Ambivalence defines the Indian electorate’s attitude to political dynasties, which have proliferated at a steady rate over the last three Lok Sabha elections – 20% of all MPs in 2004 were dynasts, 30% in 2009 and nearly 22% in 2014. There are voters who feel the existence of dynasties violates the ethos of democracy. After all, dynasts are assigned party tickets not necessarily because they are talented or have performed admirably, but because they belong to powerful families that are either in control of a party or have strong links to its leaders.

There is also a counter-view: That dynasts may be relatively better placed than others to obtain party tickets to fight elections, but victory is not guaranteed to them; dynasts do bite the dust; and that it is wrong to call them dynasts because they do not inherit a seat in the Lok Sabha or Assembly because of having been born in a political family.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has exploited these conflicting views about political dynasties to create a narrative that portrays him as having risen from the grassroots, as having sweated it out for years before occupying the most coveted office in India.

The same narrative depicts Opposition leaders as dynasts who want to dislodge him from power because they feel that only they are entitled to become prime minister. Modi has already turned the 2019 election into a battle against dynasts, even though nearly 15% of the Bharatiya Janata Party MPs elected in 2014 were preceded by one or more of their family members who had been active in electoral politics.

Few have studied the mushrooming of dynasties in Indian democracy as deeply as Kanchan Chandra, professor of politics, New York University, who edited and wrote the introduction to Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics. The book turns some popular notions about dynasticism in Indian politics on their head.

Scroll.in interviewed Chandra on the phenomenon of political dynasty in the context of the forthcoming elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pitched the forthcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections as a battle between naamdar vs kaamdar. Naamdar translates to one who is pedigreed and signifies Rahul Gandhi. Kaamdar, or one who works, is Modi. To what extent is Modi’s construction of the naamdar-kaamdar binary rooted in India’s political reality?
Narendra Modi himself is not from a political family, and the percentage of dynastic MPs in the BJP is lower than in the Congress. However, the BJP has many leaders – chief ministers, ministers, MPs and MLAs – who come from political dynasties, or have founded political dynasties themselves. In the current Parliament, a third of all dynastic MPs come from the BJP. So it is not accurate to paint the battle between Congress and the BJP as a battle between naamdar vs kaamdar.

By invoking the symbolism of naamdar and kaamdar, Modi hopes to remind people about stories, real as well as apocryphal, about the debauched aristocratic class of pre-Independence India who were disinterested in the welfare of people. Do India’s democratic dynasties, a term you have coined, conform to Modi’s depiction of them?
The data we analysed in Democratic Dynasties suggests that, at least in India’s 21st century Lok Sabhas, dynastic MPs and non-dynastic MPs do not differ on indicators of performance: the average attendance of both type of MPs in the Lok Sabha was the same and there was only a slight difference in the utilisation of funds by dynastic and non-dynastic MPs under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme.

Going by media reports, whenever Modi rails against dynasticism, he does elicit a response from his audience. Why don’t they think he is being hypocritical given that nearly 15% of BJP MPs in 2014 were dynasts and 19% in 2009? Is it because the BJP, unlike the Congress, is not helmed by a dynast? Or is it because even though people vote for a BJP dynast in a given constituency, they prefer the prime minister to not belong to a political family?
In any modern democracy – and particularly in modern democracies now in the age of populism – the individual who occupies the position of head of government has a larger than life role that can dwarf the party that he or she represents. In India, Prime Minister Modi does indeed dwarf his party. This is why the fact that he himself is not from a dynastic background is huge and can eclipse the fact that his party has many leaders from a dynastic background.

In your book, Democratic Dynasties, you have calculated that 20% of MPs in 2004 were dynasts, 30% in 2009, and 22% in 2014. Why is it then that the Gandhi-Nehru family has become synonymous with dynasticism in Indian politics?
The Nehru-Gandhi family represents the most prominent political dynasty in India. Its members have occupied the prime ministership and led the Congress party for most of India’s post-Independence history. But the more important fact now for understanding contemporary democratic politics in India is the systemic role that a different sort of political dynasty – locally influential but often not nationally famous – has come to play in Indian politics. These dynasties are found in virtually all parties, regions, and social groups. Their founders belong not to an old pre-democratic ruling class – maharajas, rajas and nawabs– but a new elite created through the democratic process. Their members occupy not just top positions such as prime minister, chief minister, or party president but also secondary and tertiary positions burrowed deep within parties and governments, in regional party executives and youth wings, or zila panchayats and block panchayats. And these dynasties taken together are now changing the shape of Indian politics regardless of who becomes prime minister.

