In India, Politics Is A Lucrative Family Business

In India, Politics Is A Lucrative Family BusinessA pigeon flies over the Parliament building during the winter session in December 2015 in New Delhi. (Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • India’s richly democratic tradition is ironically tied quite closely with families running the show, generation after generation.

    Come, let’s explore this irony – from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

How democratic are political parties in India?


Well, political parties can talk of democracy, but when it comes to walking that talk in their backyard? ... Let’s take a tour of this “democracy” – from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

We begin in Tamil Nadu and with a quote by Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) president and former chief minister M Karunanidhi. He would often say: “DMK is not Sankara madam (mutt)”, poking fun at Shankaracharya’s powers to choose his successor. Looking at some of the key developments taken place within the DMK, one gets the feeling that no one really understood Kalaignar (as Karunanidhi is popularly know) in the true sense when he said that.

Yes, his party isn’t Sankara mutt – because at the mutt, one can’t have their sons, daughter, and grandsons holding power in one way or the other.

On 4 January last year, M K Stalin, Kalaignar’s son, was made working president at a specially convened general council meeting. This report in the Hindu doesn’t say if the DMK threw open the floor for anyone in the party to stand for election to the role of working president. In the United Progressive Alliance government of Manmohan Singh, Karunanidhi’s Madurai-based son M K Alagiri was a cabinet minister, as also his nephew Dayanidhi Maran! And in New Delhi, the veteran leader’s daughter Kanimozhi, who is a member of the Rajya Sabha, is the person interacting on behalf of her party with other politicians. Kalaignar’s grandson and Tamil actor Udayanidhi Stalin is now being promoted as a future leader.

Another great democratic party in Tamil Nadu is Pattali Makkal Katchi, where, too, its founder Dr S Ramadoss has made his son Anbumani Ramdoss his successor. Tamil Nadu Congress has also seen similar efforts, but leaders like P Chidambaram or EVKS Elangovan haven’t been as successful as their partymen in Karnataka or elsewhere in the country. Similarly, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam of Tamil actor Vijayakanth has his wife Premalatha heading the women’s wing. On its part, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has got Tamilisai Soundarajan, who is the daughter of veteran Congress leader Kumari Anandan.

There are such cases of democracy in neighbouring states like Karnataka as well, where the recent appointee Dinesh Gundu Rao draws his strength from R Gundu Rao, who was the state chief minister during 1980-83. More glaringly, Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy owes his position to his father and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda, who heads the Janata Dal (Secular). Kumaraswamy’s brother Revanna is a cabinet minister.

On the Congress side, Priyank Kharge continues the democratic tradition of family politics, as also others like Krishna Byre Gowda and a host of state legislators. Efforts to promote family politics within the BJP was halted by the party high command by not nominating former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa’s son Raghavendra to contest in the assembly elections.

In Andhra, politics is all family business with Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu owing it all to his mentor and father-in-law N T Rama Rao, Telugu matinee idol and founder of Telugu Desam party. He is trying his best to continue his family’s hold on the party by nominating his son Nara Lokesh as one of the cabinet ministers. His rival Y S R Congress’ Jaganmohan Reddy has his father and former chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy’s name for his party. The BJP has roped in Daggubatti Purandeshwari, who is the sister-in-law of Naidu and daughter of Rama Rao.

Looks like it is some sort of a tit-for-tat contest between bitter rivals Naidu and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi chief has made his son K T Rama Rao the state industries minister, and his daughter Kalavakuntla Kavitha is a member of Parliament. One wonders if there is more in store from the family!

Telangana’s neighbour Maharashtra has plenty of democratic family affairs starting with Shiv Sena, which is seeing the third generation of the Thackeray family being promoted for party leadership. The BJP has seen the late Gopinath Munde’s daughter Pankaja become a state minister, while another daughter, Pritam, is a member of the Lok Sabha. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ father was a member of the state legislative council while his aunt Shobha was a minister.

Similarly, state minister Eknath Khadse’s daughter-in-law Rakshe is a member of Parliament. The Congress party has plenty to show, across Chavans, Deshmukhs, Dutts, Naiks, Patils, Shindes, and Bhosales. In the Nationalist Congress Party, its founder Sharad Pawar has been able to make his daughter Supriya Sule a member of the Lok Sabha.

Neighbouring Madhya Pradesh has Jyotiraditya Scindia, son of the late Madhavrao Scindia, continuing the democratic process, while the families of leaders like the late Arjun Singh are also in the business. In the BJP, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s sister Yashodhara is a state minister.

In Rajasthan, Raje’s son is a member of Parliament while the Chief Minister and Scindia are blood relatives. Congress Member of Parliament Sachin Pilot, a contender for the chief minister’s post in the assembly elections due later this year, is the son of late Rajesh Pilot, who was a minister in Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao cabinets. Then, you have Jaswant Singh and his son Manvendra Singh, the Meenas, Madarenas, and Bishnois.

In Uttar Pradesh, save the Bahujan Samaj Party, almost all the others have family businesses rooted deeply in politics. Starting with Rajnath Singh to the Yadavs, there is no dearth of family members. In fact, the Mulayam Singh family’s domination is something that is at par with that of DMK in Tamil Nadu.

Gujarat, too, has its share of family-dominated politics, though not as strong as in other states. Bihar – well one needn’t say anything if they looked at the Lalu Prasad family’s overwhelming presence in the Rashtriya Janata Dal. What with Lalu being blessed with nine children, the family’s contribution to Bihar could be an unending one. His sons Tejaswi and Tej Pratap are already contenders for the top slot. And not to forget how his wife Rabri Devi once held fort when Lalu had to step down.

Bengal is one where despite the presence of political families, no one family has really threatened to dominate state politics. Maybe the 34-year rule of the communists or the last seven-year rule of the Trinamool Congress has been a deterrent.

In the North East, we have the Sangma family playing a crucial role, while other small states are seeing the tradition of such politics continuing.

And the least said, the better about Jammu and Kashmir. National Conference has always been headed by one family. First, it was Sheikh Abdullah, followed by his son Farooq Abdullah, and then his grandson Omar. The People’s Democratic Party in the state, founded by Mufti Mohammed Syed, has seen his daughter Mehbooba take over the party and even rule the state after him.

The scenario in the national capital is even worse as it has many such parties, with Congress leading the pack. One family has dominated the party since independence, save a couple of times after the death of Rajiv Gandhi. But once Sonia Gandhi took over as the party president, its destiny continues to be dictated by one single family with Rahul now taking over the mantle. How is the question of leadership decided within the party and who decides is still a mystery.

That makes us wonder if any outsider has real chances of making it to the top of a party. The BJP is one such party where people have worked their way to the top. Janata Dal (United) is another, as also the BSP, and, of course, the communists seldom allow family domination.

Some parties like the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) or the Trinamool have been encouraging their workers by rewarding them with tickets to contest elections. However, these parties seldom allow any form of dissent and they are like one army, though the AIADMK is undergoing a change.

That may make some wonder if their forefathers had erred in not joining politics. It is one sector that seldom sees negative growth or stagnation, you see. Some of the families that have branched out to business had their first generation enter politics without anything to ride on.

So, I wonder why no one understood or took the “Sankara mutt” comments in the right context – it was right there for everyone to see.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani


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