The Indian Dynastic Politics

by Patrick French

It had first become apparent to me during the 2004 election campaign, and it niggled again now. The problem was the first-time MPs. With their spanking faces and sense of bland entitlement, these young men and women were treated with reverence by the Indian media, although their achievement was usually to have shared genes with an earlier leader. I watched one of these new MPs on television as he drove through the dust of his inherited family constituency in an enormous Pajero, turning now and then to a waiting camera with a purposeful frown and saying things like “I want to help these people, like my father did” or “We are going to make India No. 1.” He looked like a giant baby who had been dressed up and put in a big buggy and sent off on an adventure.

The disjuncture between these fresh fruits and the hopes of the many millions of individuals they were supposedly representing was massive. In person, they were perfectly affable and often idealistic, but as a phenomenon, they were damaging. Was Indian national politics becoming hereditary, with power passing to a few hundred families, even as the elections themselves became more vibrant and open?

n the case of the new contenders, all you needed to know was the surname. It seemed India’s strong women politicians were not reproducing themselves, for most of the new MPs were only sons, probably on account of the social convention in the 1970s that educated people should have small families. ‘Hum do, hamare do’—‘We two, and our two’—was the slogan. Rahul was the son of Rajiv Gandhi, Jitin was the son of Jitendra Prasada, Jyotiraditya was the son of Madhavrao Scindia, Sachin was the son of Rajesh Pilot and brother-in-law of Omar Abdullah, who was the grandson of Sheikh Abdullah and son of Farooq Abdullah; Akhilesh was the son of the Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Dushyant was the son of Vasundhara Raje, the former BJP chief minister of Rajasthan and sister of Madhavrao Scindia. And so it continued.

I spoke to someone who was close to the new batch of Congress party MPs. What did they believe in? “It hasn’t crystallised at all. These boys have all seen the world. They don’t have an ideology.” This was intended, I think, as a compliment, the idea being that India had suffered from, and to an extent still suffers from, ideological politics. Did the new hereditary MPs—for simplicity’s sake we can call them HMPS—have plans? “They work really hard. Their constituents think they will just put in a call and get electricity for their village. They feel there is so much to do, they don’t know where to begin.” Why had they entered politics? “I can’t promise they are not wanting to make money. I wouldn’t say it’s from idealism, except perhaps with Rahul. He’s not sentimental, he has a clinical mind. The Congress party is a Mughal court, and no one can do anything unless the Gandhis say so. Sonia has tried to make it more democratic. The rest aren’t interested because they want to keep their own position. Everyone likes to have the ear of someone who is influential, and nominate a few chosen ones.” I tried to picture this in a British context and imagined, unhappily, how it would feel to have the nation’s destiny in the hands of the children of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair.

Most political parties shared in this tradition of reincarnation, although the problem seemed to be worse in the Congress party. The trajectory of these scions was remarkably similar—they went from an Indian boarding school to college in Europe or the United States, followed by a stint in banking or commerce and a return to a safe family seat in their late twenties. They were generating an atmosphere that gave a dull echo of the feeling which greeted ‘Rajiv’s Boys’ in the 1980s, when bureaucrats and politicians were presumed to be dynamic simply because they were younger than those they were replacing.

Press coverage of the HMPS would typically say how encouraging it was that ‘youngsters’ were involving themselves in the future of the nation. The ‘young guns’ or ‘young Turks’ were projected as the future: “This is the era of Rahul Gandhi, where to be young [he was almost forty, making him fifteen years older than India’s median age of twenty-five] is to be politically correct…. The disillusionment with politics as usual is at an all-time low. If there is a time when the young can make a difference, it is now. Their time has come.”

The problem though was not Rahul: he was merely the latest incarnation of the lead dynasty, the most visible manifestation of a wider, much more serious fault. He had publicly expressed a measure of doubt about his inherited position, and rather than pursue the obvious course and become a minister, he was trying to restructure the calcified organisation of the Congress party. His work before entering politics full-time—on his own terms, in his mid-thirties—had been in management, back-office operations and business consultancy. The further he proceeded with the process of reforming the party, the more he became aware how talent was strangled and individuals were prevented from rising on merit. He cultivated a mask of Buddhist detachment and purity in public, and most of his speeches were deliberately low-key. Even more than his mother, Rahul avoided speaking on the record to the media.

“There are three-four ways of entering politics,” he said frankly to a gathering of students in Madhya Pradesh. “First, if one has money and power. Second, through family connections. I am an example of that. Third, if one knows somebody in politics. And fourth, by working hard for the people.” Unlike many of the other young HMPS, he did not pretend otherwise. “Main apne pita, nani aur pardada ke bina us jagah par nahin pahunch sakta tha jahan main aaj hoon(Without my father, grandmother and great-grandfather, I could never have been in the place that I am now.)”