There is a backstory to the emergence of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty that is rarely taken into account. Jawaharlal Nehru did not anoint Indira Gandhi as his successor; the Congress did. Indira Gandhi did pass the baton to Sanjay Gandhi and then to Rajiv Gandhi. Yet for seven years after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi kept away from politics until the Congress mounted pressure on her to take the party’s reins. Why is the Congress so crucially dependent on the Gandhis? Do you think it is because the party believes that the Gandhis can help overcome its ideological and organisational weakening?
Yes. Family ties can be the glue that keeps the party together – and reduces the number of potential rivals – in the battle for succession at both the apex level of politics and in local level struggles over candidate selection. The weaker the party organisation, and the weaker its ideology, the greater the role that family ties play in holding it together.

Do you think this reliance on the Gandhis alienates the aspiring class, which tends to perceive the Congress as elitist regardless of the party having enacted pro-poor legislations?
I do not want to speculate on what voters want – we would need a survey for that. But if we think of the class of people who aspire to enter politics, then it is clear that the role that dynastic ties play in all parties in the allocation of tickets and leadership positions can block the emergence of new political talent especially among young people. Right now, dynastic ties have become a very important channel through which young people can get a party nomination. What about talented young people who do not have such ties? They are often confined to panchayat elections where party nominations are not required, or are driven out of politics altogether.

If the Congress were to not perform well in the 2019 elections, do you think it could diminish the aura of the Gandhis and even deliver a blow to the phenomenon of dynasty having a pan-India appeal?
The performance of the Congress in the last parliamentary election has already demonstrated the diminishing appeal of the Gandhis. In the last parliamentary elections, the Congress under the leadership of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi did worse than it ever had before. And although Rahul Gandhi retained the family seat of Amethi, his winning margin was the lowest for a Gandhi family member from this seat since 1980. The only time that a Gandhi family member performed worse in Amethi was Sanjay Gandhi in the post-Emergency election of 1977. But the future of dynastic politics in India now does not depend on the Gandhis alone: it is being shaped by the fate of the smaller dynasties concentrated in regional and local politics. And dynastic politics will continue to flourish at those levels of politics, across political parties, regardless of the fate of the Gandhis in the parliamentary elections.

Why is it that Priyanka Gandhi is popularly perceived to better represent the style and ethos of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty than her brother Rahul Gandhi? Likewise, Tejashwi Yadav is popularly favoured over other children of former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. Does dynasticism require customised packaging?
One important feature that often gets overlooked is that dynastic ties are not in themselves sufficient to guarantee political success: the party endorsement matters. How well a dynastic candidate does depends on the extent to which parties back a dynastic candidate – and when there are multiple candidates from a single family, party backing for one over another can make all the difference. In the Samajwadi Party for instance, the uncertainty over whether its leader Mulayam Singh Yadav backs his brother or his son have affected the political fortunes of both. In the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, M Karunanidhi’s backing of Stalin over MK Alagiri resulted in greater party backing for the former. In the case of Priyanka Gandhi, her impact on the fortunes of the Congress will be decided in large part not just by voters but by how factions within the Congress perceive her role relative to that of her brother Rahul Gandhi, and her mother Sonia Gandhi.

Forward castes dominate the category of dynastic MPs and account for nearly 54% of them. Why is it that when the media or middle class folks discuss the phenomenon of dynasticism, the dynasties named are those of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, essentially all those belonging to subaltern groups?
There is certainly an upper-caste bias in the way in which subaltern parties are discussed in the English language media. But I do not think that this bias is as evident in the discussion of political dynasties. The discussion on political dynasties is usually dominated by examples of prominent dynasties such as the Nehru-Gandhi or the large dynasties such as the Yadavs. The last time I counted, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family had at least 20 members in politics – it is one of the largest political dynasties in Indian politics today. But the bias in the discussion of dynastic politics towards a handful of examples of prominent or large dynasties diverts attention from the very important and still largely invisible role that lesser and smaller dynasties are now beginning to play in Indian politics at a systemic level.

