Bharatiya Janata Party leaders no longer have to feel apologetic about hailing from a political family or about promoting their sons or daughters in politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has revised his long-held opinion on the issue of dynasties to accommodate their family interests and parental aspirations. His speech on Constitution Day, 26 November, summed it up: ‘Dynastic parties are bad but dynasts are okay.’ He was not playing with political semantics. It was a course correction.
Listen to his speech that he delivered in the Central Hall of Parliament, again. He flagged concerns about how political parties – “for the family” and “by the family” – have lost their “democratic character.” Dynastic parties are against the spirit of democracy and the Constitution, said Modi. And then he explained what obviously was his revised stand: “When I say dynastic parties, I do not mean to say that more than one person from one family shouldn’t enter politics. Jee nahin (of course not). A party does not become dynastic if more than one person of one family enters politics by virtue of their ability and blessings of the people.”
Modi was seeking to make a distinction. He has no issues with political dynasts who have abilities and public support. But parties that are run by a family one generation after another are “a threat to healthy democracy.”
To illustrate his point, parties such as the Indian National Congress (Nehru-Gandhi family), the Samajwadi Party (Yadav family), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Karunanidhi family), Rashtriya Janata Dal (Yadav family), the Shiv Sena (Thackeray family) and the Trinamool Congress (Banerjee family), among others, are a threat to democracy. But this can’t apply to dynasts such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Piyush Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan, Anurag Thakur, and Kiren Rijiju – all Cabinet ministers in the Modi government. Nor can it apply to BJP’s chief ministers such as Basavaraj Bommai of Karnataka or Pema Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh.
There are a few other CMs such as Naveen Patnaik (Odisha) and Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy (Andhra Pradesh) – BJP’s collaborators in Parliament – who are dynasts and running parties. But technically, they are also not a threat to democracy because they are the first-generation leaders of the parties they founded – Biju Janata Dal and YSR Congress Party. These parties aren’t controlled by a family “one generation after another”, so to speak. Modi-baiters may quibble because he allied with the Shiv Sena or the Lok Janshakti Party (of Paswans) in the past or is still allying with the Apna Dal (Sone Lal-Anupriya Patel family). Well, the past is past. As for the present, Anupriya has split her father’s party to found Apna Dal (Soneylal) and so, technically, her party is also not a threat to democracy.
How is Modi’s latest stand on dynasty different?
It’s the first time that Modi has sought to distinguish between dynasts and dynastic parties. He always spoke against “family-run parties” but never endorsed political dynasties.
He rejected “parivarvad” with broad sweeps, virtually blaming dynastic politics for discriminatory allocation of power in the socio-economic and political context – in favour of the haves and excluding have-nots. He would target those who have been “winning elections on the basis of surnames.” Addressing the National Youth Parliament Festival last January, he exhorted the youth to join politics to end “this poison of dynasty” that undermines our democracy: “Those who have grown from dynasty think…nobody will be able to do anything to them… They see successful examples of that in their homes. Therefore, neither do these people have any respect for law, nor do they have any fear of it.”
Therefore, PM Modi’s Constitution Day speech, endorsing dynasts who are capable and who have a mass base is a big shift.
Why PM Modi has gone soft on dynasts
During his chief ministerial days, when he started lambasting the Gandhis for perpetuating dynastic politics and blaming it for many ills in Indian politics, BJP leaders clapped. After he became the Prime Minister in 2014, BJP leaders would cite his anti-dynasty stand to explain the exclusion of many young dynasts from the government. So, Anurag Thakur, a dynamic leader who first became an MP in 2008, was kept out of the government because he is the son of former Himachal Pradesh chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal. It was only after Dhumal went into virtual political retirement that Anurag was inducted as a junior minister in 2019, an opportunity he capitalised on to prove his mettle and earn promotion in two years.
Poonam Mahajan, another talented and dynamic leader who had succeeded Anurag as Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) chief, must sit out of the government because, as BJP leaders say, she is the daughter of late Pramod Mahajan. Ex-Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh’s son, Abhishek, can’t even ask his party bosses why he as a sitting MP was denied a party ticket in 2019. Dushyant Singh, a four-term parliamentarian, has been kept outside the government and given no party responsibility because he happens to be former Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Scindia’s son. There are examples galore of how being dynasts cost many young BJP leaders much even as another group of dynasts (look at the list mentioned above) made it big in the government, thanks to their proximity with the powers that be.
So, why has Modi revised his views about dynasts now? Well, on the face of it, one could be tempted to attribute it to the BJP’s loss of face in the recent bypolls for 30 assembly and three parliamentary polls. There were many seats – say, Jubbal-Kotkhai in Himachal Pradesh and Hangal in Karnataka – where the BJP decided to deny tickets to family members of the deceased legislators and lost the bypolls. But it’d be naïve to assume that PM Modi would change his views just because of bypoll losses.
There was a time when the BJP central leadership would deny tickets to anyone, without a murmur in the party. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, for instance, it denied ticket to Anant Kumar’s wife, Tejaswini – a very popular face in Bangalore South constituency, which Kumar had won for six consecutive terms – and fielded Tejasvi Surya, instead. Party leaders wouldn’t say a word. Times are changing now. After the recent bypoll losses, BJP leaders across states are questioning the party’s decision to deny tickets to family members.
Many in the BJP aren’t very convinced by the leadership’s stand. They don’t speak publicly but their whispers are loud enough. Their common refrain as summarised by this writer is: “If a doctor’s child can be a doctor and an engineer’s child an engineer, what’s wrong with a politician’s son or daughter? Why would I make extra efforts to nurture a constituency if I can’t pass on the legacy to my family? If someone in my family has a knack for politics, why should he or she suffer because I’m a politician? Anyway, Modiji can’t understand.”
While the larger concern about dynastic politics resulting in unequal distribution of power is valid, there are also many questions that are difficult to answer – Why should Pankaj Singh, an energetic and sharp politician and Noida MLA, be on the sidelines just because he is defence minister Rajnath Singh’s son? What’s wrong if Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s son, Jay, decides at some point of time to take a plunge into politics? And is it fair to put down Shaurya Doval’s political ambition because he happens to be National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s son? In Doval’s case, it’s not even about political dynasty.
There have been numerous such questions swirling around in BJP circles. One doesn’t know if some of them reached Modi’s ears or whether he was struck by the sheer hypocrisy of his anti-dynasty stand in a party and the government full of dynasts. Or was it the eventual acceptance of some bitter truths like the utility of dynasts – or the futility of rejecting them – in Indian electoral politics?
Whatever be the case, PM Modi has won many hearts in the BJP with his revised stand on dynasts and dynastic politics.
The author tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)