The family woes of Rahul Gandhi

Sumantra Bose is professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His most recent book is Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism (Cambridge University Press, 2018)
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Why the prospects of the Congress’ fifth-generation dynastic gamble hang by a slender thread
Politics breeds dynasties, or so it seems. Consider the case of George W Bush, two-term president of the United States from January 2001 to January 2009. He is the son of George Herbert Walker Bush, who was America’s president from January 1989 to January 1993. The scion of a wealthy family with deep roots and connections in America’s political establishment, George W Bush’s presidential tenure is regarded among liberal-minded Americans as a disaster, and even among many right-wing Americans as a disappointment or failure.

The backlash against inherited privilege represented by George W Bush—who never really outgrew his buffoonish image over his eight years in the White House—was a key factor in Barack Obama’s election to the American presidency in 2008. A rank outsider to the political establishment, Obama had entered national politics only in November 2004, when he was elected to the US Senate from Illinois, his home state (unlike the indirectly-elected Rajya Sabha, members of the US Senate are directly elected from the states). Prior to becoming the equivalent of a first-time MP, Obama had been an Illinois state senator (equivalent to an MLA) for some years.

It was, however, Obama’s personal background that truly made him the outsider. The son of a failed marriage between a Kenyan father and a White American mother, he is technically of mixed-race origin but in his youth decided to embrace the identity of a Black man and an African-American. In the US, a young nation born in the late eighteenth century whose history has been defined by race and troubles over race more than any other single factor, the ascent of this man to the presidency was nothing short of revolutionary. Just 15 years ago, when I left the US to work in London after finishing a doctorate at Columbia University in New York, it was inconceivable that a Black man could be elected America’s president. Obama’s victory was an unlikely triumph of a talented, intelligent and ambitious individual with absolutely no birth-given advantages of lineage and pedigree (the same description applies to Bill Clinton, with the crucial difference that Clinton is White). And of course, being in the right place at the right time helped too.

Dynasty is far from dead in American politics. Obama’s potential successor in 2016 is Hillary Clinton, the aforementioned Bill’s long-suffering spouse. Of course, nobody can argue that she is an idiot or a greenhorn. By all accounts highly cerebral, she has been elected to the US Senate from New York and has served a competent term as Obama’s secretary of state. Yet, she is also a pillar of the American political establishment. Obama’s rise—and Bill Clinton’s before him—showed that there is space even in the money and network-riddled world of American politics for an aam aadmi to not just aspire to but reach the highest office in the land. Obama’s success in 2008 in wresting the Democratic presidential nomination from Hillary Clinton—she was the clear favourite and frontrunner—was the victory of an outsider and of grassroots mobilisation over the Clintons’ money power, high-level insider connections and political machine.

All sorts of political systems breed dynasties and dynasts. The Middle East has many monarchies, such as those in the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco. In these polities, hereditary succession is a right. But the Middle East has also produced dynastic regimes under the alternative republican form of government. A notable current example is Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. Bashar is a son of Hafez al-Assad, a one-time air force officer who was the country’s dictatorial supremo for three decades until his death in 2000. Bashar was originally not his father’s intended successor. A soft-spoken man, he kept away from politics while his older brother Bassel, a brash and outgoing type, was groomed and openly projected as Hafez’s eventual successor. That changed suddenly in 1994, when Bassel was killed in a self-inflicted car crash in Damascus and the shy, reticent Bashar was picked by their father as heir-apparent, eerily resembling how Rajiv Gandhi came to replace Sanjay Gandhi as their mother’s successor. On his succession to the ‘throne’ after his father’s death, Bashar was viewed for a few years in Syria and internationally as a potential reformer who would democratise his strongman father’s notoriously-repressive regime. Nothing came of these hopes. Three years ago, anti-regime demonstrations erupted in several Syrian cities, and the regime reacted with ferocious crackdowns. Since then, Syria has descended into full-fledged civil war pitting the regime’s forces against a host of insurgent militias. Amidst the carnage and destruction, Bashar al-Assad has stood like an immovable rock, flatly refusing to even consider the suggestion of stepping down.

Bashar al-Assad continues as of now to preside over the ruins of Syria, but other Middle Eastern dynasts—spawned, ironically, by regimes that once claimed ‘popular’ and even ‘revolutionary’ credentials and rejected the hereditary right to inherit power from their traditional monarchies—have not been as lucky. One such would-be dynast who has had his ambitions cruelly aborted is Saif al-Gaddafi, a son of the grotesquely colourful Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya. For a decade until the fall of his father’s regime in 2011, Saif Gaddafi went about cultivating international connections and credentials in the West. The brand-building exercise suggested that he was positioning himself as his father’s successor. He even acquired a PhD of dubious authenticity from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), where I am a longstanding member of the faculty. His flock of influential admirers in Western countries parroted his claim of being a nice liberal who would bring democratic change to Gaddafi Senior’s stifling, semi-totalitarian Libya. At the start of the Libyan uprising three years ago, Saif went on national television and delivered a bloodcurdling diatribe in which he threatened his countrymen and women with brutal retribution for rising up against his father’s 42-year regime. Some months later, Muammar Gaddafi was captured and executed by rebels, and shortly after that, Saif was caught as well; he remains in the custody of his Libyan captors.

