Looking beyond dynastic and entitlement politics

Suman K Jha | Updated on November 15, 2020

Why the Modi-Nitish template should trigger debate and lead to political reforms

From Gandhiji to JP, Bihar is a land that has inspired change. The just-concluded State Assembly elections, too, have important takeaways that should be debated, and they should lead to reforms.

Nitish Kumar was given a spirited fight in the election by challenger Tejashwi Yadav, who almost managed to unseat the three-time Chief Minister. The two leaders and the parties they represent are a study in contrast. Nitish leads probably the only big regional formation in the country where the supreme leader has not sought to pass on the baton to some one in the family, or to a relative.

Tejashwi, on the other hand, belongs to a family where his mother, brother and sister are among the beneficiaries of the political innings of his father and former Chief Minister, Lalu Prasad. In terms of a family doubling up as a political party, Lalu’s family is comparable to Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family.

But why single out these two families? From Jammu and Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, from Maharashtra to West Bengal, from Haryana to Andhra and Telangana, the story is the same: Entrenched political players often seek to make their families their party, and the parties they lead as their family fiefdoms.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said in one of his public meetings in Bihar that he and Nitish didn’t have their families to fight for the spoils of power and that they were ranged against two entrenched “Yuvrajs”.

But not many even in the BJP have emulated what Modi has sought to project. Examples of BJP Chief Ministers and other party leaders promoting their children in politics are commonplace. Many families of political entrepreneurs have risen in the BJP too, denting the claim of being a party with a difference. Of course, nowhere is dynasty politics as institutionalised and blatant as in Congress. The party’s inability and refusal to keep pace with aspirational India has been at the cost of its health, democratic credentials and national obligations.

Dynasties are a reality the world over. Whether it’s in business, bureaucracy, entertainment, or politics, for that matter, we often hear about ‘First Families’.

Researchers Siddharth Eapen George and Dominic Ponattu, in a 2018 paper, note that political dynasties are present in over 145 countries. They note that nearly half of democratic countries has often elected leaders from the same family.

Talking about India, they note that the percentage of dynast MPs grew from 1.1 per cent in 1952 to 8 per cent in 2014. That the problem of dynasty-based politics is a deep-rooted is shown up by the fact that 35 per cent of villages have been “ruled” by some dynasty or the other since Independence.

Hurting democracy

Dynasties are the antithesis of democracy and it is a global problem. South Asia has seen many prominent political dynasties. Dynasties are particularly problematic in India.

If family-based regional parties are part of the problem, the Congress best exemplifies what ails our system.

One of the principal reasons for the decline of the Congress has been its inability to read India’s transformation from a paternal state to an aspirational state, where entitlements are a thing of the past.

This, however, doesn’t mean that someone born in a political family should not have a right to a career in politics.

The Bihar results, therefore, provide us the right opportunity to craft an institutional mechanism of checks and balances to ensure that while individual rights are respected, a level-playing field for all is also created at the same time.

While in the case of the judiciary, as also in the case of bureaucracy, we have often heard debates calling for a “cooling off” period before a retired judge or a retired bureaucrat is allowed to occupy some other office.

In the same vein, we need to discuss political reforms. One such measure could be that an immediate family member of an elected public representative must spend seven to 10 years as a primary member of the party before s/he becomes eligible for any position either in the party or any other public office.

Otherwise India runs the risk of getting controlled and stifled by a clutch of political families, closing the avenues for outsiders and commoners in the world of politics.

From a world of entitlement to empowerment, India has come a long way. It’s for the political parties to show that they are in sync with India’s evolution. Bihar results should occasion a debate on the future politics in India that is open, equal, and just.

The writer, a JNU alumnus, is a former journalist

Published on November 15, 2020

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