For the middle and senior ranks of Congress party workers, the situation was highly frustrating. Like qualified employees of family businesses in India, they knew their achievements were much less important than the lack of a name. Younger people felt unable to progress, or to take a share of power, knowing their way would be blocked indefinitely. Often, the temptation was to switch to another party where paths might be more open. A senior state-level Congress activist described having to beg his boss to let him speak to Sonia: “‘Saab, I want to meet Soniaji. Should I do so? Will you take me to meet her?’ And when [he] does take me along, do you think I can say anything against him to Soniaji? Do you think I can even dare to open my mouth on how the party works at the grassroots level?”

Even those who were well connected in politics found the party structure exasperating, and thought rival parties were lighter on their feet. Yusuf Ansari had run as a state legislator in Uttar Pradesh in 2007, and the tale of his unsuccessful campaign showed what a sorry condition the party had reached in its old heartland in the ‘cow belt’. (In India’s first general election, the Congress took 81 of the 86 seats in the state.) The changes wrought on electoral politics by caste movements had left the organisation disoriented. “It was summer,” he said, “April, very hot. I was given Mahmudabad, a backward, rural constituency, and had to find workers, set up an office, organise the campaign. It was not long after the execution of Saddam Hussein, and the Shias were being blamed for this. I am Sunni, and about one quarter of the Muslims in the constituency are Shia. The imams and maulanas, my core vote, came to me and said they had decided to tell their people to go with the Samajwadi Party, because otherwise a Shia—the BSP candidate—might win. So my campaign was sunk by tensions produced in Iraq. The procedure in the Congress is to delay, whereas the BSP had declared their candidates a year earlier. We had a week’s notice. All my nominees had to be cleared at a district level by the Congress party, and you couldn’t even get people on the phone. Our party is great on paper: there’s a ‘recruitment in-charge’, a ‘natural disaster in-charge’, but none of it works. In the BSP and the Samajwadi Party, there is a grassroots structure operating 24 hours a day. The BSP has a president in each district who is always a Dalit, with a direct line to Mayawati. In the Congress, even the most senior figures, the khadi-clad veterans, have secret or tacit arrangements with other parties, while keeping their positions. Mrs Gandhi knows this—but people tell her, ‘We can’t do without X’, so they don’t get rid of him.”

The rigid, archaic composition of the Congress, where everything oriented around the often unspoken edicts of the first family, was not unconnected to its electoral success. At an election, the party was able to present the members of the Gandhi family—Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka, who had a talent for working a crowd—and let them speak nebulously of loyalty, secularism and their concern for the dispossessed.

Despite his irritation with sycophants (even a minister had been spotted trying to carry his shoes), Rahul was not above playing the game, coming out with this ill-judged line at a meeting in 2007: “I belong to the family which has never moved backwards, which has never gone back on its words. You know that when any member of my family had decided to do anything, he does it. Be it the freedom struggle, the division of Pakistan or taking India to the 21st century.” The words caused annoyance in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, and demonstrated a natural or instinctive attachment to family tradition.

For political opponents, the yuvraj—the prince—was a soft target, but within the Congress, he was a source of possible future elevation. In issue after issue, the party mouthpiece, Congress Sandesh, fell over itself to praise the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. A full-page image of ‘Indira Gandhi on her 91st birth anniversary’ might be followed by a garlanded photo of the queen mother, Sonia Gandhi.

Our pride is Mother India,
Our guide is Mother Sonia.

In a land where so much was still based around reverence and the influence of family life, it did not seem implausible to appeal to family values for possible electoral gain, even if it contradicted the meritocratic values of the makers of India’s Constitution. Praising dynastic leaders was, however, a declining strategy, one which held less appeal for younger people as they learned more about the world and gained experience of new corporate practice which depended on merit. With his background in consultancy, Rahul was seeking to drive his party out of a rut. He travelled the countryside and spent the nights with Dalit families, interacting with the public and speaking better Hindi than his late father. Crucially, he boosted membership of the Youth Congress, democratised it and brought in outsiders to run internal elections. “People without financial muscle are now able to get good positions,” a member of his team told me. “They must learn processes and protocols. The Youth Congress will become robust over time. Rahulji is very particular about that.”

It was a fine plan, and extremely ambitious. In 2009, a handful of parliamentary candidates arose through this internal democracy; a few more were talent-spotted. So ‘Team Rahul’, as the media liked to call his helpers, now consisted not only of the sons of his father’s colleagues but a handful of interloping MPs like Meenakshi Natarajan, a Tamil biochem graduate from Madhya Pradesh whose family had no link to politics, and who had even been observed carrying her own tiffin box to work.

