One political theme the Bharatiya Janata Party has constantly harped upon is the need to liberate India from dynastic rule. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has especially been a vocal crusader against the idea of naamdars (dynasts) as opposed to kaamdars (workers). With Priyanka Gandhi’s formal entry into politics last month, this battle will acquire a new potency. Soon after Gandhi’s January 23 announcement, Modi pointedly responded that for many parties, “family is the party”, while for the BJP, the “party is the family”.

The BJP’s goal of eliminating family rule, which carries with it the vestiges of feudalism, is laudable. But it is also ridden with contradictions. For one, the party that hopes to save democracy by targeting dynastic rule in India has several second-generation dynasts in its ranks, albeit to a lesser extent than the Congress. More importantly, the BJP has undermined many democratic institutions since it first came to power at the Centre in 2014. Besides, it has patronised lynch mobs, used draconian laws against democratic dissent and brazenly challenged Supreme Court verdicts.

In fact, the BJP’s campaign against dynastic rule seems to be a smokescreen for its own attempts to weaken democracy in India.

Dynastic politics

The capture of democracy by a succession of people from the same family is a phenomenon that dogs many countries, from Japan to the Philippines. It is a feature that corrodes democracy by concentrating political power in the hands of a few. All modern democratic revolutions from the 17th century onwards sought to end this practice.

India is particularly affected by it. According to research by political scientist Kanchan Chandra, of the 36 parties in Parliament, 64% have leaders whose relatives were either previously in politics or followed them there. In 2014, 50% of the state governments had chief ministers with dynastic connections. In 2009, 29% of Indian MPs came from political families. This figure was 21%-24% in 2014.

When Modi criticises the Congress for being a party of dynasts, there are statistics to support him: 39% of Congress MPs in 2009 were members of political families, as were 36% of its cabinet constituents. But the BJP has dynasts too. In 2014, 15% of BJP MPs had a dynastic background (20% in 2009). Twenty four per cent of Modi’s cabinet belong to families who have been in politics before.

Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi.
Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

Attack on democracy

What is more grievous than the BJP’s double standards on dynasts is the larger threat to democratic institutions it poses.

First, the BJP is beholden to its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an extra-constitutional and extra-parliamentary body. It has legitimised the RSS’ role in government. India saw evidence of that in 2015, when Union ministers made presentations of their work to the RSS leadership. The other obvious influence of the RSS is in the appointment of state ministers, chief ministers, Union ministers, governors and other important positions. This relationship between the BJP and the RSS is unconstitutional. The influence of the RSS on the BJP government is akin to the power the ulema (Islamic clergy) wields on the Iranian government. But the difference is that in Iran, this relationship is formalised in the Constitution. Iran is also for all practical purposes an authoritarian theocracy while India is the largest democracy in the world.

Second, the development of a personality cult around the figure of Modi in the last five years has also harmed democracy in India. This is usually seen only in autocratic societies and was last seen in India during the time of Indira Gandhi. This kind of concentration of power in one individual, which leads to democratic institutions being bypassed, is dangerous as seen in the catastrophic decision to introduce demonetisation.

The BJP’s battle against dynastic politics has also proceeded apace with the destruction of internal democracy within the party. Union Minister Harsh Vardhan standing in attention in front of a seated Modi in 2014, to treasury benches chanting Modi’s name in Parliament during the latest Budget presentation on February 1 are exemplifiers of this phenomenon.

This personality cult has credited all electoral victories and achievements to Modi, while blaming defeats and failures on others. It has spent crores of rupees on advertisements for the government (read Modi) and has effectively converted India’s parliamentary system to a presidential one, reducing politics to an unsavoury clash between individual leaders.

Union Minister Harsh Vardhan stands at attention at a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.
Union Minister Harsh Vardhan stands at attention at a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.

Autocratic India

The implications of this for India’s democracy are immense as they amplify already existing autocratic tendencies. In a global survey by Pew Research in 2017, 55% of Indians said they thought autocracy is good for governance (compared to, say, only 6% in Germany). This is why it is crucial to realise that an autocratic-style of governance can be built outside dynasties too.

According to data from the Association for Democratic Reforms, when the BJP came to power in 2014, 34% of its MPs had criminal charges against them – more than 20% of these were serious charges – compared to a much lower 18% and 7% for the Congress. The average BJP MP had assets worth Rs 11 crore compared to Rs 79 lakh for every Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP. Additionally, 11% of BJP MPs were women compared to an unprecedented 32% for the Trinamool Congress that is headed by a woman.

The democratic struggle against dynasty politics cannot only be against some dynasties. Strengthening democracy is also to realise that it is not just corroded by dynasty but also by the weakening of democratic institutions, by criminal politicians, the use of money power during elections, and the lack of gender representation in politics.

Nissim Mannathukkaren heads the International Development Studies Department at Dalhousie University, Canada. His Twitter handle is @nmannathukkaren.

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