Open Essay

Dynasty and Leadership

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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It's all in the genes

RAHUL GANDHI, THUS far, has not been known as a spellbinding orator or a captivating thinker. At best he has been sincere. But now he has said something genuinely interesting.

The Crown Prince of the Congress has decided to come clean about the problem of dynastic politics in India. When asked in California whether the Congress party was not associated with ‘more dynastic politics’, he replied; “Actually, most parties in India have that problem … don’t get after me, that’s how the entire country is running … that’s what happens in India”.

So is that an admission or an accusation? It’s certainly an extraordinarily broad thing for a political player of such importance to say. And he didn’t hold back. Without further questioning, he listed the dynasties he had in mind, which covered not only politics but the arts and business too. Why would he do that? Was this a rare and precious moment of candour from a man wishing to demonstrate his awareness of India’s problems, and his readiness to fix them?

Probably not. His words come across more as an involuntary apology for his own prominence. So maybe neither admission nor accusation then—just a confession of weakness on his own behalf, hidden behind a guilty plea for the nation. I Rahul, we Indians, can do nothing about these things—that’s just how it is.

One can only wonder whether he’d thought this through, because the BJP seized on it eagerly. “We have removed dynastic politics from India. We believe in the politics of performance,” shot back Amit Shah within hours. And if there’s one area where the BJP can claim a clean bill of health, it’s in the avoidance of dynasticism. Not that the party has practiced a great deal of transparent internal democracy over the years, but bloodline idolatry has never been its style, and it has resisted the cult of personality to a greater degree than virtually any other political organisation in India, with the possible exception of the various Communist outfits.

On the face of it we have a delicious feast of irony here, with a senior leader of a nominally socialist party conceding that dynastic politics is inevitable. Or is there more to this? Does RaGa believe that dynastic politics is actually a problem?

There are certainly plenty of good reasons to avoid it, which have been spelled out all across the world’s literature, from King Lear to The Lion King via the Mahabharata.

The dynastic principle is a simple, even simplistic, solution to an ancient problem—the safe transfer of power. It is simple because it uses the most basic institution known to humanity—the family, and thus needs no great effort to think it though or set it up. It is a flexible, private device available to all, driven by primal forces, not high ideals. Those who favour it appreciate its practical merits; it is a way to keep strangers and rivals away from the homestead. Family loyalty is something we all learn without detailed instruction, and a dynasty is its natural, most forceful expression.

Dynastic succession is about the secure transfer of three kinds of valuable commodity—wealth, status and political power. These often go together, but in modern societies they are distinct

So far so good. But there are ineradicable problems lurking in the background, because dynasties only work well under near-ideal conditions.

First, the line of succession must be clear. If it isn’t, then the strategising of the older generation may go astray. The clarity of male primogeniture kept the royal families of Europe going for centuries, minimising succession disputes. But the clarity they enjoyed was the product of strict monogamy and the attendant legitimacy it confers on heirs. Polygamous dynasties, which tend to lack clear lines of succession, are always on a tightrope. The Ottomans managed to limp along with a traditional scramble at the death of every monarch, but the Mughals destroyed themselves with spectacular disputes. And the good guy didn’t always win. Remember the fate of the arty, tolerant Dara Shukoh?

Then there is the matter of time. The older incumbents have to die, or retire, somewhere near their allotted span, and the youngsters must be prepared to wait. Hang on too long and you risk passing over a generation to a child heir beyond. This puts everyone concerned into unknown territory, and opens up the instability that dynasties are supposed to guard against.

The ideal arrangement is to die leaving an heir in his (or occasionally her) prime—a big ask. Both Louis XIV and Aurangzeb lived too long. One was succeeded by a child of five, the other by an old man of sixty-three. The Bourbons got away with it, but the Mughals didn’t. The succession bloodbaths of 1707, 1712, 1713 and 1719 enfeebled the empire, smoothing the way for Persian, Afghan and European adventurism in India.

And sometimes the nominated heir is ready, but not prepared to wait forever, like the previous emir of Qatar and the current Sultan of Oman.

Finally, dynasticism has a poor record of positive outcomes. It bypasses more complicated kinds of politics, but not in a good way, and it doesn’t guarantee strong leadership. It can also be very difficult to get out of safely, for either states or organisations, because of the vested interests it tends to foster.

In modern societies the most contentious problem for dynasts concerns what can permissibly be passed across the generations. Master Bun the Baker’s Son probably doesn’t trouble us as an egregious case of nepotism. It is within public affairs—not business or the arts—that the dynastic principle struggles for the acceptance it craves.

Where monarchy has survived, it is usually hedged by constitutional boundaries and has moved away from executive into ceremonial duties, taking on a totemic role based on the greatest virtue that any dynasty can give— certainty at a time of transition

Hereditary monarchs, of course, regard ruling as a family business, and look on the lands they hold as a patrimony; that is the nature of kingship. The British royal family are alleged to refer to themselves as ‘The Firm’. But the limitations and absurdities of the dynastic principle explain precisely why monarchy has largely vanished from the face of the earth, at least in countries with an aspiration to modernity in government and society. Where monarchy has survived, it is usually hedged by constitutional boundaries, and has moved away from executive into ceremonial duties, taking on a totemic role based on the greatest virtue that any dynasty can give—certainty at a time of transition.

