AFTER A BITTER POLITICAL CAMPAIGN NARENDRA Modi and Amit Shah scripted a huge win for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the hustings. Unlike a normal election when the performance of an incumbent largely determines the outcome, a slate of ideas was at play in the election. From nationalism to delivery of goods and services, from corruption to the ‘idea of India’—all were cramped in a crowded field. Some got a pass, for example, nationalism, while others were just ignored. But among the ideas likely to be questioned in the days and months ahead one stands out in stark relief: the role of political dynasties in shaping the future of India. After the May 23rd verdict, the future of the idea appears to be not so rosy.
There is literally no political space—from local political offices all the way to the top slot in the system—that has remained untouched by the question of political dynasties. Scholars have carefully analysed factors from pre-existing local influence of such families to the passing on of initial advantages along the line of offspring to figure the persistence of dynastic politics.
A distinction needs to be made between the national dynasty and its local counterparts. The latter had their origins in the flux of 1960s when the Congress could not keep up with their demands. By 1990s regional parties had multiplied across India but were mostly located in the north. At first, they were formulated as ‘social justice’ parties and were bearers of historical aspirations of Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Within no time they turned into single caste groupings, finally mutating into single family dynasties.
The story of their twists and turns is complex but it can be reduced to a simple formula: provision of local public goods that successive Central governments were unable to do. From employment in local governments along caste lines to dole in some form or the other, the success of these parties was dependent on providing goods and services that had become scarce during India’s socialist interlude. Finally, a limit of sorts was reached in Bihar where social justice turned upon itself and became destruction of law and order during the rule of Lalu Yadav in 1990s. After a decade, Nitish Kumar, the current chief minister, broke the back of this politics by forging a more inclusive social formation. Interestingly enough, Nitish is the only one of his family in Bihar’s politics; Lalu’s sons inherited his legacy.
The results declared on May 23rd show this kind of politics at a near end. The reasons are not difficult to grasp. In Uttar Pradesh, it was cynical dependence on ‘electoral arithmetic’ that led Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, Akhilesh Yadav, to tie up with his father’s arch enemy, Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). There was no constructive idea for this front—also known as the Mahagathbandhan—and its motivation was purely negative: to keep Narendra Modi from returning to power as UP with its 80 seats in the Lok Sabha is key to forming a government in Delhi. Pitted against this negative conception of politics was the positive idea of transforming the lives of poor people by providing them essential goods and services.
Something similar was at play in Bihar where one of Lalu’s sons, Tejashwi Yadav, was the hope of the Mahagathbandhan in that state. There, as in UP, the idea was simple: combine the Yadav and Muslim vote banks and keep Modi out. But here an additional factor was at work: the social coalition that Nitish Kumar had forged over two decades along with the BJP has remained intact despite the ups and downs in the relationship between the two allies. The result was even starker. While in UP the Mahagathbandhan did manage a reasonable tally but failed in its objective to stop Modi, in Bihar it was a route for the local dynasty.
The actual reasons and the depth of these changes that began some years ago will have to await detailed analysis of polling data. But one conclusion can be drawn safely: if innovations in governance and delivery of services continue, then the politics of social justice and the local dynasties that banked on them are in for trouble. Ultimately, the idea of social justice had been exhausted long ago but the gap between underlying social realities and political changes is often not reduced instantaneously and takes time. That time has arrived.
WHAT ABOUT THE NATIONAL cognate of these local dynasties?
Here the result was even more resoundingly negative. After five years of opposing the Modi Government, the Congress was unable to touch even triple digits, something that was expected given the vigorous campaigning over the past months. Two interlinked factors are at work here. The BJP now increasingly looks like the Congress of the 1950s and 1960s when the latter’s sway extended across India, even the Deep South. As things stand, the only regions away from the BJP’s reach are the eastern seabed from the tip of West Bengal all the way down to Tamil Nadu. This is not merely an election-to-election change in the party’s Lok Sabha strength; it is effectively a new dominant party system, one that has not been seen since the mid-1980s. In this situation, the role of dynastic families is bound to change. Such changes are not new and have been observed over the past 70 odd years.
Dynasties today stand where the Opposition stood in 1971 against Indira Gandhi
The role of the Gandhi family as a national political dynasty is well-known and has been commented and speculated on in equal measure. But there’s been little notice of how the function of dynastic politics at this level has changed from 1969—when it became clear that Indira Gandhi had inherited her father’s mantle—until 2019, a span of half century. Since that start date, there have been two phases of dynasty, which is now entering a third, unknown and uncertain, period.
