“Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.”
― Alexander Pope, The Dunciad
(with apologies to Alexander Pope)
The soap opera ‘Dynasty’, based on a fictional wealthy family in Denver, Colorado, USA, aired on America’s ABC Channel from 1981 to 1989. A much longer soap opera has aired on the Indian political scene for the last sixty years or so. Continuing with the glorious tradition of the Gupta, Chola and Chalukya dynasties as well as the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal dynasties, independent India has reinvented dynastic rule in a democratic framework. The creature has mutated in new forms over the years, transcending the boundaries of political affiliation, caste, religion and gender, and is now well entrenched on the national scene as well as in nearly every state in India.
In the beginning, as in many other stories of independent India, there was the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The handover of the Prime Ministerial baton, albeit with a runner in between, from one generation of Nehrus to the next, was followed in the 1970s and 1980s by Generation X of varying dynasties ascending to the top of the pyramid. It did not take long for the framework to be copied across the board and the 1990s and the first ten years of the present century have seen Generation Y asserting their birthright to rule, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Dwarka to Dimapur. Almost no political party can claim to be immune to this phenomenon. What does this portend for the future of Indian democracy?
For a start, dynastic succession imposes severe barriers to entry and stifles competition, with adverse consequences for merit and efficiency. The first generation of the dynasty could be drawn from a professional political family, a former ruling princely family, a johnny-come-lately neo-rich real estate or liquor baron or a more modest loyal servitor of one of the above classes, whose major virtue is his/her undying loyalty to the powers that be. The absence of inner party democracy and the prevalence of widespread sycophancy ensure that election tickets circulate within a small body of modern-day monarchs and oligarchs, with the occasional concessions being made to celebrities, professionals and out of work bureaucrats, police and army officers. To be fair to it, the modern Indian dynastic system does not necessarily operate by the laws of primogeniture — spouses, sisters, brothers and daughters can all be successors to the jagir of the patriarch (or matriarch, as the case may be). Whether or not India applies it on the sports field, the phrase “catch them young” certainly applies in the political battlefield. A recent analysis of Indian MPs found that all MPs below the age of 30 were drawn from political lineages. The high costs of fighting elections and the benefits of political patronage ensure that those with a family political background start life in politics with a significant advantage.
Hereditary accession is certainly no guarantee of ability in governance, whether in the corporate sector or in politics. The easy access to position and wealth generates complacency and a certain distancing from the electorate. This is changing swiftly in recent years as anti-incumbency has kicked in in the last few elections. And yet, there are many parliamentarians and legislators who are just not able to make a mark in their constituencies and deliver the services that their constituents expect of them. A major reason for this is that many of these legislators/parliamentarians are complete greenhorns in public administration. The political generation of the 1950s to 1970s (Generation W, should we call them?) had been schooled either in the struggle for independence or in local administration in village panchayats, Zilla Parishads or municipal bodies. When they became legislators or parliamentarians they already had a good understanding of how the wheels of government moved — many of them were consequently very able administrators, who were respected and feared by their bureaucrats. Generations X and Y have often been born with the proverbial silver spoon and hence have had neither the time nor the inclination to master the details and intricacies of public administration.
A third vitiating factor has been the growing and easy access to patronage and business cronies. Businessmen and contractors have established cosy linkages with politicians; in a number of instances, they have themselves jumped into the political fray, given their access to resources. As we move from Generation W to Generation Y, the tendency to succumb to the lure of easy money, coupled with the astronomical costs of fighting elections, has seen a throwing of ethical norms to the winds and a general acceptance of the principle that all’s fair in politics, whether in manipulating contracts, auctioning postings or protecting shady friends from the arm of the law. Where Generation X/Y politicians try to carve out their own paths clear of these obstacles, they are often obstructed by the party oligarchs of an earlier generation, who resent any interference in their existing, comfortable status quo.
There is a very real danger that mediocrity and superficial involvement will crowd out excellence and passionate commitment in the political arena. It is already noticeable that very few legislators can grasp the complexities of public policy and the intricacies of law-making. Innovation and bold decision making in government have also taken a back seat with political leaders going in for feel-good and expedient solutions that favour certain social groups rather than sweeping institutional reforms that can significantly transform the lives of their countrymen and women. In this rather dismal scenario, the growing restlessness of the middle classes, if harnessed on constructive lines, can play a major role in enforcing political accountability for outcomes that set India on a trajectory of rapid growth and development that reaches the largest proportion of the population. As the philosopher Karl Popper defines it, the identifying characteristic of a democracy is the change in government without bloodshed. Political parties that fail to focus on long-term solutions or rely on obsolete ideologies run the risk of being marginalised or even wiped out. It is time they read the writing on the wall.