The reforms were a well-intentioned step, but it was hard to see them succeeding. Rahul was up against a cascade of privilege and entitlement that reached to the heart of Indian politics at the centre and at state level. When other politicians sought to emulate his ‘Dalit sleepovers’—at the instigation of the Congress party machine—they missed the point. Shriprakash Jaiswal, the coal minister and MP for Kanpur, set off into the boondocks accompanied by music and movie equipment, his own food, a stock of mineral water and a brand new mattress with a set of sheets and pillows. He might be staying in a poor Dalit’s house, but he did not wish to bed down on a straw mattress or a charpoy, a rope bed. After showing Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, a screen deification of the Mahatma, Shriprakash Jaiswal and his entourage left at 2 a.m., having completed the sleepover. “The purpose of the visit was to break caste barriers and understand life in Dalit villages,” he said. “We were honest in our venture.”

The years Rahul Gandhi had spent living abroad anonymously had given him a closer understanding of the workings of different societies than most other privileged Indians. Many of his peers, not only in the Congress party, had only the most fleeting experience of life outside the bubble, away from admirers and servants. They perceived themselves as hereditary rulers, descended if not from the Sun then from a forebear who had worked to create modern India. Their usual justification, really a technical defence, was that they had been elected—ignoring the fact that almost no one else stood a chance of gaining the nomination. If Rahul’s plan were to succeed it would take 50 years, since many of these people were in their late twenties or thirties and the Indian political system was mistrustful of cabinet ministers aged under 60—and many were older still. When the youthful British foreign minister David Miliband visited India and ingratiatingly addressed his elderly counterpart Pranab Mukherjee by his first name, New Delhi’s bureaucrats made their displeasure clear.

The radical alternative was to compel sitting HMPS to step down, or at least face open reselection in a reformed party. This was Rahul’s best and most likely bet, a re-run of the Kamaraj Plan of 1963 when senior Congress politicians had been obliged to put ‘party before post’ and stand down. Having been shamed into retiring from office, these entrenched elements were expected to return to the grassroots and help revitalise the Congress party machine. This move had cleared the way for the rise of Rahul’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi.

Nearly all aspiring politicians with a family connection did everything in their power to exploit it. When campaigning in 2009, Rahul’s cousin, Varun Gandhi, said the Congress-led government was spineless and that “wherever I go, I am told that if Sanjay Gandhi had been alive, the country would not have got reduced to such a mess.” Later in the year, when the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy, died in an accident, the local Congress party said 462 people had died of shock or committed suicide in grief. The purpose of this implausible piece of news was to force the national party to appoint his fabulously rich son, Jaganmohan Reddy, in his place. The move failed, and an investigation showed that families of people who had died in different ways were paid Rs 5,000 by local Congress leaders for ‘funeral expenses’, and persuaded to say they were victims of the mass grief. Whichever way you turned, family politics were playing their part. In total, twelve of the seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2009 were won by women; but three were political widows, three were wives, one was a daughter, two were daughters-in-law, one was a movie star, one was the wife of a senior police officer and one, Annu Tandon, was the wife of a top executive at Reliance, India’s largest and most powerful private company.

I had spent some time with Annu Tandon travelling around her potential constituency, Unnao, watching her speak to gatherings in village after village while buffaloes lay in ponds in the heat. It was clear that although she was sincere, she had needed to spend money through a family trust in Unnao to prepare her way for an election victory. Her idol was Indira Gandhi (“I used to copy her hairstyle and her clothes”) and her electors were some of the poorest people in India.

One woman, Mira Devi, told me that although she would vote for Annu (“She is a woman and may understand the problems of women”), she doubted any politician could change things: “We have no electricity, no good roads, no doctor for seven kilometres. It’s very hard when children fall ill or a pregnant woman needs to go to the doctor.” This was the reality in the poorest parts of the nation, after more than 60 years of independence: although democracy functioned, its benefits were limited.

The media continued to report young faces admiringly in 2009, as a new generation coming in like a breath of fresh air. But how new were the faces? India’s youngest MP, Hamdullah Sayeed from the Lakshadweep islands, was the son of a man who had once been India’s youngest MP, and in 2008, the government had even gone to the trouble of amending the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) (Union Territories) Order, 1951, to allow Sayeed junior to contest the seat, since he was not born in Lakshadweep. The youngest minister, 29-year-old Agatha Sangma from Meghalaya, was the daughter of a former speaker of the house. According toSavvy magazine, “She stunned everyone sitting in the central hall by preferring to take the oath in Hindi”—the patronising presumption being that because she came from the Northeast, where people spoke in strange tongues and ate dogs and bees, Agatha would only be able to swear in English. For the new minister herself, the experience was inspiring: “Soniaji and Rahulji both congratulated me after the swearing-in ceremony,” she reported. “Rahul Gandhi is overwhelmed by my performance over the last one year.” So even within the family system, the hierarchy was closely defined: a young minister might inherit a As well as enjoying the comparative youthfulness of the new MPs, the Indian press admired their ability to work across political lines. They were ‘the bonhomie brigade’ who played in each other’s cricket matches and went to each other’s parties. They formed parliamentary committees and refused to let party whips interfere. Supriya Sule, the daughter of Sharad Pawar, who had attempted to oust Sonia Gandhi because of her ‘foreign origins’, worked happily with the children of her father’s rivals. “It’s all so lovely,” she told a journalist who mentioned her willingness to bury the past. “Let’s keep it lovely and not let past shadows darken it.” Was it any wonder the new MPs felt socially at ease together? With their prime education, overseas experiences and spare money, they were socially much closer to each other than to their constituents. The younger government ministers complained that they had too little to do, since important decisions rested with the older generation of cabinet ministers.

