The most startling thing to me about Congress party general secretary Margaret Alva’s outburst on television was not that she was criticizing her party at a public forum (rare in these days of sycophancy), or even the seriousness of her allegation that tickets in Karnataka were sold (and it’s a measure of our cynicism that we accept that this as not uncommon across political parties).
For me, the startling thing was that her complaint—her son had been overlooked for a party ticket in Karnataka, while the relatives of politicians in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan seemed to have no problem getting tickets—didn’t whip up a bigger storm.
Alva was not protesting against a system of patronage. Quite the opposite. Her argument: If the relatives of other politicians are given tickets to contest elections, then why not reward my son, too?
It’s a measure of how much our democracy has matured that we now accept that the business of politics is a family affair. Dynastic politics is no longer unacceptable; it is the norm. And politicians and their relatives now demand tickets and seats as a matter of right.
Nearly all the Young Turks in Parliament today are the sons and daughters of politicians. This is not to say that they are not qualified; they are.
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Sachin Pilot went to St Stephens before doing an MBA from Wharton Business School. Manvendra Singh was at Amherst before he took a degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. And possibly the most qualified of his generation, Jyotiraditya Scindia has degrees from both Harvard and Stanford universities.
This is not to imply that these sons and daughters are not otherwise interesting or meritorious. Milind Deora is a jazz guitarist who lists listening to the blues as one of his interests in his official Lok Sabha biodata. Priya Dutt, Sunil and Nargis Dutt’s daughter, was involved with her parents’ social work before accepting the Congress ticket after her father’s death. More recently, she was seen in Bihar helping with flood relief work.
But what is appalling is the manner in which politicians now regard their constituencies as part of a personal fiefdom to be doled out to their children, if not spouses and significant others (Rabri Devi, J. Jayalalithaa, Mayawati).
This cuts across party lines (with our Communist comrades being notable exceptions). In Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah has followed his father Farooq and grandfather Sheikh’s chosen field and now Farooq’s sister (whose husband G.M. Shah can’t contest due to ill health) is making her debut at 73.
In the North-East, the charming Agatha Sangma is toeing the family line. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, a poet of some standing, has chosen to follow her daddy’s profession. Following the death of Pramod Mahajan, there was some thought in the Bharatiya Janata Party of giving his son Rahul a Rajya Sabha ticket. But Rahul had his own interpretation of “party line” and he self-destructed before the party turned to his sister.
And don’t forget, it was a fight for the spoils in the Shiv Sena between Bal Thackeray’s son Uddhav and his nephew Raj that led to Raj storming out of the party to set up the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which has been causing havoc in Mumbai in the past few weeks.
But it wasn’t always like this. The first generation of Indian politicians made considerable sacrifices to take up the cause of Independence. There was no sense at all that they would be rewarded with the spoils of office.
Dynastic politics had not yet taken root when Indira Gandhi joined politics with her father’s blessings in the capacity of his official hostess. Nehru was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri and it was only after Shastri’s death in 1966 that Indira Gandhi emerged as a candidate propped by the Congress old guard (or Syndicate) which believed, wrongly as it turned out, that she would be pliable unlike the obstinate, arrogant and vastly more senior Morarji Desai. It would take her three years to break free of the Syndicate through such populist measures as bank nationalization in 1969.
How ironic then is Indira Gandhi’s grandson Rahul Gandhi’s assertion that he is a symptom of all that is wrong with Indian politics: family, money and patronage? “Without family, friends or money you cannot enter the system,” he told a group of students in Uttarakhand last month.
With sons, daughters, nephews, sisters, wives, mistresses crawling all over the place, Indian politics now seems closed to outsiders. The only consolation, perhaps, is that we’re not as bad as Pakistan where a college-going boy becomes the automatic, unrivalled inheritor of his mother’s party—and who can forget Asif Ali Zardari’s appeal to journalists to avoid posing questions to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari because he is “only a boy”?
The issue is not why Alva’s son was denied a ticket. The issue is whether your child or my child has a chance at all. Until then, India’s democratic politics is doomed to remain the cosy-members-only club it has become.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org