Scholars both Indian and foreign have argued that the health of our democracy has deteriorated in recent years. However, one aspect of India’s democratic decline has perhaps not got the attention it deserves. This is the collapse of the party system. Indeed, in some ways, this is a more telling sign of how far Indian democracy has fallen than the attacks on press freedom, the suborning of independent institutions, the opacity of electoral funding and so on.
Consider, for instance, the recent induction by the Tamil Nadu chief minister of his son into his cabinet. Younger readers may see this as utterly normal, yet those with longer memories can only view it as antithetical to the founding ideals of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The DMK arose out of a popular movement that asserted Tamil identity in the face of the hegemonising impulses of the much more populous and, hence, more politically influential Hindi-speaking regions of India.
While the autonomy of Tamil culture and the desire to cultivate self-respect were the primary driving forces, the DMK also took a more progressive position on caste and gender than the then-northern dominated Congress Party did. Further, once in office from 1967 onwards, the DMK also sought to provide a more welfare-oriented administration than previous governments in the state had.
The DMK presented itself as a party of cultural pride and social reform. It was not meant to be a family firm. And it would perhaps never have become one had it not been for the premature death of its first chief minister, C. Annadurai. Making the DMK a family party was the handiwork of his successor, M Karunanidhi. It was he who groomed his son, MK Stalin, as his successor, thus transforming the party of Tamil pride in a direction not anticipated by its founders.
From father to son
The DMK is not the only major regional party to have followed this nepotistic route. The Shiromani Akali Dal has an even older lineage than the DMK. For many decades after its founding, its principal aim was to fight for, and defend, a robust Sikh identity. It was only under the leadership of Parkash Singh Badal that it became a family party. A similar path has been taken by other regional parties, such as the Shiv Sena and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. Indeed, when Stalin inducted his son, Udhayanidhi, into his cabinet, he was surely encouraged by the precedents set by Uddhav Thackeray and K Chandrashekhar Rao, who had already made their own sons ministers in cabinets of which they were chief minister. Then we have North Indian parties like the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtirya Janata Dal and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, whose professed ideological commitment to “social justice” is deeply vitiated by the party leadership passing in all cases from father to son.
It is my contention that none of the above may have happened if the oldest and most storied of Indian political parties had not, under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, become a family firm. The Indian National Congress of today bears only the slightest resemblance to the party of the same name that played such a critical role in the freedom struggle.
The unbridgeable difference between the one and the other is captured in (among other things) the family history of the most popular leader of the original Congress. Mahatma Gandhi had four sons; all went to jail several times while protesting British rule; none became members of Parliament, let alone ministers, in independent India. Gandhi’s youngest son, Devadas Gandhi, was asked by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to enter formal politics; he refused, choosing to stay on in his job as a newspaper editor instead. In 1949, Nehru offered to send Devadas as India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union; the following year, Nehru invited Devadas to join the Union cabinet. Mahatma Gandhi’s son, mindful of the precedent it would set, declined each time.
That sort of scruple is now, alas, entirely absent in Indian politics, and not just in the Congress Party. Indira Gandhi’s successive anointing of her sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, as her political heirs encouraged leaders of the DMK and the Akalis to promote their own children. A generation later, the refusal by Sonia Gandhi to consider anyone other than her son, Rahul, as the pre-eminent leader of the Congress has given a further stimulus to the fostering of a dynastic culture in Indian politics.
It is true that in India, many professions run in the family line. However, while a child adopting a parent’s trade can get early breaks, ultimately it is their own achievement that counts. Rohan Gavaskar became a cricketer because of his father, albeit a less successful one. Cheteshwar Pujara also became a cricketer because of his father, albeit a more successful one. Abhishek Bachchan certainly got some roles because of his father’s name, but hard as he tried, his fame never remotely equalled Amitabh’s.
Dynasticism in sport or cinema or law or literature reflects social entitlement. However, dynasticism in politics is far worse, because it is a violation of the democratic principle itself, and because it affects many more people. Moreover, in spheres outside politics, there is some degree of accountability. A lawyer less competent than her parent will get fewer briefs, a doctor less competent than his parent fewer patients. In politics, such accountability rarely exists. When Stalin or Uddhav or KCR or Sonia induct their child in a party or government they head, it sends a signal to other members that – whatever their talents and attributes — they can never aspire to the top leadership themselves.
The conversion of parties into family firms is one manifestation of democratic decline. Another is the subordination of parties to a single leader. Exhibit A here is, of course, the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP of the pre-Modi era was never captive to a personality cult in the manner that it has now become. The party then stoutly opposed “vyakti puja”, the worship of an individual, claiming that its collective leadership and inner-party democracy set it apart from the Congress of the authoritarian Indira Gandhi. A.B. Vajpayee did not dominate his cabinet in the way that Narendra Modi does, while state chief ministers from the BJP never sought to speak in cravenly sycophantic terms of their prime minister as they now do. Since May 2014, the vast resources of the Union government and of the ruling party have been devoted to the burnishing of the image of the prime minister, presenting him as a semi-divine being who carries in his person the past, present and future of the Indian nation and of Indian civilisation itself.
The Modi cult
I have previously written in these columns of the damage done to Indian democracy by the cult of Narendra Modi. Worryingly, it has begun to influence how other parties conduct their affairs. When the Aam Aadmi Party was founded, it attracted wide support for its stand against corruption and its apparent distancing from entitlement and privilege. However, over the years, it has largely become a vehicle for the personal ambitions of Arvind Kejriwal. Other Aam Aadmi Party leaders defer to him in much the same manner as other BJP leaders defer to Modi. The Delhi government spends large sums of money promoting the Kejriwal cult, perhaps proportionately as much as the Union government does promoting the Modi cult.
The idea that a single person can represent an entire party, an entire state, is also visible in the cult of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal; and even to an extent in the cult of Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala. Like the BJP, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) once prided itself on its inner-party democracy; that too, is now history, as the sacking of two of his best-performing ministers by Vijayan when the Left Front was re-elected in 2021 showed.
The degradation of the Indian party system is more or less complete, with one set of political parties becoming family firms, and another set becoming quasi-religious cults exalting their leader as a living god. The broader consequences of this depressing trend remain to be examined. The political party is arguably the most important institution of modern society, on whose healthy functioning democracy itself vitally depends.
If parties themselves operate in a culture of deference and obedience, if they mandate family-worship or hero-worship, what does this signify for the wider political culture? If a leader wants only praise from his party colleagues, would he ever be inclined to promote a free press? If a leader demands unquestioning loyalty from party members, why would he, when in power, not then demand unquestioning support for his mala fide acts of policy from the bureaucracy, the police, the media, or the judiciary?
Ramachandra Guha’s new book, Rebels Against the Raj, is now in stores. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph.