In speeches during the assembly poll campaigns in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, Prime Minister Narendra Modi targeted the Congress party for practising dynastic politics. He framed the contest as a fight between a naamdar (entitled one) and a kaamdar (someone who has worked his way up). By doing so, he sought to make these elections, being held in the states, a test of strength between himself and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. His campaign pitch may or may not have resonance among the electorate. But it does have the potential to reopen a public-political conversation on a phenomenon that is often not given enough attention. The fact is that in a robust democracy, political parties cannot be and cannot be seen to become the fiefs of political families. Having said that, however, the situation is messier than the neat oppositions the PM drew in his speeches. Of course, the Nehru-Gandhi family enjoys a privileged status and role in the Congress. But the Congress is not exceptional in promoting political dynasties: In fact, no major political party in India — from those with a national footprint like the BJP and Congress to regional outfits like the DMK, Samajwadi Party, RJD, National Conference, Trinamool Congress, TRS and NCP — can claim immunity to the pull of political dynasties.
An analysis of the elected assemblies in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh by this newspaper reveals that “naamdars” are as much a feature of the BJP as they are of the Congress. For instance, 20 of the BJP’s 165 legislators in the Madhya Pradesh assembly belong to political families while the same can be said for 17 Congress MLAs. The trend is shared by Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, though the Congress draws a larger share of its legislators from political dynasties in these assemblies compared to the BJP. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the results are unlikely to be different in other states and parties. This is a predicament in the Indian political system, which needs to be more frontally acknowledged and addressed. It makes politics less about ideas, less open and democratic.
Political parties privilege and prefer dynasties not merely because of the feudal values that continue to shape the social imagination, but also because of structural problems and blind spots in India’s electoral democracy. The opaque nature of election finances, and the prevalence of patronage networks in governance, for instance, disincentivise parties when it comes to rewarding genuine workers and cadres over privileged families. Pressure from cadres and electorates may be necessary to convince parties to push reforms that will make elections more transparent and thereby less dependent on political dynasties. Whether or not his party wins the assembly elections, PM Modi’s campaign may have served a larger purpose if it renews a conversation that could eventually influence major political parties to rethink their organising principles and priorities.