Kanchan Chandra.
Kanchan Chandra.

Upper caste dynasts tend to have an appeal beyond their castes. It does not seem the case with dynasts belonging to subaltern groups. Why?
Here again the role of party is very important in mediating the effect of dynasties. The largest political parties in India – this includes both the BJP and Congress –are dominated by the upper castes. These are also the parties that sponsor most upper caste dynasties. The wide appeal of the BJP and Congress therefore ends up benefiting upper caste dynasties by default. Dynasties belonging to subaltern groups enter politics either through small parties or parties in which subaltern castes do not have a dominant leadership role. Their weaker position within parties translates also into a narrower political appeal.

Why is it that just about every regional outfit, barring the Trinamool Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, are headed by dynasts?
Most parties in India are ideologically amorphous and organisationally weak. The weaker the party organisation, and the weaker its ideology, the greater the role that family ties play in holding a party together. Even those parties that start out as non-dynastic parties sooner or later succumb to the lure of family ties. For example, although [West Bengal] Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who heads the Trinamool Congress, is not from a political dynasty, her brothers and nephews have now begun to play a political role.The BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] president Mayawati’s brother was party vice-president until recently, and her nephew has now become active in party affairs as well.

Is there a co-relation between dynasticism and caste? I find that just every caste loves its own dynasty. Do dynasties belonging to the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes reflect caste pride and assertion?
There is a surprising relationship between parties belonging to the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and dynasties. Parties dominated by the upper castes favour co-ethnic dynasties in their processes of candidate selection. But parties dominated by subaltern caste categories usually favour ethnic outsider dynasties: they select a greater proportion of dynastic candidates from “outsider” castes. They tend to sideline political dynasties that come from the same caste category as their main leadership. This is because, they are smaller parties with a less established leadership and a weaker organisation: in such parties, the leadership is perennially insecure and fears that dynasties from the same caste will undermine them.

Media owners often double up as editors and pass the baton to their children. Doctors pay high capitation fees to get their children admitted to private medical colleges, even those rated poorly, so that the latter can take over their flourishing nursing homes. Why do the media and middle class then rage against dynasticism, more so as political dynasts, unlike them, require validation from people?
In India’s party-based parliamentary system, dynastic candidates must obtain a nomination from a political party before they submit themselves to validation from the voter. It is in the process of party nominations that the unfairness lies. Our analysis in Democratic Dynasties suggests that dynastic candidates favoured by political parties are in fact less qualified when it comes to grassroots political experience. This is even truer of upper-caste dynasties, who because they have more powerful patrons, and enter politics through more established parties, can walk into higher-level positions at the outset. Dynastic MPs also do not do better than non-dynasts on standard indicators of performance. Family ties, in other words, do not assist dynasts in obtaining the right qualifications for a party endorsement: They have themselves become a qualification.

A very unique feature of your book is that you point to the gains of dynasticism. Could you list some of these? Do these gains compensate for the inability of democratic institutions to deliver?
In an unequal polity in which there are already high barriers to the entry of new groups into politics, dynastic politics has become an informal, second-best, means of overcoming some of them. In Indian parliamentary elections, family ties have functioned as a channel of representation especially for women, Backward Castes and Muslims. In this sense, dynastic ties in India have performed the same function as reservation for these groups.

This does not mean that dynastic politics is a normatively desirable channel to bring about political inclusion. A better solution would be to address the systemic barriers to representation in the first place. Further, some parties have now started announcing informal quotas for women, which may reduce the role that dynastic ties play in putting women in office. [Odisha Chief Minister] Naveen Patnaik, for instance, has declared that his party will give 33% of tickets to women. Mamata Banerjee has given 40% of tickets to women.

But as long as systemic barriers exist, and there is no alternative institutional solution, we must also acknowledge the role of dynastic ties in overcoming them. In fact, in a society in which these barriers exist, not having dynastic ties can itself serve as a form of inequality.

Also read:

Most political parties in India are dynastic. But some are more dynastic than others

Why Dalit and Adivasi political dynasties lag behind those of forward (and even backward) castes

No reservations: Political dynasties have helped boost women’s representation in Lok Sabha