The Perils Of Political Dynasty: Why It Is An Impediment To India’s Progress

Jawaharlal Nehru and Rahul Gandhi: the dynastic legacy continues.
  • As history has shown, in a long-surviving dynasty, each succeeding dynast is more debilitating for the nation than the previous one.

    As the ecosystem around Congress party goes into raptures at the impending coronation of Rahul Gandhi, we would do well to learn from both distant history as well as recent.

“Dynasty, a political tool in the hands of the ruling class, has become the catalyst for a new colonization of a country whose soul has already been deeply scarred by centuries of it”. This is perhaps the pithiest observation in Durbar, an autobiographical book of well-known journalist Tavleen Singh.

In an earlier post written in 2012, I had analysed the various implications of dynastic political succession in a democratic country. The latest comments by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, as widely reported in the media, that there were no elections in the times of Shah Jahan or Aurangzeb either, and that everyone knew who the next emperor would be, made me revisit this post and asses it in the current context. The trigger for Aiyar’s comments were the questions raised on Rahul Gandhi filing his nomination papers for eventually being ‘selected’ as the next Congress president. This article is an attempt to understand how a dynasty, in a democratic polity, evolves over multiple generations and how such democracies become different from normative democracies.

The first-generation dynast, who establishes the dynasty, in a nominally democratic polity, always has some leadership qualities in him or her. This is as much true of historical dynasties as it is true of our Congress dynasty – the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Jawaharlal Nehru, who established this dynasty, was not a man without any merit. While history now correctly judges most of the policies he implemented as prime minister as unfair, it would be wrong to argue that he rose without any merit. Democracies are designed to ensure that the best and the brightest political talent in each generation rises to the top.

In the oldest democracy on Earth, while Dwight Eisenhower became the president of the United States of America (US) in 1952, Barrack Obama won a second term, 60 years later, in 2012. Eisenhower will perhaps go down in history as arguably the greatest general ever. But that did not imply that his successive generations would continue to be regarded as the greatest too and claim the office of the US president as their right. Each generation would have to compete with fellow citizens in an equal game, and the best man or woman would win. Eisenhower’s children and grandchildren, therefore, lived successful private lives while men and women from diverse families and backgrounds, but all of some competence, staked their claims in each generation for the top executive position in the US. That is how the chain led to Obama winning again in 2012 and then Donald Trump in 2016.

Coincidentally, India also elected Nehru as its prime minister in its first general elections in 1952. But what about 2012? The Congress party, to which he belonged, thought that his great grandson was the best and the brightest in this current generation, like members of his family in each intervening generation. In 2017, after much agony and false starts, they have finally settled on a process to instal Rahul Gandhi as the party president. How did this happen? How did the Congress party so diametrically diverge from the US path?

Nehru passed on the mantle to his daughter Indira Gandhi. But only just. She was not the choice, or a decision made on impulse within seconds of Nehru’s death in 1964. In fact, she became the prime minister only in 1966 after the untimely demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was the prime minister in the intervening period. But even when she did, there were murmurs of dynastic succession. However, that Indira Gandhi was already 30 when India gained independence and that her formative years were in the cauldron of the freedom movement and the tutelage of stalwarts perhaps helped her gain some initial legitimacy. But Indira Gandhi knew the same would not be true for her succeeding generations and they would not get the same leeway unless she rigged the rules of the game. So, she set about the task of putting the tools in place to ensure that her dynasty continued. What were these tools?

Unlike real democracies, which place a premium on merit, dynasties throttle merit. There is a glass ceiling above which no one can rise. This glass ceiling has multiple effects, and it is these effects that ultimately destroy the soul of a country.

