirts of Saifai, though, signs of disaffection begin to become evident. Valmiki Dalits, living on the village’s fringes, are reluctant to speak—evidence of the hegemonic status of Saifai’s Yadavs, and the costs of taking them on. “It’s unwise to go against big people and powerful communities,” says one elderly Valmiki. He will not, in line with this wisdom, give his name.
Local women are less reluctant to speak. Sarla Devi, a home-maker in the Valmiki neighbourhood, says running water and electricity haven’t reached her home: “the Yadavs have it better”. “Modi is right, the Samajwadi Party belongs to the Yadavs,” says her neighbour, Guddi.
Guddi’s support for the Prime Minister and his party, though, also comes with caveats. The Rs 2,000 that the Centre promised farmers made it to her bank account, but it doesn’t amount to much, given that she has to care for her two daughters, two sons, bedridden husband and an aged grandmother.
For several days now, Guddi has been nursing a fever, but cannot visit the local hospital, built when the Samajwadi Party ruled the state. Medicines are in a short supply, so she treks to a doctor in Karhal. “Antibiotics have been scarce these past two years,” says Rajiv Shakya, a hospital worker. “Earlier, this was not a problem”.
“Even the present government didn’t provide us a house despite assurances,” Guddi says. There’s never enough food at home; her daughters Lakshmi and Seva, 13 and 12, look much younger.
In spite of the futility of her opposition to Saifai’s order, she still votes in every election: “otherwise, someone else votes in my name”.
Empire-building—the foundations of a political dynasty—needs patronage to be handed out, and favours dispensed. There are winners, and there are losers. And the losers, clearly, nurture dreams of striking back.
Five hundred kilometres from Saifai, in western Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat and Muzaffarnagar, the Rashtriya Lok Dal is trying an experiment to sustain another of the state’s great political dynasties. The RLD, founded by former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, has joined the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in an alliance. The partnership seeks to build a Jat-Muslim-Dalit combination. The old assumption that Jats would support the RLD en bloc has fallen by the wayside; this dynasty now needs to reinvent itself.
Ajit Singh, RLD president and Charan Singh’s son, is contesting from Muzaffarnagar. His son Jayant Chaudhary is fighting from Baghpat. Their challenge is to mobilise new social groups. “We are not a party for Jats, but represent farmers’ interests,” says Ajit Singh, who has been a Union minister in the past. “This makes us natural allies of Gujjars, Muslims, Rajputs, Dalits and others.”
For Jats in western Uttar Pradesh, the RLD is a platform not just for political representation, but of collective caste interests—just as Mainpuri’s Yadavs back the SP. Sunil Rohta, RLD spokesperson, says, “Sympathy for RLD comes from its legacy. Winning in Muzaffarnagar also has a symbolic value.”
Local Jat politics has been energised by protests against the Centre’s decision to give the poor among the upper castes and religious minorities 10% reservation—a decision they say falls well short of promises to bring about Other Backward Caste status for the community.
However, Jats make up 17% of the western Uttar Pradesh population—far too few to decisively shape electoral outcomes. Besides, not all Jats support the RLD. Hence the party, like the SP, needs to woo non-core supporters. Jaibir Singh, a farm labourer in Bawli village of Baghpat says, “We have never voted for Ajit Singh. I never thought I would vote for a party of Jats, but now I will.”
After the RLD won the Kairana Lok Sabha bypoll in 2018, it cast itself as a symbol of Hindu Jat and Muslim unity, which had broken after the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. Ahmed Hameed, the son of Nawab Kokab, a five-term legislator from Baghpat, recently joined the RLD. Before and after Independence, Hameed’s family supported the Congress. With its decline, this influential clan has gravitated to the strongest regional player. “We get respect here and this campaign helps prepare for state-level politics,” he says.
In general, Chandra’s work shows, regional parties are more dynastic than national parties—all five RLD MPs in 2009 were dynasts, against one in four MPs overall. But factionalism goes hand in hand with dynasty—and corrodes its power over time. While the Samajwadi Party’s leadership has recently split along family lines, in the RLD, the flock struggles for a share in power. Recently Shivpal Yadav, one of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s brothers, floated his own party that plans to contest the Lok Sabha election. He has done this, it is believed, because he was unhappy with his nephew Akhilesh’s rise to dominance.
In the Jat-dominated region, the battle for supremacy and “respect” is just as sharp. “Every Jat believes he’s a Chaudhary,” as one RLD leader says. “It’s a challenge to keep the flock together.”
In imperial courts, brother battled brother; son killed father. Family struggles for party power are generally less murderous—but no less intensely waged. As one SP supporter quips: “Earlier, there was one Netaji. Now, there are many Netajis.”
The dynasts haven’t proved adroit at dealing with the challenges. Neither Ajit Singh nor Akhilesh command anything like the heft of their fathers. Pankaj Thakur, union home minister Rajnath Singh’s son, is no different. In the Congress, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot have yet to prove they can build on the constituencies their fathers left behind. K Karunandhi, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s patriarch, has left behind a brood of bitterly-divided children, none with his mass reach or appeal.
Put simply, birth might open doors—but in Indian politics today, it doesn’t guarantee success. The wheels of democracy might grind slowly, but they’ve shown they can grind the greatest incredibly small.
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