Political Dynasties: India's Destiny
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On the way to the Calcutta airport – one saw huge billboards with solus pictures of Mamata Banerjee’s cherubic nephew Abhishekh – hailing him as “Man of the Match”. It was a special day – when the city’s “Red Road” – Calcutta’s equivalent of the Rajpath – was wrapped in blue carpet for the grand “oath-taking” ceremony of Banerjee’s “Ma, Maati, Manush” (people’s) Sarkar. Ironically, as the billboards announced, it also became the formal “coming-out” day of a new political dynasty.
Dynasties are not new in Indian politics or, indeed – as has been written at length to justify them – the world over. The favourite examples cited are, of course, the Kennedy and Bush families. Parallels are often also drawn with Bollywood clans like the Kapoors, just as the large business families of Birlas, Jains and the Ambanis. Various socio-psychological explanations are offered ranging from our feudal history to Darwinian principles of evolutionary anthropology. Probably, all the hypotheses are correct in parts. But, there is an essential difference about third-world political dynasties.
The Kennedys and Bushes were inheritors of a legacy. Their family reputation and clout give them a head start in the political arena. But, thereafter – they had to all fend for themselves. The same is true for actors, cricketers or people in other professions like doctors or lawyers. They get breaks or early mover advantage, but can survive in a cruel competitive world only if they have the mettle. History is replete with instances where the sons and daughters of famous parents failed to make it good because they did not possess the requisite talent. But, in politics the overriding factor that is often glossed over lies in economics.
I recall in the late nineties – the son of a former ailing politician gave up his million-dollar salary job in a top US investment bank and returned to India – ostensibly to be with his father in his last days. A noble act by any standard I thought in my naiveté – until a bureaucrat friend decided to educate me. The money he would have earned as a banker in his entire lifetime – would not even be a speck in the fortune his father had accumulated as a politician. If he was not around all the unaccounted wealth kept with ‘benami’ holders would vaporize in no time along with the secret numbers of Swiss bank accounts. That explains how the arty son of an iconic leader from an eastern state gave up the high life abroad reluctantly returned home to keep alive the party formed by his father. Similarly – the homemaker daughter of one of the richest politician in the country being drafted back to India as the heiress in waiting.
In contrast, think of the sons and grandsons of another Prime Minister – Lal Bahadur Shastri – whose sons and grandsons despite being qualified and talented did not make beyond the “also ran” in their respective parties – as they had only the grandfather’s surname to fall back upon. Examples abound of ‘netas’ who died prematurely without anointing a political heir. Their fortunes vanished in no time with the family reduced to near penury. Conversely, we have others – who were, probably, better organized in managing their finances – whose son or daughter seamlessly moved into their father’s shoes at once staking claim to their legacy in the form of a berth in the ministry (in some cases even for the Chief Minister’s chair) notwithstanding their lack of political experience and standing in the party. Three recent examples that immediately come to mind are coincidentally all from Maharashtra – though the phenomenon is by no means restricted to that “great” state alone.
Amassing a war chest has become an imperative for political survival. Down South a Lok Sabha incumbent is believed to spend anything between Rupees ten to thirty crores in each election. The bill can be a bit lower in states on the other side of the Vindhyas – but still must be a substantial sum. Then there is the on-going cost of nurturing a constituency. But, for a “neta” it is not a matter of just one constituency. To be a force to reckon with in the system he needs to have a bunch of MLAs and MPs in his/her kitty. For regional leaders the stakes are much higher – with the flock threatening to walk over the fence every other day.
However, to “own” a party requires serious money. By today’s standards the cost of fighting a state election run into several thousand crores – as we saw during the recent Tamil Nadu polls –when the two main parties were engaged in an obscene war of distributing freebies to the voters. Such extravagance may not have caught on as yet in the less affluent states like West Bengal, Assam or Odisha – but even there to simply mobilise ground support cost the parties a few hundred crores. While the cost of coming to and staying in power is high – the money required to stay afloat when out of power is no less. Unless those relegated to the opposition are able to maintain viable presence on the ground – they will in no time become irrelevant losing cadres as well as grass-root organisation. Organising a modest rally for a visiting national leader run not just into lakhs but crores.
The humongous resources required not just coming to power but also to stay in power and survive during years of exile makes any suggestion of “state-funding” of elections an impractical non-starter. Even if the Parliament and Election Commission were to come up with a formula for underwriting campaign cost – it will at best be pocket change for candidates. It may not be wrong to say – the rules changed in the early seventies during Indira Gandhi’s tenure, which ushered in the era of “privatization” of political parties. Abolition of privy purse brought many royals into politics – who soon realized that their corpus of inherited wealth would not last them beyond a couple of seasons and were quick to learn the game. This explains the conundrum of why the rich and blue-blooded also indulge in corruption – something that flummoxes innocent commoners.
The rise in sub-nationalism has led to the creation of strong regional parties practicing identity politics. As that happens – dynasty becomes imperative because without an official inheritor the parties will disintegrate and the family fortunes vanish without trace.
Therein hangs the tale of sons, daughters, sons-in-law and the odd nephew in Indian politics. Till there are radical reforms of the electoral system (not just state funding) the Dynasties are here to stay and their numbers will grow over time.