But in any truly dynastic system, whenever real power is at stake, every now and then there is the danger of a true dead end—all families throw up the occasional duffer. We only have to look at the extraordinarily uneven quality of Russian monarchs, or the failings of members of the ruling houses of Alwar, Rewa or Indore to remind ourselves how lucky most of us are not to live under dynasts.

The BJP has been sensible or lucky to have avoided ‘more dynastic politics’—perhaps because its senior members have all wanted a crack at the leadership. Or maybe because, unlike the Indian parties founded as personal vehicles that have grown into family enterprises, the BJP has a bigger, fixed idea, against which individuals can be judged. This is something that makes the party stand out, and has not been widely imitated in India. But this exceptional quality may actually be an illusion; most national parties in most democracies are parties of principle, not heredity. It is the modern Congress that is the outlier here.

The pre-independence Congress was a party of very loose ideology, but one clear objective, and it could judge its leaders against that objective. Indeed, the chief criticism of MK Gandhi’s leadership was always that it was not effective. No one doubted his moral authority or his desire for swaraj.

And where does this leave Rahul? During the Q&A at Berkeley, he spent some time explaining how the Congress is not a party of either left or right, and that it simply does what it deems necessary; socialism in the 70s, liberalisation in the 90s. The party is about its leaders not its principles, he seemed to be saying. But in the next breath he claimed that the party runs on ‘bottom-up’ leadership, with schemes and ideas—he cited NREGA—filtering up from the provinces. This seem to be making a virtue out of the idea that Congress leaders aren’t leading and don’t generate the ideas that drive the party. So what are they doing? And what tests their ability, or confers on them the privilege of leadership? Is this the subtext of Amit Shah’s reference to ‘performance’?

There is a complex interaction between leadership and dynasty, and Rahul is being buffeted by it. All dynasties start with a successful character, who achieves something that creates an attractive legacy—of substance and style. He, and it’s nearly always a he, then wishes to pass this on, and there are willing hands to grasp the prize. Successful dynasts, therefore, are builders as much as leaders. Look at the greatest of them and the third in the line can sometimes be the real star; Ashoka, Charlemagne, Akbar. Even Donald J Trump.

The gifted characters who found dynasties are great advertisements for entrusting leadership to a single person. Their achievements can be used to discredit democratic processes, which are messy and protracted, whereas dynastic leadership is clear and decisive

The details of success vary, but one universal truth remains. The gifted characters who found dynasties are great advertisements for entrusting leadership to a single person. Their achievements can thus be used to discredit democratic processes, which are messy and protracted, whereas dynastic leadership is clear and decisive.

Yes, but the characters who wind up a dynasty are an equally compelling advertisement for why dynastic succession is risky, random and potentially hazardous for public life. From Augustus to Nero in four moves.

Dynastic succession is about the secure transfer of three kinds of valuable commodity—wealth, status and political power. These often go together, but in modern societies they are distinct. The first involves private property, while the other two are matters of public concern, and are not capable, strictly speaking, of being ‘owned’. Individuals can hold wealth, status and political power singly or in combination, but of these three, the one that is considered absolutely not heritable is the last. No one would blink if Donald Trump left his property empire to Ivanka. What he can’t leave her is the White House.

Dynastic succession reduces the qualification for holding power from having the ability to having a pulse. In a democracy, that is not enough. Dynasties massively restrict the choice of candidates, and privilege circumstance over suitability. The search for talent has to be wider and smarter than that, in either national or party leadership.

The BJP has always avoided this trap, at least so far. Narendra Modi is not a dynast in the making; he has no heir, and is a celibate servant of his vision of India. His colleagues will have a say in who follows on.

So, is the reluctant shazada right about India? Is Rahul simply stating something very obvious about a national culture that can stake a claim as the world’s most family-oriented?

He might be right about business. The great names, like Tata, are there to be seen across generations. But that’s hardly an Indian aberration; the same goes for the Waltons of Walmart. Cinema? Indian directors have certainly been known to cast and employ all kind of relatives, but if the film suffers, they only have themselves to blame. And politics? Many smaller, regional political parties are shot through with family connections, but the highest offices in the land are not permanently in any family’s gift. Some of the candidates for those offices may show themselves to best advantage in shop windows that are family-owned, but the process is genuinely competitive, in a national political sense.

India’s public life is as public as that of most other countries. Political influence certainly exists, an elite exists, but they do everywhere. That is part of the game, and the duty of responsible politicians and relevant watchdogs is to keep the processes as transparent as possible.

The deepest core of dynastic succession is insecurity, and Rahul may be feeling it. There is talk that he wishes to take the party leadership via a poll. That may be the best he can do to legitimise his standing. Who would envy him?

A life in modern politics includes unprecedented scrutiny and relentless pressure, so it takes a remarkably able family to keep up the necessary standards. The Nehru-Gandhis themselves have shown how difficult it can be.