IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
Dynasty is a tenacious glue that holds political parties together, whether it is the Congress or regional behemoths. But it is not enough in a democracy.
Feudalism is a definition of medieval European society, and many historians question whether it is even a useful concept for describing those times. Yet the word feudal is loosely bandied about to deplore today’s dynastic democracy in India. Coming a little nearer to our time, it’s also often suggested that India’s dynasties show that democracy here is stuck in the rut that constrained British politics some 300 years ago, the days of rotten boroughs, boroughs so small that each voter could be personally bribed. I would suggest that India’s democratic dynasties have risen because they suit the circumstances prevailing today. They are modern political hybrids.
There is no doubt that dynasties abound in India. The most obvious example is the NehruGandhi dynasty which dominates the Congress party. Indira Gandhi is usually credited with converting Congress into a family business, but in his recently published autobiography, Kuldip Nayar says Lal Bahadur Shastri believed Nehru had dynastic ambitions, wanting his daughter to succeed him. In the regions, there are powerful dynastic patriarchs, for instance, Mulayam Singh in the north, M. Karunanidhi in the south, and Naveen Patnaik in the east. It has recently been estimated that a lit- tle over 28 per cent of the current MPs are dynasts.
Before condemning India’s dynastic politics with pejorative terms like feudal, and backward, it should be remembered that dynasts are a widespread phenomenon in Asia. Singapore, whose economic progress is so widely praised, is effectively run by the Lee family. The much admired Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the independence hero Aung San. In neighbouring Bangladesh, two formidable women dynasts battle for power: Hasina Wajed, daughter of Sheikh Mujib, the leader of the independence movement, and Khaleda Zia, widow of the assassinated military ruler Ziaur Rahman. One of the many questions hanging over the future of Pakistan is whether Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal will be able to safeguard the dynasty founded by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Even in China, sons and daughters of leading party members have become known as ‘ red princes’ because of the influence they wield. With the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, and of course, the Bush family, America can’t afford to sneer at Indian dynasts. Britain just witnessed the most amazing outpouring of affection on Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, and she is a dynast if ever there was one.
Mark R. Thompson, a professor at the Univer-
INDIAN POLITICIANS SEEM TO NEED a strong leader to keep them in order. Congress is suffering because Indira Gandhi laid down the rule that no politician should be allowed to become a regional dynast.