Chirag Paswan proved himself incapable of keeping the Lok Janshakti Party in Bihar together. But it isn’t just his questionable political skills that is under the scanner; there is that defining aspect of Indian politics too — dynastic rule. Handout political legacies are a touchy subject in India, but for regional parties, they seem to have become a necessary evil.
Necessary, because the succession line in regional parties almost always comprises a family member ready to take over the reins. If not, the party faces the danger of being relegated to the shadows once the main leader is no longer around. With the political dynasty mantle, what is also passed down are secrets, stashed wealth and status quo. This ensures an armour and immunity for regional leaders long after they step down, something that true democracy doesn’t guarantee.
In the 2020 Bihar assembly election, Chirag Paswan played his cards all wrong — fielding candidates in seats the Janata Dal (United) was contesting only to pull Nitish Kumar down. He may have dented JD(U)’s prospects then, but an astute politician would have known this would hurt in the longer run. And hurt Chirag it did. Nitish Kumar has worked meticulously to isolate the young Paswan, with five of the six MPs of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) rebelling against him. Paswan expelled the MPs, who returned the favour by removing him as the chief of LJP.
Naturally then, public attention fell on dynastic politics and just how easily dynasts, like Chirag Paswan, end up squandering the legacy that is handed down to them. But there is more to it than dismissing the Paswan-LJP incident as the outcome of an inexperienced and undeserving politician’s rise to power.
Regional leaders and lack of trust
Dynasties reek of nepotism and unfair promotion. But what would happen to regional parties if dynasties didn’t exist? Indian politicians can be so insecure about their turf that they don’t quite groom a second rung of leaders unless there is a family member waiting in the wings.
Trust is a difficult thing in politics, more so where it concerns ‘outsiders’.
From Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu to Bal Thackeray in Maharashtra, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal — regional leaders become cult figures, drive movements, and build parties and the politics of their respective states. But in their tendency to centralise control and power, they often don’t groom anyone in their party who can replace them when the need arises.
Just look at what happened to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu after Jayalalithaa’s death. The party went into free-fall, with internal friction, rebellions, splits and a turbulence it has never quite recovered from. Sure, it did much better in the recent assembly election than expected, but there is little denying that the party is now a pale shadow of its former self. Contrast this with the DMK after Karunanidhi’s departure — his son Stalin took charge and is now the chief minister.
Similarly, what is the future of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U)? Or of Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD)? They have no second rung ready to take charge, no leader they trust enough to groom and no real investment has been made to ensure the parties don’t perish once they are gone. In the BJD, Jay Panda was a potential successor but decided to jump ship when he and Patnaik developed differences.
Mamata Banerjee’s recent decision to appoint her nephew Abhishek Banerjee as the Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s national general secretary also drew criticism for promoting the dynasty. But does Mamata trust anybody else in her party to give the reins to?
This is not to make a case for dynastic politics. That it is a deep malaise is a given. But there is a larger, more complex point about the limitations of regional satraps and their inability to ensure the baton is passed into capable hands while they are around, so that there is no ambiguity or tussle to disintegrate the party once they are gone. Not everybody is a Kanshi Ram, who groomed his protégée Mayawati, who, in turn, went on to take the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to greater heights.
From the Abdullahs and Muftis in Jammu and Kashmir to the Thackerays in Maharashtra, and Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh to Tejashwi Yadav in Bihar — dynasties have kept parties like the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Shiv Sena, Samajwadi Party, and Rashtriya Janata Dal afloat.
Why dynasts have a bad name
If merit was a criterion for succession, could India’s regional parties have done better? Perhaps they would have. But merit, unfortunately, is hardly the chosen virtue in politics.
Dynastic politics has become a dirty phrase. And not without reason. The biggest example is the Congress party, where dynastic transition has ensured it continues to function as India’s main opposition party despite much to show for it. The unsuccessful stints of Rahul Gandhi, and now Priyanka Gandhi, are proof of how wrong this entitled transition can go if the dynasts are not the right match. The Congress’ continued refusal to look beyond the Gandhi family has left the national party holding on to straws.
But parties like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — with a wide cadre and organisation base, and established state units with strong leaders — have the option of looking beyond the dynasts. They have mass leaders who have emerged onto the national scene utilising their party’s network and across-states presence. Regional outfits don’t have a wide pool to organically throw up mass leaders beyond the party chieftains.
Yes, the desirable way for a TMC or LJP or JD(U) would be to choose successors based on merit and standing, instead of familial relations. But for most regional leaders, blood is thicker than their politics, and they would rather their political legacies vanish after them than see ‘outsiders’ take over and turn the party into something they don’t recognise or have no control over its affairs. The choice, therefore, comes between perpetuating a dynastic culture or letting decades of their struggle to simply die, slowly, as they helplessly watch. Evil, then, becomes a necessity. Is it any wonder that the challenge to Chirag Paswan comes not from an outsider but an uncle, just like it did for Akhilesh Yadav from uncle Shivpal Yadav?
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)