Taking the family to Parliament

Taking the family to Parliament

During a brief visit to Maharashtra in January, even as India struggled with corruption and a severe governance deficit, Rahul Gandhi lamented the fact that the youth of the country were avoiding active political participation. In the days leading up to his visit, an additional collector in the state had been killed after he tried to apprehend members of a large fuel mafia. “In the short term," Gandhi said, “we need to act immediately against corruption cases and in the long run there is a need to cleanse the political system."

One of the ingredients of this governance deficit is that political leadership across the country is no longer a meritocracy, instead deriving its right to rule from other sources. Gandhi added that few young people enter the political sphere without a famous surname (Gandhi is himself the scion of a family of national leaders), and that he would try to ensure that the Congress remained open to all. Such efforts are commendable, but they do not go far enough.

A more systematic and constitutional approach needs to be taken to open up Indian politics’ family chest. This should include a constitutional amendment allowing children and spouses of members of Parliament to serve in Parliament only 10 years after the MP retires. The amendment could be extended to state legislature.

India’s democracy has survived several calamities (including an Emergency), but the dynastic politics can once again undermine it. No less than a dozen large Indian states have families running them. Patrick French, in his new book, quantifies the effect of such family politics on the Lok Sabha. His research shows that all of the Congress’ leaders under 40 years of age come from families with past experience in politics, particularly in the immediately preceding generation. The same is true for 65% of all leaders under 40 across party lines. French notes the rise of hyperhereditary MPs, with multiple family members who had made a career in politics. Hyperhereditary families also had the lowest average age of MPs.

Indeed, there is little difference between politics in India and a family business. As much as any tradesperson potentially learns from his parents, so does our average young politician. Across India, the one electoral symbol every voter will be familiar with is political dynasty.

India is not alone in having famous sons, daughters or spouses enter politics. In the last 20 years, the Clintons and the Bushs have ruled the US political scene. But the person who created a mass political movement seemingly out of nothing, Barack Obama, wasn’t the scion of a political family. The US political system, with all its faults, did allow the rise of a first generation American to the highest office in the land. But India is different. And our system is unique in how it elects politicians.

As Gandhi pointed out, a key reason why political families survive is the recognition that the family name evokes. With spending on election campaigns limited (legally, at least) and just three months separating announcement of polls and fielding of candidates, voters often find the family name the most trustworthy indicator of political performance. It’s better to vote for the devil you know, rather than the devil you don’t.

One argument could be that voting for a family is a voter’s choice. Voters are after all free to choose their representatives. An amendment barring family members of MPs from contesting elections would limit the choice, however marginally, for voters.

But this is misleading. The limited loss in voter choice can be more than offset with new leadership. Some of the most interesting and dynamic politicians in India are self-made —regardless of which side of the political spectrum they belong to. But people like Nitish Kumar, Narendra Modi, Mayawati or Mamata Banerjee are now proving to be the exception, not the rule.

Democracy needs new people, new ideas to sustain itself. The revolt in Egypt was as much against Hosni Mubarak as against his son and heir apparent, Gamal. The fact that Mubarak elder might install his son as the next president repulsed many. In Tunisia, anger was directed at not just Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but also his family members, who happened to control several government businesses.

The same anger against hereditary autocrats is found in Yemen or Bahrain or Libya. Most of India’s young Turks would have been swept off the streets of Cairo or Tunis as artefacts of a bygone era.

With few exceptions, India’s founding fathers would have been appalled to see the clout that family dynasties wield in the country’s politics. This influence would have been inconceivable to Sardar Patel or Jawaharlal Nehru, who worked so hard to end the rule of princely states and British monarchy.

Of course, the amendment proposed above, contrary as it is to prevailing political interest, would be difficult to legislate, leave alone implement. But an amendment to limit the terms of MPs—say, to 25 years—could be an easier to achieve compromise. Such term limits exist across the world. That way, it will be some time before the next generations of hereditary politicians take over from today’s young ones.

Prashant Agrawal works with a strategy consulting firm in private equity and financial services.

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