Firstly, meritorious people are ambitious. They have ideas – ideas which have changed human history time and again. But if there is a glass ceiling for meritorious people, beyond which they can never rise, why would they want to continue to serve or live in that system? They can clearly see that they are better than the top boss, but they themselves can never become the boss. This is when the flight of talent begins to places and countries where merit is still at a premium – the beginning of brain drain. The brain which does not drain, for some reason, is forced to work in a non-rewarding system and soon becomes defunct. Any surprise then that Indians were unable to make any significant mark in any human endeavour from the 1960s to almost 2015? No new inventions, no scientific theories, no new management ideas and no world-class research. The system to facilitate all this was simply not there.

Second, each succeeding dynast knows his or her limitations. They, therefore, start trusting fewer and fewer people – because they know they do not have either the calibre or the mettle to intellectually engage people in a peer group and prevail. This is when that factor comes in – loyalty. Those in and around important positions must first be loyal – everything else is secondary. But how is this loyalty achieved? Nehru may have been obdurate in his liking for V K Krishna Menon, but they were not relatives. Theirs was a friendship that developed during a struggle.

A generation later, Indira Gandhi collected a bunch of ‘Yes Minister’ type of men around her. Yet, men like P N Haksar, one of her closest advisers, despite being a professional, had a Kashmiri “feel good” connection. Another generation later though, her son Rajiv Gandhi could only trust his Doon school friends and his Delhi late-night party circuit buddies. When it came to Sonia Gandhi, she could trust even fewer – only the shrunken bunch of these original vanguards – those who stuck by her in the darkest times. Another generation later and loyalty is at such a premium and Rahul Gandhi advisers are so secretive that until recently no one even knew who they were? Only recently has one of them, ‘Pidi’, been unveiled to the public.

The loyalty factor does not stop here. It percolates down to all levels. A person who was an important minister in the Sonia Gandhi-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, purely because of loyalty, devoid of any merit, and thus non-threatening to the dynast, would hardly like to have had the best man under him. Just like the dynast, he too would have wanted an aide whose main quality was loyalty to him above anything else. That is how he would have ensured his survival. And thus, the phenomenon would have repeated at each successive level below. From how public sector undertaking (PSU) chiefs were appointed, to how such appointed PSU chiefs appointed their chief financial officer and so on. This chain then became the fulcrum that oiled the loot and corruption machinery. The corrosive effects of the dynastic glass ceiling reach each and every walk of public life and destroy it in ways that over a period of time it becomes unrecognisable.

Third, the dynasty has a debilitating effect on the state of institutions. Invariably, members of the dynasty, in their long careers, will indulge in acts which will normally fall foul with the law – imposition of emergency, thuggery by a member of the dynasty in the name of Youth Congress, corruption by close family friends and relatives, genocide on the streets of Delhi, using pliable governments to amass huge tracts of lands, embezzling of property like that of National Herald and much more. Robust institutions will come down with a heavy hand on each such act. If the dynasty is to survive and flourish, then every watchdog institution must either be stunted at birth itself or filled with men who only do the bidding of the dynasty – from “committed judiciary” to “crawling media”.

From chief election commissioners becoming loyal party members to retired Supreme Court judges conveniently giving clean chit for genocides, the list is endless. Notice how the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner in 2010 was rammed through despite being protested in writing or how the Central Bureau of Investigation became a ‘caged parrot’ in Sonia Gandhi era. Or how the judge who gave a report that no one was responsible for the 1984 genocide of Sikhs was appointed as the first chief of India’s Human Rights Commission.

The decimation of institutions is not limited to the official three pillars but extends very importantly to the fourth pillar as well – the media. Free housing societies, foreign junkets, state civilian awards, access journalism, institutional chairs in foreign universities on taxpayer’s money and sometimes brazen inducements like farm house in the lucrative badlands of Gurgaon – every means were used to control the media. The price that the nation paid to keep the dynasty flourishing is the mockery of its institutions.

