Anurag Thakur, who won from the Hamirpur Lok Sabha seat for the fourth time, is the son of former Himachal Pradesh chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal. But he attributes his win to his development work and to Narendra Modi’s “charismatic and decisive leadership”, not to his DNA. Poonam Mahajan, who retained her Mumbai North Central seat, is the daughter of late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan. Varun Gandhi, who won from Pilibhit, is the son of Maneka Gandhi, who herself won from Sultanpur. Former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s son Dushyant Singh won the election from Jhalawar-Baran. Pritam Munde, daughter of late BJP leader Gopinath Munde, won from Beed.
And yet they say dynasty is dead.
Yes, families certainly seemed to have failed for some in the Congress, with Sushmita Dev, daughter of former Union minister Santosh Mohan Dev, losing from Silchar; Jyotiraditya Scindia, son of Madhavrao Scindia, losing from Guna; Vaibhav Gehlot, son of Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, losing from Jodhpur; Milind Deora, son of late Union minister Murli Deora, losing from Mumbai South; and Manvendra Singh, son of former BJP Union minister Jaswant Singh, losing from Barmer. Deora, who had got the backing of powerful residents of south Mumbai for his candidacy — among them Mukesh Ambani and Uday Kotak — can only say “India has changed. I can only hope it is for the better”.
The biggest reverberation of that transformation, from an old feudal idea of entitlement to a new culture of meritocracy, is embodied in the defeat of Rahul Gandhi from Amethi, which has been the go-to constituency for his family and friends since 1980, with the exception of one year when it was won by Sanjay Singh who was then in the BJP.
Equally, though, there have been dynastic victories for the Congress. Gaurav, son of former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, retained his seat from Kaliabor, while Nakul Nath, won from father Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath’s prized constituency, Chhindwara, and Karthi Chidambaram was victorious from Sivaganga.
Family firms may have taken a beating in Samajwadi Party (Akhilesh Yadav’s wife, Dimple Yadav, lost from Kannauj; and his cousin, Akshay Yadav, lost from Firozabad), and in RJD (Misa Bharti lost in Pataliputra, although her brother and current head of the party Tejashwi Yadav was always ambivalent about her candidacy). But family firms are alive and well in Odisha, where Naveen Patnaik swept to power for the fifth time as chief minister and triumphed in the Lok Sabha elections as well; in Andhra Pradesh, where YS Jaganmohan Reddy was victorious in the assembly and Lok Sabha elections; in Tamil Nadu, where MK Stalin’s half-sister K Kanimozhi won from Thoothukkudi; in Punjab where the powerful Badal couple won (Sukhbir from Firozpur and Harsimrat from Bathinda). Another BJP ally, LJP, has also performed well on the family politics index. Former actor and son of Ram Vilas Paswan, Chirag Paswan has returned to the Lok Sabha from Jamui.
And there will always be Baramati, which was won for the third time by Supriya Sule — her father Sharad Pawar entered the Maharashtra assembly by winning the same seat in 1967.
One of the biggest lessons from 2019 Lok Sabha election is said to be the rejection of the politics of prerogative in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘New India’ and the assertion of politics of endeavour, choosing the kaamdars over the naamdars. That would suggest the two are mutually exclusive, that dynasts cannot be diligent, and that those who emerge from the grassroots are invariably hard working. Himanta Biswa Sarma, one of the earliest critics of this brand of hierarchical politics, certainly believes so. “Many privileged dynasties have come apart in this election,” he points out. “The old order has changed. But people do respect those who start their innings from the grassroots despite being from political families.”
The brilliant Sociologist Maitrayee Chaudhuri, author of several books, among them ‘Feminism in India: the Tale and its Telling’, believes we have all become victims of propaganda. She says: “The last five years and more has seen a carefully orchestrated story being built up. The story is simple. The message is clear. It is about the good and bad; the hardworking and the privileged — ‘the kaamdar’ against ‘the naamdar’; the ‘incorruptible’ against the ‘corrupt’. The hero and villain of the story has been set. This message has bombarded us through mainstream media and communicated night and day with Whatsapp messaging.” The messaging, she adds, has been so strong that even as some of us seek to examine its merit, we do so in exactly the same language that the framework of analysis has been set. If the winner is the hero with raw wisdom; the loser can only be the fool. Nuanced takes are time-consuming in times when we need not just the soundbite (even that is too long) but either affirmations or negations.
She believes Rahul Gandhi was against extraordinary odds. One, to head a party that had lost its moorings with social movements, which once upon a time constituted the core of the Indian National Congress. Two, to battle against an extraordinarily well-crafted image-damaging exercise. Three, to try — and he did — to bring in larger questions of an inclusive India; of the last woman in the line; of love and compassion. How do you speak this in a noxious environment of a discourse of exterminating termites from their homes? The battle, she adds, is long and hard. “The easiest is to blame it all on Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, and shrug all blame and responsibilities for the impasse that India has reached.”
Even easier is to construct a narrative of nation over the family, even though everyone else indulges in the same privilege at the first opportunity. It’s one of the oldest and most examined social phenomena in the world, and Vilfredo Pareto called it the circulation of elites, where a minority will always dominate over the majority. And history is nothing but the story of one elite replacing the other, a contest between the Machiavellian foxes and the more conservative, forceful lions.
The prolific historian Patrick French was one of the first to study dynastic MPs in depth. “When I published the study of dynastic MPs in 2011,” he says, “it was clear they were spreading across parties and to state level. That remains true in 2019, even if individual politicians lost partly because the BJP had developed a narrative of anti-dynasty or anti-entitlement. Many political families still won at the polls: Poonam Mahajan, Dushyant Singh, Naveen Patnaik, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, for example.” The hereditary principle is changing, he believes, but it has not disappeared. “Globally, the politics of dynasty are thriving – look at the Trump White House,” he says.
Kaveree Bamzai is a senior journalist and former editor of India Today.