Narendar Pani

Indian politics’ dynastic dilemma

Narendar Pani | Updated on April 22, 2018

Polling time Voters’ dilemma   -  K_MURALI_KUMAR

The Karnataka elections have thrown up some interesting questions over the role of family in Indian politics

Elections have a way of throwing up moral dilemmas. The discourse on corruption ensures that much of the attention is focused on the morality of politicians, but what is of equal interest are the moral dilemmas of the electorate. If it is morally wrong for the politician to pay his voters, is it morally right for the voters to accept that money? And as the Karnataka elections gather momentum the way they are playing out in Bengaluru is throwing up some interesting questions about the political relationship between generations within political families.

The most predictable aspect of this relationship is the attempt of politicians to transfer some of their legacy to the next generation in their families. The city has the sons of a former chief minister as well as a former minister seeking re-election as MLAs. And it is not just a matter of sons taking on the legacy of their late fathers.

Bengaluru also has a father and son contesting from neighbouring constituencies and a father and daughter doing the same in another set of neighbouring constituencies. Opinion is typically divided on this. Those who prefer to vote rather than talk don’t appear to mind the transfer of legacy to the next generation, while those who prefer to talk rather than vote condemn this as dynastic politics.

Dynastic dynamics

What makes this round of elections in Bengaluru more interesting, though, is the case of a movement in the opposite direction. The son of a Congress MLA, NA Haris, got into a bar-room brawl in which he severely thrashed another young man, sending the latter to hospital. The young man has since been discharged while the MLA’s son is still in jail with successive courts denying him bail. The BJP predictably demanded Haris should not be given the Congress ticket. And this demand received support from non-BJP sources as well, notably the historian Ramachandra Guha.

That the main concerns of those who argued against giving Haris the ticket was the behaviour of his son is evident from the record of the MLA. B.PAC, an organisation headed by Bengaluru’s corporate leaders Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Mohandas Pai, has evaluated the records of 27 MLAs of Bengaluru city based on specific criteria. It has found Haris to be the best performing MLA, if you exclude ministers, and the second highest if the ministers are included. Those who argued against a ticket for him to contest the coming elections were doing so entirely on the belief that the sins of the son must visit the father.

Not all those arguing against Haris may want to believe this, but it is actually a very traditional Indian response. When the British took over Mysore after the killing of Tipu Sultan in 1799 they were surprised to find wives and sons were often jailed along with the criminals. When they tried to find out why this was the case they were apparently told that since the entirely family benefitted from the crime it was not fair that only the person who carried out the act should pay. Apparently the popular belief was that a family that carries out a crime together pays the price for the crime together.

Legally speaking we have come a long way from that pre-colonial thought. Crimes are now seen entirely in terms of the individuals who committed them. But if we scratch the surface just a little it is clear the family cannot be ignored. Courts are expected to ensure the influence of a family does not interfere with the investigation. But more than these direct material connections the Haris case demonstrates the belief that the father must take responsibility for the sins of the son remains deep rooted. Even those who would campaign against dynastic politics, for the benefits it passes on from one generation to another, are not averse to thinking dynastically when it comes to sins moving in the opposite direction.

The depth of the sense of the family even among critics of dynastic politics points to a larger trend. Over the last few decades most political parties have lost their ability to function as collective entities. They have become quite dependent on individuals. This decline of the political party as an institution has had consequences for responsibility in politics. A vote against a party affects only its leadership as politicians can simply jump ships.

A vote against the family on the other hand typically affects everyone in the family. The family thus becomes the institution that rides the success of its members just as it pays the price for their failure. The role that parties take on in older democracies is, in India, taken on by families. If Bengaluru has a lesson for other modern Indian cities, it is that a party is little more than alliance of families.

Published on April 22, 2018

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