The practice of nepotism in politics was so taken for granted that its effect on democracy in India had never been fully quantified. I was left wondering how deep the dependence on pedigree ran. Had it been this way for decades, or was it getting worse? What was the effect of a closed structure on bright, qualified people who might otherwise have entered public service? They knew they were more likely to get a break in business, or in a stable profession, than in this hereditary system. A stream of potential talent was diverted at source, away from politics. Would a self-made man like Rajesh Pilot have got anywhere if he had been born in 1975 rather than in 1945?

Some of the new HMPS and ministers would be good at their jobs, and others would be bad. The fact someone was born into a prominent family certainly did not mean they would be a poor lawmaker. If you were to exclude people on this basis, you would be knocking out Jawaharlal Nehru and William Pitt the Younger, as well as monarchs who had turned out to be great administrators and reformers, such as the maharaja of Bikaner or the fourth King of Bhutan. And you would be excluding George W. Bush. The issue here was not heredity itself, but the tendency to draft in a child, widow or in-law of a well-known leader as a means of entrenching family power. The children of prominent politicians expected to be pressed to join politics even if they were unsuitable, or content in another line of work. Not to be pressed and praised might suggest some sort of disloyalty on the part of the advisors by whom their family was surrounded. So when a young scion advanced, whether at state or national level, it was understood that talent would follow, rather in the way that love was expected to follow a well-planned arranged marriage.

How could you measure political nepotism? At the panchayat, district or state level, it would be difficult to see unless you were there. At the national level, members of the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, might be picked for ulterior reasons since they were chosen in part by nomination (state assemblies voted on who their Rajya Sabha MPs would be, which meant in practice it was a horse trade between parties).

So I decided to direct attention only to the directly elected lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, which has 545 members. My intention was to find out how each of these 545 MPs came into politics. With some, the answer was obvious and could be found out within moments; with others, published sources offered an answer; and with a high proportion of MPs, it was impossible to learn anything of substance.

The internet, which I had presumed would have the answers hidden away in one of its corners, was of marginal use. Surprisingly, around one-third of India’s MPs were almost invisible online, except for their page on the Parliament website, which detailed matters such as their name, party, constituency, state and postal address.

I was stumped. I had a certain amount of data, but it gave an incomplete picture. It was not enough to take prominent names and make larger deductions from them. Equally, much of the information did not seem to exist. Only someone who worked at a local level, perhaps as a political journalist, would be likely to know how each MP in their area entered politics. So I took the plunge and began to ask friends and contacts in different states across India if they would help to fill in the gaps. Some remarkable biographies reached me this way. For example, the member for Nagarkurnool, Manda Jagannath, had started out as a labourer on the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam, become a doctor and slapped a bank manager for refusing to give loans to tribal people; Shatrughan ‘Shotgun’ Sinha of the BJP was described as “an actor, politician, publicity hound and crusader”; Ram Sundar Das, a Dalit MP from Bihar, had started in politics more than 70 years ago; Inder Singh Namdhari, a Sikh from Jharkhand, had switched between four different parties: “A deft player in statecraft,” the journalist Rasheed Kidwai wrote to me, “his favourite Hindi song is, ‘Mere pairon me ghungroo bandha de to phir meri chaal dekh le (Strap on the anklets and watch me move)’.” t was too good to stop now. Once I had about 200 names, I asked Megha Chauhan, an efficient reporter on a Delhi paper who had worked with me in the past, to double-check the information and find out the trajectory of some of the nation’s more obscure MPs. The only rule was that the MP or their office should not be taken as a reliable source. We made a separate spreadsheet for each state, and a picture began to develop.

It was at this point, when we were approaching 400 names, that I realised I was moving into deeper waters. We had a growing file of information about the Lok Sabha MPs: name, sex, date of birth, age, party name, constituency, state, whether or not the seat was reserved for a member of a scheduled caste or tribe, political background, biographical notes and the source of the data we had obtained. But how would I catalogue it? What methodology would I use to analyse it? How did you classify the son of a political leader who was also a well-known cricketer and had been inducted into politics, or a successful lawyer who had been a student politician, or a prosperous industrialist who was a member of a dynastic family? What would be the best way to make larger deductions from the material? It was at this point that I thought I should take advantage of India’s reputation as a hothouse for nerds, geeks, techies and assorted data fiends.