Fourth, however benign an individual dynast maybe, it is in the nature of things that the dynasty must necessarily divide people in order to rule over them. Despite proclamations to the contrary, policies promulgated by the dynasty are designed to keep people divided in their ghettos of caste, religion, region and race. Divided people can be threatened. Greater the division, greater the fear in each sub group. The dynasty, through political equivalents of hafta collectors, can then morph itself as the protector of each sub group. A pliable prop from each sub group is then co-opted, who promises to protect his sub group against the other groups, while another pliable lackey is doing the same in a different sub group. Is it too difficult to understand as to why the maximum number of anti-Muslims riots has taken place under Congress regimes and yet the party can still try and present itself as protector of Muslims? Or is it too difficult to understand as to why Rahul Gandhi brandishes his ‘janeu dhari Hindu’ credentials when convenient? Or why Congress’s only new narrative in the current Gujarat elections is about reviving every stereotype of discredited caste politics?

Fifth is the economic vehicle of the dynasty. It is not accidental that socialism became a constitutional mandate under Indira Gandhi and not under our founding fathers. The very soul of capitalism is competition. Different ideas compete and the best ideas win. From business to politics. It would be impossible to sustain an economic capitalistic model but not a political one.

There is one more reason why socialism works best for dynasty – it is because of the very effective way in which socialism keeps everyone equally poor as opposed to distributed levels of prosperity in capitalistic model. Free enterprise in a capitalistic economy enables people to chart their own destiny, prosper and become rich, thereby moving up the social value chain. But if they move up the value chain, they would progressively aspire for “better” – better education, better healthcare, better infrastructure and so on. If this happens, then people might start voting for the candidate who ideas for ensuring that “better” are more appealing than the dynasty.

Socialism ensures that most of the economic opportunities are hoarded by the state or cronies, thus ordinary people never move up the value chain, remain always bound in poverty and destitution, and each time an election comes, some new sop can be promised, the dream of which can make the poor and destitute continue to vote for the dynasty. From Indira Aawaas Yojna to National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – none of these schemes under the dynasty were designed to make the poor prosper – they were intended to keep the people entrapped into their poverty and thus remain easy catchment for the dynasty. Think of why the most identified job generation scheme of dynasty era was Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, that merely gave sustenance level incomes to the poor, while that under Narendra Modi government is Mudra, that has made crores of people not only gain sustainable employment but has also enabled them to become employment generators.

Sixth, and most important is the kind of politics that the dynasty breeds in its later generations. Sequestered from the living and breathing reality of the country, cocooned as they are in their princely bubble of high-ends cars and vacations to exotic destinations, the dynasty loses every connect with the ethos of the country. Their trusted advisers are then not those who are grounded and understand or care for the country but those who are outwardly suave and sophisticated, good enough to accompany them as ‘friends’ in these exotic adventures. These friends inevitably come with their own agenda. One day they may advise the dynasty to stand in solidarity with those who are adept in sloganeering about Bharat Tere Tukde Honge and another day they may advise the dynasty to coin terms like “Hindu Terror”. None of these advisers have a skin in the game in India. They are all settled in their private lives, funded by abstruse agencies, with sometimes known but mostly hidden agendas. Collectively between themselves, the dynast removed from the realities of India, and the advisers with their private agendas, an entire ecosystem is bred whose net effect is to diminish India. Over time, the beliefs of the later generation dynast and the agenda driven advisers become one and the same. National interest naturally suffers way down in priority.

The consequential effects of a dynasty, like we have in Congress, is that over generations an inter-connected elite evolves which controls almost all the levers of political and economic powers. Most of them are dynasts at their own levels. Challengers to the elite club are mostly co-opted since almost all avenues of career growth are controlled by these elites. Those who refuse to be co-opted find life very tough for them if they in any way intend to challenge this cozy club. As history has shown, in a long surviving dynasty, each succeeding dynast is more debilitating for the nation than the previous one. Even our sanitised versions of history books tell us how the transition of power from Shah Jahan to Aurangzeb started a period of uncontrolled strife and bigotry. As the ecosystem around Congress party goes into raptures at the impending coronation of Rahul Gandhi, we would do well to learn from both distant history as well as recent.

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