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A chaiwala is PM, but it’s the cartel of power elites that calls the shots in India

Powerful political families mediate between the state and the society, shape policies, and bend the administrative machinery in line with their interests.

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The rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the centre stage has often been claimed as the beginning of the end of dynastic culture in Indian politics. The electoral loss of several prominent dynasts including Rahul Gandhi’s defeat in Amethi gave further fillip to this idea, but make no mistake, India’s political system is very much overrun by political families dominating over their respective fiefdoms.

Some estimates suggest that approximately 30 per cent of the elected MPs in 2019 are from political families, up from a quarter on average from elections between 2004 and 2014. These political families are generally not of aristocratic lineage but very modern, emerging in the 1960s and afterwards, and adept at navigating democratic politics and capturing democratic institutions.

Also read: Even if you take Rahul Gandhi out of politics, the idea of India won’t spring back to life

Constraining state capacity

What has been the consequence of the entrenchment of these political families at the local state? Moreover, in what ways the dominance of these families has constrained the capacity of the Indian state to meet the everyday demands of its citizens?

Political scientist Donald Rosenthal, in a 1977 influential study of Kolhapur and Pune districts in Maharashtra, showed in great detail that a relatively small segment, which he called “the expansive elite”, made disproportionate gains from critical state policies in areas of agricultural investment, educational opportunity, and rural local government. Not much has changed in the four decades since Rosenthal’s study. Anyone who has travelled across rural India, and interacted with local elites would very quickly piece together a story of how modern-day political empires are created and operate in electoral democracies.

Power elites in rural India often operate like a cartel — a well-oiled-machinery maintained by few powerful elites, who are generally from dominant castes, tend to keep political offices (across various levels) within the family, collude with bureaucratic agents, and oversee a large patronage network that has links with criminal entrepreneurs, contractors, and brokers.

These powerful political families mediate the relationship between the state and the society, shape the implementation of policies, and bend the administrative machinery in line with their interests. As Paul Brass has noted in a different context, “local power cannot persist without control over or influence in government institutions.” By capturing local institutions, and leveraging social divisions, these political families firmly ensconce themselves in networks of power and create formidable barriers to entry for people from ordinary backgrounds in the electoral process. It is not surprising then that India’s political representatives have disproportionate wealth and more than often have criminal linkages.

Also read: Why Sonia Gandhi should give her son Rahul a longer ‘break’

Concentration of power

There is a long list of scholars detailing the connection between the concentration of power and sub-par social and economic outcomes, including poor education and local governance. The move to decentralise governance process since the 1990s, as emerging research suggests, rather than limiting the power of local elites have in act increased their control and dispense state benefits as personalised patronage. The decision of where to build a road or a pond (under MGNREGA) is often part of the local political calculus, a transaction where favours are given in exchange for loyalty. This is how local elites accumulate their political capital and maintain their status as leaders who know how to ‘work the state’.

“If local elites are strong enough, then state building will not be attempted or will be limited,” argues the MIT economist Daron Acemoglu. While national elites might often be in favour of reforming the state and building state capacity, local elites will be always opposed to such reform because their power depends on their ability to dispense patronage. Their enormous influence stems from controlling the network of power at the local level, dispensing patronage through their connections with the local bureaucracy — the revenue officials, the development officials and crucially the police.

Also read: Devi Lal’s family on top of Haryana politics again, with fourth-gen dynast Dushyant Chautala

Influence on local police

Furthermore, one of the key levers of power of local elites is their influence with the police. If cases need to be dropped, or court proceedings slowed down, these power brokers are often the first port of call. There are often caste or party linkages underpinning this relationship, for example, the hold of Yadav SHOs during the rule of Samajwadi Party or the chants of return of Thakurvaad during the current BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. The party-caste-police linkages then find overlaps in the world of organised crime which is shielded by local political strongmen. These age-old networks between protected criminals and the machinery of law and order are maintained in exchange of monetary and political benefits.

Many of these political strongmen are themselves involved in criminal and illicit enterprises and use their contacts in state capitals to legitimize and protect their businesses. The local bureaucrats which prove meddlesome can be promptly transferred out by working the capital contacts. In many places, legal businesses with high potential for rent-extraction such as sand mining, coal mining, construction, and real estate have been largely captured by local elites with political connections. The firms which are not directly controlled by them are forced to pay extractive rents to local party bosses, which acts as a severe dampener to entrepreneurship and growth.

The capacity of the Indian state to meet the demands of its citizens has been severely curtailed by the persistence of such political elites across the geography. This has inhibited the process of economic development, suffocated democratic aspirations, and thwarted upward mobility of the majority of the citizenry. The Indian state needs to be urgently rescued from the powerful clutches of local dynasties. Alas, as the famous Urdu couplet goes “mera qatil he mera munsif hai” [my murderer is going to be the judge of my case].

Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. Asim Ali is Research Associate at CPR. Views are personal.

This series of articles is a curtain-raiser to the CPR Dialogues, an international conference on public policy, to be hosted by the Centre for Policy Research on 2 and 3 March in New Delhi. is the digital partner for the conference. Read all the articles in the series here.

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  1. Absolutely right and so relevant for a country like ours. Power elites at the local level are as much a challenge for democracy (and social justice) as crony capitalism. These local elites operated in their own territoru, and are now becoming mercenaries of the top 1%, which makes the nexus far worse. They assist and execute in land grabs for industries, monopolize panchayat resources, influence government postings and so much more. Much more on this topic would be welcome.

  2. The article seems to condone “national elites”. Do these elites grow national without first being local elites?

  3. This is one of the best articles on power broking I have read. In India , while amassing fortune and dispensing patronage many politicians are in jail but of course that does not make much of a difference to their career. If were it not for the supreme Court judgement these people could be CM in jail.At the root of the problem is impoverish ment and lack of quality education.

  4. This is an interesting take on things. Somethings that we accept as they are, part of the system, minor versions of crony capitalism. But then, there is hope for change, and there is change in some aspects as well.

  5. No wondor ..print has stopped showing omments…i mean wt a hogwash article…no case study..nothing to back up…only few international names of some unrelated people…i dont understand how these people get a platform for such write ups…

    • I thought it was a well informed article. if you are unable to attack the content of the post then rather than attacking the messangers maybe you can learn some humility and educate yourself

      • That’s the point u thought. Just like that he also thought along his lines. Don’t force ur views on others. Isn’t that the byword for ppl like you and u highlight this everywhere. But when someone does it u have a problem and resort to attacking others views.
        Better to look urself in the mirror urself and realize how bad ur soul really is.
        Agree with the author but anyway this power elite has been the case before and will be there in future too. That’s just how the world clicks. Nothing will be flawless ever in any part of the world.
        If u have problem only with this coz of bjp and modi only, then maybe ur blind to how CONgress operates or u like their appeasement coz of obvious reasons.

    • Seems like you are sensitive to criticism of the BJP’s corruption. Let us be blunt : Modi came to power only through organising a communal riot and therefore he is a Hindu hero.

      The last sentence sums up Modi : Alas, as the famous Urdu couplet goes “mera qatil he mera munsif hai” [my murderer is going to be the judge of my case].

      Modi and RSS will send kar sevaks with trishuls on trains, burn them, and say Muslims did it; and you will believe without evidence, and murder more. You are incapable of making India developed.

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