Arun Kaul’s CV looked promising. He was 22, lived in Noida, had a BA and an MA, spoke German (I never asked him why) and had been ‘Jt Secretary Cleanliness’ at his school. He was hot with statistical software packages. The moment I knew I had found the right person was when I asked him to describe what sort of people lived in Noida, and he replied: “I think if one were to plot the ages of the inhabitants of Noida on a graph, it would be a bimodal curve, which would peak at about 18-20 years, then fall, become a plateau and rise up again around the 60-65 years age bracket.” I asked him to take the information we had assembled on the family politics project, process it and see what conclusions emerged.

Kaul asked whether I needed code lists, cross tabs, cutoffs and logit regression, and I said I thought so. When he started to use the phrase ‘beta coefficients’, I surrendered seat, but the imprimatur would come from the first family.

With Megha’s help, I completed the charts for each state (our last piece of information was the estimated birth date of a rural MP whose parents had not recorded it) and passed them over to Arun, who turned the political background of each MP into numerical code and converted the data to spss, a statistical package used by social scientists. We decided that when an MP had several routes to a political career, the most important would be entered, with the alternatives left as an observation but not included in the analysis. This usually meant that if a ‘family’ element existed, it dominated. So, for example, if someone had an active background in student politics and a mother who was a chief minister, we felt it safe to assume that the mother was more important to their success than the student union membership.

Now we could ask the question: how hereditary is Indian politics? How did the 545 MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha enter politics?

  • No Significant Family Background 255
  • Family 156
  • Student politics 47
  • Business 35
  • RSS 18
  • Inducted 16
  • Trade union 10
  • Royal family 7
  • Maoist commander 1

Initially, it appeared that heredity was not the most important aspect in Indian politics, in that ‘Family’ was not at the top of the list of routes to Parliament. In total, 28.6 per cent of MPs had a hereditary connection. ‘No significant family background’ covered nearly half of all MPs, which meant they had found their way to Parliament by a similar mixture of idealistic and weaselly routes as lawmakers in any representative democracy. ‘Business’ covered everybody from chief executives who were joining public service to members of a land or mining mafia who needed political clout. ‘Inducted’ usually meant the MP was a famous actor, but it could mean someone who had done well abroad and was returning home, or even in one case a commando in Rajiv Gandhi’s security cordon who had been parachuted into politics. ‘Royal family’ meant an old princely family which had retained its influence—another form of family politics, but not what we were looking at in this study. The Maoist commander came in a category all of his own (I had considered listing him under ‘Business’). Kidwai gave me his potted biography: “Baitha Kameshwar cleared his matriculation examination in 1975, and then decided against college and headed for the jungles to join the People’s War Group instead. He has rewards on his head from three state governments and has been labelled as a ‘dreaded Maoist commander’. He won the election while in custody at Rohtas district jail without campaigning in person. He faces 46 criminal cases, ranging from murder and extortion to carrying out explosive acts.” Lately, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) had disclaimed Kameshwar as a rogue operative.

Second question: Which political party was the most hereditary? (Or, what percentage of a party’s MPs had reached the Lok Sabha through a family link—excluding parties with fewer than five MPs?)

  • RLD 100 per cent (5 out of 5)
  • NCP 77.8 per cent (7 out of 9)
  • BJD 42.9 per cent (6 out of 14)
  • INC 37.5 per cent (78 out of 208)
  • BSP 33.3 per cent (7 out of 21)
  • DMK 33.3 per cent (6 out of 18)
  • SP 27.3 per cent (6 out of 22)
  • CPI(M) 25 per cent (4 out of 16)
  • JD(U) 20 per cent (4 out of 20)
  • BJP 19 per cent (22 out of 116)
  • AITC 15.8 per cent (3 out of 19)
  • Shiv Sena 9.1 per cent (1 out of 11)
  • AIADMK 0 per cent (0 out of 9)
  • TDP 0 per cent (0 out of 6)

The RLD ranked first, with all its MPs being hereditary. The runner-up was the NCP, a splinter from the Congress party, with seven hereditary MPs (including Agatha Sangma). The BJD at 42.9 per cent came third.

The results for these parties were statistically insignificant, since they had so few Lok Sabha seats. At the opposite end of the scale, two parties did not have a single MP from a hereditary background, but the TDP had only six MPs, while the AIADMK had nine; its leader, Jayalalitha, expected strict loyalty and promoted cronies, but had not taken the family route. The Shiv Sena on 9.1 per cent had eleven MPs, but was itself run by one (increasingly fractious) family, the Thackerays.