What explains the determination of the likes of Bashar Assad and Saif Gaddafi to fight to the finish? When confronted with popular uprisings, these two scions responded with strikingly similar, near-apocalyptic language: that they would stay, fight and if necessary die in their own countries, rather than flee and seek refuge abroad. This response is not simply, or even primarily, a reflection of cultural and masculine bravado. It is rooted in something else: a genuine conviction that the state is one’s patrimony and that leadership is an inherited right. The Assads’ Syria and the Gaddafis’ Libya represent cases of the privatisation of the State—an inherently public entity—where a family and a circle of cronies acquired monopolistic control over the State and its resources. To keep the State as a family-controlled fief is well worth a fight to the bitter end.

While Bashar Assad is the face of the embattled Syrian regime, its most powerful official is probably his younger brother Maher, who has been leading the regime’s scorched- earth war of survival since 2011. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, president for three decades, had been grooming one of his sons for the succession for several years when he was toppled in 2011. No wonder the Mubaraks wouldn’t go quietly; they had long-term plans of controlling the privatised Egyptian state. Had Saddam Hussein survived in Iraq, one of his two sons would surely have inherited the State and its leadership from him. And all these family-led regimes that privatised states have had some popular support even in decline and eclipse. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime had the support of probably a fifth of Libyans when it was toppled, while Bashar Assad’s regime has the support of up to one-third of Syrians, mostly the Assads’ own Alawite sect and other minorities such as Syria’s Christians.

In India’s democracy, the total privatisation of the political sphere that can occur in autocracies isn’t possible. But a degree of such privatisation has happened through family control of parties. Dynastic heirs are either at the helm of, or in top leadership positions in numerous parties including the Samajwadi Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Shiromani Akali Dal, Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party, Biju Janata Dal, National Conference and even the recently formed YSR Congress. India’s politics is crawling with dynasts.

There is one dynast who stands out in the crowd, however. The aforementioned dynasts all belong to regional parties, and are focused on their respective states. Ever since he entered politics a decade ago, Rahul Gandhi has been port- rayed by his party as India’s national leader in the making, and as prime minister in waiting, just as his father was three decades ago. It’s a matter of time before he takes over and leads us into a golden future, or so the narrative has been. This is a serious matter; the future of 1.25 billion people is at stake.

The argument for dynasty in politics, and especially the dynasty in India’s politics, goes something like this. If a businessman’s progeny can become a businessman, a doctor’s progeny a doctor, or an actor’s progeny an actor, what’s wrong with politicians’ offspring becoming politicians? He or she is merely following the family tradition (and we know how parampara is prized in Indian culture).

There are two problems with this argument. The first is that the present-day Congress is descended, in however debased a form, from one of the great mass movements of the first half of the twentieth century. At that time, the Congress was something like a public trust belonging to the Indian people. Rahul Gandhi’s projection as its only future leader—to the exclusion of all others who may have a reasonable claim— reveals the extent of privatisation of a once truly public national institution. This is quite different from the scion of a business family inheriting the family business, a doctor’s child inheriting the parent’s medical practice, or the actor’s offspring tapping the parent’s professional experience and reputation; these are all privately built and held assets that have nothing to do with the public sphere.

The second problem is that credentials can be inherited only up to a point, and beyond that they have to be earned. A business scion lacking in business acumen, a doctor’s progeny deficient in skill, or an actor’s offspring who just can’t emote are unlikely to go far. In the late 1960s-early 1970s, Indira Gandhi emerged as a—indeed the—nationwide mass leader through her own skills and acumen. From that point she was no longer primarily Nehru’s daughter, but a leader in her own right. Fifteen years ago, Naveen Patnaik’s only identity in Odisha’s politics was as the legendary Bijubabu’s son; since then he has built his own identity and reputation.

That brings us to the ultimate argument in defence of dynasticism in democratic politics. This argument is almost impossible to counter. If people vote for dynastic continuity and succession, doesn’t that make it legitimate even in a democracy? Yes, it does. One can quibble by arguing that when the people of India gave Mrs Gandhi a big mandate in March 1971, they didn’t know she would start promoting dynastic rule within a few years, or that the Congress might have won a sweeping victory in December 1984 even if PV Narasimha Rao rather than Rajiv Gandhi had been its prime ministerial candidate. But the answer to the above question is still ‘Yes’.

That being so, the prospects of the Congress’ fifth-generation dynastic gamble hang by a slender thread. If the thread snaps, perhaps brutally, and the one dynasty with nationwide pretensions is irretrievably damaged, it may even have a dampening side-effect on the phenomenon of regional political dynasties.

Sumantra Bose is Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His latest book Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy has been published globally by Harvard University Press, and in India by Picador India