Does India have a dynasty problem? Writer Patrick French researched this for a chapter in his last book (India: A Portrait He found that 37.5% of Congress MPs had a previous family connection to politics. In all, 28.6% of the current Lok Sabha comprises such people. A total of 156 MPs across parties.
Attacking this phenomenon, writer Sadanand Dhume (“India Still Privileges Princelings”, The Wall Street Journal, 15 March) felt that the assembly election results from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and elsewhere showed that “...what triumphed last week was India’s culture of dynastic politics. Two new chief ministers and a re-elected deputy chief minister showcase the hold powerful families still exert over public life in the world’s largest democracy.”
Dhume referred to French’s book, which says that “seven out of 10 women in India’s parliament owe their entry into politics to family. Two-thirds of national legislators under the age of 40 are so-called ‘hereditary MPs’ from political families.”
All in the family: Jawaharlal Nehru (left) and Indira Gandhi were the first two of three generations of Indian prime ministers. (Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
French makes the claim that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) relatively low tally of hereditary MPs (19%) makes the party appealing to the Hindu middle class. “They knew that more than four-fifths of the party’s MPs had ascended by other means, than descending from on high, which made them seem more representative and regular.”
This idea that the middle class prefers merit to dynasty is echoed by Dhume. He offers a solution to the problem of dynasties. “As a fix, the middle class needs to shed its traditional apathy toward politics, and either form new parties or join existing ones. More importantly, parties should respond by starting to treat ideas seriously—attracting followers based on what they believe rather than which caste, community or gene pool they claim to represent.”
French and Dhume assume there is such a thing as middle-class India that behaviourally stands apart from the rest.
I have not seen any evidence of this. The middle class has no shield against the culture it is part of and wallows in. Nor indeed does it intend to be insulated from it.
It is the middle-class audience that has created dynasties in Bollywood. The dynastic principle is a fundamental aspect of our middle-class culture. “Good family (achche ghar ka)” is a middle-class formulation. It demotes the individual and invests genes with merit.
This is the root of dynastic principle. The understanding is that there is continuance of virtue in a family. This family virtue is received through birth.
It should not surprise that this phenomenon exists in a society that divides itself socially and culturally also by birth. But the idea of dynasty disturbs some of us because it separates us from European democracies.
I would say our problem is the opposite. We do not have enough dynasty in India.
This is because we don’t have an aristocracy, the basis for dynasty.
The duchy of Cornwall has been held by the British sovereign’s eldest son since 1337.
The dukes of Braganza in Portugal have been around since 1442. The dukes of Normandy since 911 in France. Apulia and Calabria have had counts since 1042 in Italy. The Wittelsbachs have been dukes in Bavaria since 1044.
This stability from landowning gentry has produced European civilization. The aristocracy can be discarded now, and has been, because its contributions, economic and cultural, have all been made and absorbed.
In India, we don’t have landed aristocrats because the Mughal emperor owned all land. He permitted people to till it and officials to tax it. But when a person appointed died, or was removed from office, the land returned to the emperor to give away to another.
Neither title nor property, and not even wealth, could be passed on to one’s sons. What income was unspent before death was confiscated, along with all savings. In author Sir Thomas Roe’s words, “Every man’s heir is the emperor”.
The Mughal system was anti-aristocracy, anti-dynasty and merit-based. Merit was determined by the emperor, without any test.
The books that document Akbar’s administration, A’in e Akbari and Akbarnama, reveal a second problem. It was that 70% of Akbar’s courtiers were foreigners. Of the Indian 30%, more than half were Muslims. There were 21 Hindu nobles of note. But of these 17 were Rajputs who had submitted to Akbar.
Actually, in 40 years, only four Hindus—the Brahmin Birbal, Todar Mal and his son, and another unnamed Khatri—served because of ability (W.H. Moreland, India at the Death of Akbar). None could pass on an inheritance. Every family, no matter how talented, had to start from zero or almost zero with each generation.
Compare this instability to Europe’s ageless tradition.
This absence of landed dynasts continued till the collapse of Mughal power, when short-lived dynastic states sprang up (French counts seven MPs from royal families). The foundation for civil society was missing till education came with Thomas Macaulay in the 19th century, producing the urban middle class. I said earlier that the middle class was the same as other Indians and didn’t behave in an intellectually independent manner. Why is this so?
My estimate is that the number of middle-class families with four generations of literacy (not numeracy) is in the low thousands. And without question it is limited to a couple of castes. This is an insufficient base. It cannot sustain an intellectual movement away from the national culture of seeing merit in birth. The explanation to French’s observation about fewer BJP MPs having a family connection is rooted not in middle-class discernment but the fact that it is a young party. It had only two MPs 25 years ago.
So is our dynastic culture all bad?
Dhume thinks Manmohan Singh is a weak prime minister because of this system which doesn’t recognize merit. He writes: “In another country, he may have been attracted early to politics, mentored by like-minded seniors and toughened by electoral combat before claiming the prime ministership.”
This is a puzzling thing to say because if Manmohan Singh has any instinct for popular politics, any enthusiasm for it, or any real talent for it, it is hidden.
He has no ability to bend public opinion. He’s an awful public speaker unless one is interested in undiluted substance. He could not be a popular leader anywhere on merit, despite his intellect.
The truth is that Manmohan Singh could become prime minister only in India. And here only by the grace of a dynast. This is an aspect that moderates the dynast’s power. Because her only asset is the public’s mindless veneration, the dynast is alert to perception.
So I don’t think, given these realities, that there’s something wrong with our system of dynasty. It must be seen as part of the evolutionary process aborted or held in abeyance by Muslim rule.
This must be admitted: Indians are unusually good at picking quality dynasties, whether it is the Kapoors or the Nehru-Gandhis.
This is why our stubborn conflation of merit with birth hasn’t been damaging.
Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist.
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