I had framed the following questions in a 23 February 2013 ‘National Interest’ headlined: One Dynasty Dimming. What has changed fundamentally in politics over the past decade, or what hasn’t? Or, what is it that has changed radically and dramatically, and yet looks like the continuation of an old, familiar pattern?
My answer then to this muddled question was: Dynastic politics. We can ask the very same questions again. The answer will also be the same.
Put more simply, dynastic politics is now on the decline, yet the phenomenon has acquired deeper roots. Dynasties of the Congress and other BJP rivals have been wiped out in these elections, but the BJP’s are thriving. We are dealing with a paradox where dynastic hold on India’s politics has declined and grown at the same time.
These conflicting political cross-currents have brought about a fundamental shift. They have hurt the Congress most of all. You could have asked any Congress leader 2012 onwards — leaders who contest elections (unlike its star cast of chronic Rajya Sabhaists) — and they will admit to you, albeit in whispers and fearfully glancing left and right, that the days when the Gandhi family could win them their seats are over. In the elections, now, it has been every man for himself for nearly a decade. So those who nurse their constituencies, or have local, caste-based or family vote banks, win their seats. Of course, it helps if the Gandhis visit to campaign as it endorses them within the party. But beyond that, their ability to win seats beyond the Amethi-Rae Bareli enclave has diminished to insignificance. Even Amethi has pulled away this time.
I had then asked a senior (and always elected) Congress leader, then why was the Gandhi family still so important and had total sway over the party? He said, surely they cannot help anybody win elections, but they keep the party together. Their word is law and the party needs that discipline. Illustration: The moment Sonia or Rahul says something, everybody nods and falls in line. If Narasimha Rao or Sitaram Kesri said something, everybody broke out in rebellion.
You could assess Rahul’s debut speech accepting the top party post in Jaipur in 2013 in this perspective. It tugged immediately at fellow partymen’s heartstrings, but made little impact beyond. So here is the answer to the first half of our question: The dynasty has become even stronger within the Congress, with not even a whiff of discontent of the kind Nehru (occasionally), Indira (twice and substantively so) and Rajiv (most significant of all) faced. From 1996 onwards, the dynasty has owned the party as never before. But its pan-national vote-catching appeal is history.
One reason the Gandhi family has lost its pan-national appeal because several new dynasties — at least 15 of them politically-significant — have risen in key electoral zones of India. Each one of these now has a strong, proprietary votebank and total ownership of its party. A pan-national dynasty no longer has the ability to breach these fortresses. From the Abdullahs in Kashmir, Badals in Punjab, Mulayam Singh in Uttar Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu and Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu, Gowdas in Karnataka, the Thackerays and Pawars in Maharashtra, Lalu in Bihar to Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and the Sangmas in distant Meghalaya, all represent dynasties that may be limited by geography but cannot be challenged by a national party. So, a Lalu may be thrashed by a Nitish, but his vote share will still remain ahead of the Congress, or even the BJP, particularly if the party was out of its alliance with the JD(U).
The inability to counter, or now challenge, the rise of these dynasties is the Congress party’s biggest failure. It has also, therefore, become the greatest game-changer in our politics. Each one of these dynasties is represented by a strong local leader who has tasted and exercised elected power. Each one has learnt the art of leveraging his regional power to grab a share of the national pie. They have also learnt that real clout, and money, is now in the states. This was explained to me most honestly by H.D. Kumaraswamy, Deve Gowda’s son, when he was briefly chief minister of Karnataka. “My father,” he said, “committed a great mistake in becoming prime minister of India.” In return for that job for a few months, he said, his father lost control over the state of Karnataka. “We all have to learn from the DMK,” he said. “Keep your hold in your own state, and then negotiate with whoever leads the coalition in Delhi for a share of national power.” The Gandhis haven’t found an answer to this. Nor can they complain about it, because they were the ones who established the principle of a political party as a closely-held family concern.
In fact, so lazy has the Congress leadership been with its politics that while its own vote base has been taken away by these satrap families, a number of mini or sub-dynasties have risen within the party. Partly because that’s where the leadership’s comfort level is: Isn’t it so much easier to deal with familiar faces, to be among your “own”, generation to generation? And partly because the party had no other mechanism to produce new crops of leaders from student, trade union or even tribal or farmers’ movements, the traditional nurseries of Indian political talent. So, the party now has Amarinder Singh, wife and son etc in Punjab, the Hoodas in Haryana, where Kiran Chaudhary represents the Bansi Lal lineage as well, Sheila Dikshit and son in Delhi, Virbhadra Singh in Himachal, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora, all of whom represent sub-dynasties and are mostly capable of winning their own seats. You can go on counting, from Narayan Rane in Maharashtra to even Pranab Mukherjee and son in West Bengal. The Congress owns them all, but is no longer capable of challenging them. It tried to defy one such, in fact the most prominent of these, and ended up creating the political disaster called Andhra Pradesh.
This is the central problem with the party: Its top leadership can no longer win national elections. Its efforts to rekindle the Gandhi-Nehru family nostalgia cannot go beyond the party faithful today. And it has no regional leaders to counter these 15-odd regional dynasts. Its own group of political scions is like a chamber of princes. They have failed to extend their influence beyond their own constituencies. The party’s politics is trapped now in this rut. And you cannot pull it out of this simply by invoking the name of the family, even five generations of it. This just won’t do in the India of 2014, three decades after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
A version of this article was first published on 23 February 2013.