Rahul G and the economics of ‘democratic dynasties’

VENKY VEMBU | Updated on March 08, 2018

‘Democratic dynasties’?

It’s a term deployed by Kanchan Chandra, professor of politics at NYU and lead author of the book, Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics. Chandra notes that dynastic politics is presumed to be the “antithesis” of democracy, but is in fact a routine aspect of politics in many modern democracies. They are a modern phenomenon, distinguished from traditional aristocracies in that they depend on electoral endorsement.

In the way Rahul Gandhi was the sole candidate for party presidentship?

Sort of, but more generally, in the way political dynasties seek electoral validation.

So this phenomenon isn’t peculiar to India?

Not at all. As the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Clintons, the Bhuttos, the Abes, the Lees and, nearer home, the Nehru-Gandhis establish, many countries around the world have ‘democratic dynasties’. There are other examples from Brazil and the Philippines. Even non-democratic political systems have political dynasties: notably the Kims of North Korea.

Right. So how do ‘democratic dynasties’ perform?

Not very well. Researchers Siddharth George at Harvard University and Dominic Ponattu at the University of Mannheim, Germany, note in a 2017 paper, ‘Understanding the economic impacts of political dynasties: evidence from India’, that “dynasties are in general bad for economic development”.

How does one account for that?

Economic theory holds that dynastic politicians may be encouraged to invest more in their constituencies. But, in fact, they may be more motivated to cultivate “clientelistic” relationships and foster loyal “vote banks”. Second, while dynasts may theoretically have stronger incentives to govern well, they are insulated from competition to the extent that performance incentives are muted.

Why should that be?

George and Ponattu postulate that dynasts may exert lower efforts because they are insured against political failure by familial control of the party. “Even if they perform poorly, their family members may use their clout to ensure they get a party ticket,” the researchers add. In the long run, this may even corrode democracy.

How so?

Because potential challengers may be deterred: it is hard to believe that in a truly open contest, not even one person may want to contest Rahul Gandhi’s candidature. Dynastic rule has a chilling effect on political competition, which could worsen accountability and governance.

How do other countries fare?

Again, not so well. In the Philippines, for instance, 70 per cent of parliamentarians are dynasts: and, according to a 2016 study by scholars Ronald Mendoza, Edsel Beja Jr, Victor Venida and David Yap at the Asian Institute of Management, found “a worsening effect of political dynasties on poverty” — constituencies represented by dynasts tended to have more poverty and higher income inequality. A similar study of Brazil in 2015 by economists Arthur Braganca at UFMG, Claudio Ferraz at PUC-Rio and Juan Rios at Stanford University established that dynasties cause government performance to deteriorate, leading to larger governments with no significant gains in economic performance or public goods provision.

The bottomline?

Political dynasties make for bad economics and rotten development.

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Published on December 06, 2017

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