In 1969, when the Congress split, it became essential for the rump Congress to have a face that could win it votes on a national scale. This happened after the party’s old guard took the organisation with it. That face was Indira Gandhi. If there were any doubts about her ability to win in the absence of a strong party organisation, they were laid to rest in 1971. After that it became clear that the party and the dynasty were linked inextricably: neither could do without the other.
This phase ended violently in 1991 with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It would be another 13 years before the dynasty would come to power again. Two years before Gandhi was killed by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorist, another prime minister, VP Singh, implemented a new reservation policy that altered the political landscape so extensively that the original function of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty—as vote-getters for the Congress—was relegated to a secondary slot. After the coalitions of mid-1990s that had social justice parties at their core, vote-getting only because one belonged to a national dynasty became difficult. Competing regional parties that soon turned into local dynasties had to be accommodated and it became impossible for the dynasty to continue with its pre-1991 avatar.
Since 2004, the national dynasty’s role has been one of coordination and of serving as a nucleus around which a spectrum of like-minded parties can coalesce. From Left parties to the social justice crowd everyone gathered around the Gandhi family. This made sense: in the absence of a co-ordinating party with a ‘national face’ any coalition would be a cacophonous collection of regional interests that would not survive the rough and tumble of distributional politics. For a decade, this arrangement worked well.
By late 2013, it was clear that this ‘federal’ arrangement could not last. Since 2009, the mood of Indian voters has changed slowly in favour of a more centralised system of governance that would not be just a system of spoils for regional parties. With the emergence of the Modi phenomenon, the second phase of the dynasty that began in 1991 seems to be coming to an end, and a new, highly uncertain, phase has begun.
One part of the story has to do with the changing nature of public goods. The inability of successive Central governments to provide public goods powered the emergence of local dynasties. Weak state capacity and excessive interventions in everything from education to healthcare to employment was responsible for this. In the last five years something has changed on this front. On the one hand, state capacity has improved somewhat and on the other hand the distinction between local and national public goods has blurred significantly. LPG cylinders for poor families, toilets in villages that had rampant open defecation, a subsidised national healthcare scheme that is still unfolding and other such plans are now being funded and run by Central Government agencies but their targets are local people who live in India’s far-flung corners. In these conditions, it makes little sense to back a local dynasty when key public goods are being provided by a Central leader who thinks his first priority is to ensure their availability in each corner of India.
Public goods are, however, only one part of the dynastic decline. They explain what is happening at the level of states— but what about the national level? Does a strong leader pose a threat to the Gandhi dynasty?
Here the contemporary equation has been neatly reversed from earlier times. From 1991 to 2004, the challenge to the Gandhi dynasty came from powerful caste-based parties to which the dynasty could adapt as the local leaders, too, needed the dynasty at the national level. Now the challenge comes from the Central, instead of the local, level, something that makes the contest bitter. The contest is not just about occupying the pole position in the Indian political system but also about a challenge to the set of ideas that favour dynastic politics. That threatens everyone in the establishment.
Viewed calmly, however, one can ask whether there really is a threat to the dynasty in practical terms. In terms of the number of years in the top job, someone or the other from the Nehru- Gandhi family has occupied the slot for 37.8 years. All others combined roughly tally 34 years. Of these, Manmohan Singh can be safely separated, leaving behind roughly 24 years to account for. In this period, only three prime ministers ever came close to challenging the idea of dynastic politics: PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi. They were anti- dynastic for the simple reason they left no inheritors in place to fill what they had vacated. Of the three, Vajpayee and Modi came from non-Congress backgrounds and were both strong leaders in their own right. But it is also a fact that once Vajpayee left the stage, the dynastic idea was back in place. It is an open question as to what will happen once Modi leaves. The limited historical experience shows dynastic politics diminishes somewhat when a strong leader takes charge.
The twist this time around is that Modi’s term is marked with close parallels with what Indira Gandhi achieved in 1971. For one, there was an external security challenge; for another the domestic political scene was deeply unsettled with a fractious opposition simply lacking the ability to mobilise the electorate in its favour. This time, the sides have been switched: it seems the dynasty, and the idea it represents, is in the position where the opposition was in those volatile months of 1971.
No historical parallel is exact; unlike the principles of Ergodic Theory, the possibility of an exact repeat is impossible for the simple reason that cause and effect in history never repeat themselves the same way. Right now, the dynasty’s chips may be down but it has been around for a long time. First-mover advantages that have accrued over time don’t unwind quickly, unless catastrophic mistakes are made. Maybe its third innings will throw up something interesting, that is, if the idea continues to have traction in India’s changing political landscape.
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