In the middle of the table came Mayawati’s BSP: a full third of her MPs were hereditary, although in every case they were not Dalits, but had been brought in from one of the communities she was seeking to woo for the party, such as Muslims or Brahmins. The most important result concerned the two largest parties in India, the BJP and the INC, or Indian National Congress. Since they had 324 MPs between them, the sample survey was large enough to be genuinely revealing. Only 19 per cent of the BJP’s people were HMPS, which helped to explain the party’s appeal to the Hindu middle classes across swathes of middle India: they knew that more than four-fifths of the party’s MPs had ascended by other means, rather than descending from on high, which made them seem more representative and regular. An additional 11.2 per cent of BJP MPs came to politics through a background in the RSS, which for true believers in Hindutva was a family in itself. When the corpulent Nitin Gadkari became president of the BJP in 2009, he described himself as a “simple worker” who had reached the top by his own effort. “This can happen only in the BJP,” he said. “The BJP is not like other political parties where dynasty rules. My father was not the prime minister of the country.”

What, then, of Congress? 37.5 per cent of its MPs had reached the Lok Sabha through a family connection. This was almost twice as many as its principal rival, but it was not a fatal statistic. The Congress leadership could still argue that more than 60 per cent of its MPs had arrived on some alternative merit—through student politics, business or simply personal ability and

The third question: was this a regional issue? Were some states more hereditary than others? Here, the results were diverse. Family politics was at its strongest in Punjab, Delhi and Haryana. After that, there was a significant drop. Apart from Andhra Pradesh, all the southern states had 75 per cent or more of their MPs from a non-hereditary background. Generally the newer states, such as Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which were only formed in 2000, were less nepotistic, presumably because family politics did not have enough time to become entrenched. In the same vein, MPs who came from seats reserved for scheduled castes or tribes were statistically less likely to be from a family with a political background, although not by much.

The answer to my fourth question was inevitable, given the way in which Indian politics works. Were women MPs more likely to have reached their position through a family link? Yes: 69.5 per cent of women MPs fell into the family politics column. The exceptions were powerful self-made women leaders like Mayawati, Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee, whose extraordinary success was not often replicated in the middle ranks of political parties.

When the information about all the MPs was coming in, I had been struck by how many of the older ones had risen from a grassroots background—people such as 78-year-old Danapal Venugopal, a respected and modest man who had started out in a block-level panchayat in Tamil Nadu and served five consecutive terms in Parliament. The tradition of seats being passed within families seemed more recent. To an extent, this was inevitable: it was not until the 1960s that there would have been significant numbers of MPs dying or coming up for retirement. So any MP aged 70 or over (our benchmark date for age-related calculations was January 1, 2010) who had started out in national politics at a relatively young age was unlikely to have had a parent in Parliament.

So my fifth question was: Is politics in India becoming more hereditary? Kaul sent me an unusually excited e-mail while he was looking at this question: “Your hunch was spot on: as age decreases (i.e. as one moves from older to younger MPs), it may be noted that incidence of ‘family politics’ increases! Just ran the analysis—such a nice, perfect little linear trend. Researcher’s delight!”

I asked him to produce a simple graph of the perfect linear trend. This was a shocking result. Every MP in the Lok Sabha under the age of 30 had in effect inherited a seat, and more than two-thirds of the 66 MPs aged 40 or under were HMPS. In addition, this new wave of Indian lawmakers would have a decade’s advantage in politics over their peers, since the average MP who had benefited from family politics was almost 10 years younger than those who had arrived with ‘No Significant Family Background’. In the Congress, the situation was yet more extreme: every Congress MP under the age of 35 was an hmp. If the trend continued, it was possible that most members of the Indian Parliament would be there by heredity alone, and the nation would be back to where it had started before the freedom struggle, with rule by a hereditary monarch and assorted Indian princelings.

Already, the tendency to turn politics into a family business was being emulated across northern India at state level, with legislators nominating children and spouses. There was no reason to believe it was not also spreading to the districts. Nepotism was written into the working of democracy, as it was in other areas of Indian life, ranging from medicine and the legal profession to the media and the film industry. An advert for an investment website encapsulated this attitude, which was that even if you were self-made you would do your best to dispense patronage if you made it to the top: beside a photograph of an ambitious young man was the line: “I don’t have an influential uncle. But I will be one someday.” The Bollywood movie Luck by Chance, about young actors who try to make it on merit rather than on family connections, itself starred Farhan Akhtar and Konkona Sen Sharma, the children of famous parents.

Looking at Kaul’s analysis more closely, the difference between older and younger MPs was marked. For those over 50, the proportion with a father or relative in politics was not unreasonable, at 17.9 per cent. But when you looked at those aged 50 or under, this increased by more than two and a half times to nearly half, or 47.2 per cent. I checked some of the people involved, and the news was not reassuring.

Of the 38 youngest MPs, 33 had arrived with the help of mummy-daddy. Of the remaining five, one was Meenakshi Natarajan, the biochem graduate who had been hand-picked by Rahul, three appeared to be self-made politicians who had made it up the ranks of the BJP, BSP and CPI(M) respectively, and the fifth was a Lucknow University mafioso who had been taken on board by Mayawati: he was a “history-sheeter”—meaning numerous criminal chargesheets had been laid against him—who had been involved in shootouts and charged four times under the Gangsters Act.

