The principle of primogeniture that has determined succession in India’s political dynasties is under stress. Former Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala recently overlooked the claims of his elder son, Ajay Chautala, to hand over the reins of the family-run Indian National Lok Dal to his younger son, Abhay Chautala.

In Bihar, after the Grand Alliance comprising the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and the Congress swept to power in 2015, former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav had his younger son, Tejashwi Yadav, appointed the deputy chief minister, signalling that he did not intend to pass the dynastic sceptre, so to speak, to his elder son, Tej Pratap Yadav.

These choices of the patriarchs have caused much heartburn to their children, even leading to a revolt in the Chautala dynasty. This can be ascribed to India’s ageist culture, which presumes that the patriarch’s eldest child, or the male next to him in age among his kin, is best suited to preside over the dynasty.

Indeed, ageism was what drove the conflict in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election. In that unseemly battle, the former chief minister’s son Akhilesh Yadav fought his uncle Shivpal Yadav for control of their Samajwadi Party. Akhilesh Yadav, then chief minister, ultimately trumped his uncle, who has since floated his own party, Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party Lohia. Ageists backed Shivpal Yadav as he is 18 years older than Akhilesh Yadav.

Ageism exerts its pull even when the age difference between contenders is minimal – Tej Pratap Yadav is only a year older to Tejashwi Yadav, but he has not reconciled to his younger brother being declared, last November, the chief ministerial candidate of the family-run Rashtriya Janata Dal. He had earlier been appointed the leader of the Opposition after the Grand Alliance government collapsed in 2017.

It seemingly riles Tej Pratap Yadav that since the coalition government’s collapse deprived him of his status as a minister, he has been an ordinary MLA. When his demand for a party post for a close aide was rebuffed, he tweeted that he was thinking of placing Arjun on the throne and retiring to Dwarka. Put simply, he, like Lord Krishna, had no interest other than to inspire the Yadav clan’s Arjun – Tejashwi Yadav – to fight the battle for chief ministership. It is by constructing an image of the selfless brother that Tej Pratap Yadav seeks to overcome the slight that, in India’s ageist culture, is inherent in his father overlooking him for the leadership of their party. On another occasion, he cautioned those who were trying to create a rift between Balram and Krishna, thereby likening himself to Balram, who loved his younger brother Krishna.

But Tej Pratap Yadav has also vented his fury. He once said, “Party people don’t receive my calls and say they have been asked by senior leaders to do so.” The lack of deference within the Rashtriya Janata Dal to his seniority has led to the Opposition invoking ageism to prick Tej Pratap Yadav’s pride. For example, Bharatiya Janata Party vice president Devesh Kumar was quoted as saying that though his party abhors dynastic politics, going by the Hindu tradition, Tej Pratap Yadav, being the elder son, deserved to be Lalu Yadav’s political heir.

Charting a new course

Lalu Yadav set aside the principle of primogeniture because he thought Tejashwi Yadav was a better choice to lead the dynastic party. Although both brothers are school dropouts, Tejashwi Yadav acquired cosmopolitan polish studying in Delhi. He was a member of the Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League, played a couple of Ranji Trophy matches, and an assortment of Under-15 and Under-19 cricket tournaments.

Mingling with people from diverse social backgrounds has provided the younger Yadav a persona that can help him connect with the expanding middle class. Though Tej Pratap Yadav is more in the mould of his father, earthy and rustic, Lalu Yadav still recognised Tejashwi Yadav as the man for the future.

As India has changed, so has Lalu Yadav. It was perhaps his desire to bring into his family an educated, English-speaking daughter-in-law that led Lalu Yadav to choose Aishwariya Rai as Tej Prasad Yadav’s wife. They were a mismatch – she was schooled at Patna’s elite Notre Dame Academy and graduated from Miranda House, Delhi. Perhaps Lalu Prasad thought the marriage could smooth Tej Pratap Yadav’s rough edges that his aborted schooling hadn’t.

But the marriage was also Lalu Yadav’s search for social respectability. Aishwariya Rai is the granddaughter of Daroga Rai, Bihar’s chief minister in 1970. The Rais are what could be described as the vintage Yadav family, and a marital alliance with such a family has social and political advantages. Tej Pratap Yadav, though, seems unwilling to subordinate his individuality to the dynasty’s larger interest.

Before initiating the divorce proceedings against his wife, Tej Pratap Yadav said, “I had told my parents that I did not wish to marry at this moment of time. But nobody listened to me…I am a simple man with simple habits while she is a modern woman, educated in Delhi, and used to living in a metropolis.” He has, till now, continued to rebuff his family’s pleas to make up with his wife.