I asked Kaul for another chart. Looking only at the Congress MPs, how hereditary were they, by age? Here, the curve was more dramatic and it concealed an even more worrying phenomenon, which was that the tentacles of extended families were now winding themselves ever more tightly around India’s body politic. While compiling the main list of MPs, I had noticed that a few seemed to be more than simply the sons or daughters of a politician—rather, their links spread in several directions at once, making them not just hereditary but ‘hyperhereditary’. So Preneet Kaur, for example, was the daughter of a senior bureaucrat and daughter-in-law of a former maharaja, and her husband, mother-in-law and two brothers-in-law were either former ministers or senior politicians. In other cases, the links were more nebulous and might connect to close family members at a lower level, for instance in a state assembly.

I asked Kaul to look at the MPs who had multiple family links. He responded, “The problem is the sample size: it is 27. As a rule, one does not consider stats run on sample sizes less than 30 to have any statistical meaning.” I promised to bear this in mind, and not to look at the data in percentage terms. The 27 hyperhereditary MPs were concentrated in certain states: Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in particular. Again, their age distinguished them.

The average age of an MP with no significant family background was 58; for a hereditary MP it was 48 and for a hyperhereditary MP it was 46. They were identifiable, unsurprisingly, by their party. The BJP had only three hyperhereditaries—and two were Maneka and Varun Gandhi. The Congress party had 78 hereditary MPs, of whom 19 were hyperhereditary. In some cases they had combined their political takeover with a successful business, like Dr Gaddam Vivekanand, a prominent and wealthy asbestos manufacturer from Andhra Pradesh whose father and brother were politicians.

One other aspect concerned me: the possible effect of the 108th Constitution Amendment, passed by the upper house of the Indian Parliament in 2010 to reserve 33 per cent of seats in national and state-elected bodies for women. This had been a much-disputed bill, with supporters saying it would give women essential national representation, and opponents saying it would disadvantage other groups—Muslims in particular—who did not have reserved seats. The driving force behind the change in the law was Sonia, who announced: “It was my husband Rajiv Gandhi’s vision and promise.”

But in the light of ‘family politics’, would this change in the law—which might have been genuinely influential had it taken place a few decades earlier—do anything other than entrench the power of existing political families, when wives and daughters were nominated for the reserved seats? The exact implementation and details of this change were not yet clear, but it seemed inevitable that at India’s next general election the number of hereditary women MPs in the Lok Sabha would rise.

Going by present trends, more than 100 extra hereditary women MPs might be elected. This was a conservative estimate: if prominent MPs like Sonia Gandhi were to run in unreserved seats, and male MPs who were obliged to step down were to hand over their seats to their wives or daughters, the number of hereditary women MPs in the next Lok Sabha could cross 150.

The Congress presently had 208 MPs, of whom 23 were women. This was the same as average, 11 per cent. So far so low; now comes the difference: 19 out of the 23 Congress women MPs were hereditary (and of these, four were hyperhereditary). This left only four Congress women MPs who appeared to have reached Parliament on their own merit: Meenakshi Natarajan, Annu Tandon, and two other stalwarts. Who were they? Dr Girija Vyas, the president of the National Commission for Women, and Chandresh Kumari Katoch, who turned out to be hereditary by another measure, being the daughter of Hanwant Singh, the maharaja of Jodhpur.

The Indian republic was founded on the truth that power should not be handed over by the colonial rulers to the princes. India’s next general election was likely to return not a Lok Sabha, a house of the people, but a Vansh Sabha, a house of dynasty. Nehru, Patel, V.P. Menon and others went to enormous lengths to make sure heredity was knocked aside as a criterion for rule, and to ensure the 554 princely states were absorbed into a modern and democratic nation. The Indian Constitution was based on the principle that sovereignty was derived from the people.


(The full dataset for family politics in the Lok Sabha is available at www.TheIndiaSite.com.)

One Response

  1. Patrick French’s forthcoming book, India: A Portrait—An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People, takes up the story of India where he left it in Liberty or Death, examining the many unpredictable ways in which India’s vibrant democracy is unravelling. Excerpts from an interview with Sheela Reddy.

    So what is new in your portrait of the emerging India?

    The question I’ve tried to answer in this book is: Why is India changing the way it is? What are the historical roots of that process? There is a process of transformation happening in each of the three areas I write about—political, economic and social. And it seems to me that the social changes that stem from economic change are incredibly creative and unmatched by that in any neighbouring country in Asia. Whatever may be wrong with India, I don’t think there are many Indians who would rather be living in one of the neighbouring countries. It’s in the political sphere that there is stagnation because of the growth in nepotistic politics, but economically and socially, there is a process of transformation happening. You only have to look at the position of Indian women before Independence to see how strong that process of change has been. For example, you have that debate about purdah, where Gandhi, Nehru, all the leaders are saying this is an archaic custom that has to be dispensed with. Then there’s the revolution happening in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s—and yet the same debates have not been played out in European countries. You are probably more likely to see someone dressed in a burqa on the streets of London than in Delhi.

    So you think, unlike in the past when it was politicians who brought about social and economic revolutions, it is the rapid social and economic changes that we are undergoing that will transform the political sphere?

    I do think that. I was surprised by how interesting some of the ideas coming from people who are involved in business are. I think the problem with politics is that it’s very easy to get caught in a rut where you use certain words like socialism or Hindutva or secularism and those words become all-defining.

    The first half-century after Independence, according to you, was a continuation of the colonial experience, which is now unravelling?
    I think the central part of the process is the fact that the founders of the nation after Independence decided to have universal democracy where everybody got the vote. And so the rise of a politician like Mayawati was probably inevitable once a certain amount of time had gone by. You’d have writers and historians in the 1960s and ’70s saying why is it only a certain kind of politician is emerging. But it’s almost as if democracy took a certain amount of time to unravel so that you got different castes and regional movements forming alliances, which then resulted in the situation you have now, where no party can come to power at the Centre without the support of some kind of coalition. I think that process has quite a long way to go—to see what kind of leaders we will have 20 years from now. This is quite separate from nepotism and family politics.

    You also seem to think that, a few years from now, politics will become completely hereditary?

    I was quite surprised by the results when I did that survey of the Lok Sabha. I did not expect the data to be so overwhelming—the fact that, for example, every MP under the age of 30 is hereditary. I don’t think it’s a bad thing having political families in any democracy. The problem really is the scale of what is happening. For instance, the quite inspiring grassroots leaders who came up in the past—certainly in the Congress—would have no chance of winning a ticket for a Lok Sabha seat now. You have this ironic situation where democracy is deeply entrenched and yet, at the same time, for the top reaches of certain parties, you have to be the son or daughter of an existing leader in order to get anywhere.

    So, do you think politicians like Mayawati will find it increasingly hard to come up in the future?

    My expectation is that the trend towards family politics will, over the next decade, prove so unpopular that there will be a backlash against it. I think probably, even in the more nepotistic parties themselves, there is a recognition that this is a very serious problem. We can’t be certain whether the trend will reverse, but Indians will have to decide whether to be ruled by hereditary leaders or by people who have risen purely on talent or merit.
    Let me ask you the same question you asked Sunil Mittal, the Airtel chief: ‘Do you think the economic revolution has helped only a handful of clever, lucky business people?’

    I think that’s the standard Leftist critique, but the reality is that if you travel in large parts of India, you see there is a complete shift in people’s aspirations—in what they feel they can and might achieve for themselves and their families. I mean, the dynamism in certain businesses, and the kind of economic creativity (on display), show that it’s wrong to say that it benefits only a handful of people. Of course, about one quarter of the population is left out of the process, but the reality is that, since economic liberalisation, several hundred million people have been taken out of extreme poverty. And that is a phenomenal turnaround.

    You give the example of the Aarushi murder case to illustrate how, like the political system, our police is not keeping up with the rapidity of change that India is undergoing?

    Absolutely. The investigation of both criminal and corruption cases is failing completely to keep up with the way India is changing at the moment. I happen to know Dr Rajesh Talwar because he was my dentist and also the dentist of my wife’s family. Also, my wife’s uncle had been his lawyer. It was by chance really that I saw this case so close up. But even in the reports in the media in the last few days, you can see how the CBI is willing to assassinate a man’s character based on completely bogus stories. The oddity about the initial police investigation was that Noida is an aspirational city and yet the murder was being investigated by Uttar Pradesh police officers who were clearly incompetent. Once the case was handed over to the CBI, you can see again that it was dealt with in this vague and incompetent way. The result is that the killer has not been found yet and the Talwar couple have had their reputation destroyed.

    So what’s the shape you think India will take 20 years from now?

    I think the process of transformation and the process of political empowerment of people from lower-caste backgrounds is going to grow a whole lot further. One of the things that is very noticeably different between India now and 20 years ago is the way people are not willing to be put down. People at almost every level feel they have the right to demand what they want. That’s what’s going to be interesting to watch. It’s almost as if people are able to take control of their destiny in a way that was very difficult 20 years ago, when the job opportunities open to them were extremely limited. I give an example of an adivasi man from Maharashtra who has ended up as the cellar master of a winery. And he is someone who—20 years ago, or even 200 years ago—would have been a day-wage labourer with no prospects. In the past, whatever he did, he would have known he was going nowhere. Whereas today, with a little bit of luck, he has found the opportunity to go somewhere.

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