Tej Pratap Yadav has rebuffed his family’s pleas to make up with his wife. Photo credit: PTI
Tej Pratap Yadav has rebuffed his family’s pleas to make up with his wife. Photo credit: PTI

Tej Pratap Yadav’s penchant for being his own man suggests that he can become a problem to Tejashwi Yadav, whose political graph continues to rise. The setting aside of the principle of primogeniture by his father may well become Tej Yadav’s rallying call.

Lalu Yadav could have tellingly courted modernity had he passed the dynastic crown to his eldest child, Misa Bharti. He did not because of patriarchy, it is contended. An MBBS, Bharti is in her mid-40s, many years elder to her brothers. So, both education and ageism favoured her. Bharti did have the first shy at power. Her political path might have turned out differently had she not lost her maiden Lok Sabha election in 2014. Bharti is said to have pressured her father to get her elected to the Rajya Sabha. It only seems to have whetted her political appetite.

According to The Telegraph, the night before the Grand Alliance government took office in 2015, Bharti flew into a rage. She wondered why she had been overlooked for a Cabinet berth despite being the eldest of Lalu Yadav’s nine children and the first among them to enter politics. It took Nitish Kumar and his advisor, Prashant Kishor, to pacify Bharti.

Her political ambition is why many looked askance at a comment she made last month: “Five fingers are never the same. In my family there are differences between my brothers. RJD is a bigger family.” Patna’s rumour mill went into overdrive, speculating why she had gratuitously disclosed the squabbling in the family. Bharti claimed her statement had been twisted out of context. She has all the makings of a contender to the family’s mantle.

Split wide open

In Uttar Pradesh, it was paradoxical of Mulayam Singh Yadav to send his son to an engineering college in Mysuru, then abroad and yet expect him to subscribe to ageism, which legitimises inequality based on age. As Mulayam Singh Yadav was not in good health in 2012, he and Shivpal Yadav decided to make Akhilesh Yadav the face of the Samajwadi Party in that year’s state election. They rightly thought that his command over the grammar of modernity would appeal to voters beyond the party’s traditional base.

The elders, however, maintained their tight control over the Samajwadi Party. Soon, two centres of power emerged – Shivpal Yadav in the party and Akhilesh Yadav in the governance structure. This situation became untenable as the 2017 Assembly polls drew close. Akhilesh Yadav’s future depended on whether he could wrest control over ticket distribution from his uncle. After all, if he were to lose, his standing would depend on the number of MLAs he commanded.

Akhilesh Yadav started asserting himself in late 2016, triggering a family feud that made headlines for weeks. He eventually won the fight for the party’s bicycle symbol. He may have lost the 2017 election, but his control over the party was established beyond doubt.

From Shivpal Yadav’s perspective, ageism was a justifiable reason for refusing to kowtow to Akhilesh Yadav. Filial love was another reason: Akhilesh Yadav’s control over the party implied that Shivpal Yadav and his son Aditya Yadav could no longer be principal shareholders in the dynastic enterprise.

Akhilesh Yadav’s control over the Samajwadi Party implied that Shivpal Yadav and his son Aditya Yadav could no longer be key shareholders in the dynastic enterprise. Photo credit: PTI
Akhilesh Yadav’s control over the Samajwadi Party implied that Shivpal Yadav and his son Aditya Yadav could no longer be key shareholders in the dynastic enterprise. Photo credit: PTI

By forming his own party, Shivpal Yadav does not hope to capture power. His aim is to cut into the Samajwadi Party’s votes and prevent Akhilesh Yadav from establishing that he can win without his uncle’s formidable organisational skills. This could enable Shivpal Yadav to cannibalise the Samajwadi Party’s support and lay the foundation for an offshoot of the Yadav dynasty.

To this end, Shivpal Yadav will likely try to recruit Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family members who face existential anxieties. He will try to win over Akhilesh Yadav’s step brother, Prateek Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh Yadav from his second marriage. Prateek Yadav is married to Aparna Bisht Yadav, who unsuccessfully contested the 2017 Assembly election.

Aparna and Prateek Yadav cannot vie for the dynastic crown as long as Akhilesh Yadav retains control over the Samajwadi Party. This was why pundits saw signs of realignment when Aparna Yadav shared the stage with Shivpal Yadav. It is also in the BJP’s interests to deepen the fissures in the Yadav dynasty, a pointer to which was the state government’s decision to allot to Shivpal Yadav the palatial bungalow vacated by the Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati.

Indeed, ruthless succession wars have become a recurring aspect of our democracy. This is because modernity has dynasts tilt against the inequality inherent in the ideas of primogeniture, ageism, and gender-based exclusion that once glued together the Indian political dynasty.

This is the second part of a two-part series on North India’s political dynasties. The first part can be read here.