Wiping his tears and speaking in a pitch-perfect choked voice in pocket borough Hassan, former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda said he was pained by allegations that he was a political dynast. Then he announced he was giving up the seat he has won in five of seven general elections since 1991 for his grandson Prajwal Revanna. Three generations—Gowda, his MLA son Revanna and his grandson—wept for the camera.
The next day, this travelling circus moved to Mandya, where Gowda made an announcement about his other grandson, the son of chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy (who loves a good public cry himself). Nikhil Kumaraswamy—known more for his limited-edition Lamborghini than his political acumen—would contest from Mandya for the Janata Dal (Secular), Gowda said. “Media friends are mocking me when I shed tears at Hassan. I won’t shed tears here," Gowda said, adding that Nikhil was entering politics to “help his father".
JD(S) is a party Just for Deve Gowda and Sons, one Twitter user said. Two of Gowda’s sons and his daughter-in-law Anitha Kumaraswamy stood and won in the state assembly elections last year, along with the children of at least half a dozen former Karnataka chief ministers. Most won.
Political cartoonist Mahamud tweeted an illustration of a woman laughing uproariously in front of her television. Another woman, peering from the window, guesses that she’s laughing at one of the “supremo’s" two favourite statements—that he doesn’t do family politics or that this is his last election. The verdict is still out on the latter. Some party observers have forecast that Gowda will contest the election from the Bangalore North constituency while others have reported that the octogenarian might take back the Hassan seat from Prajwal.
The family as an institution may be undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis across the world, but Indian politics remains as firmly grounded in this patriarchal institution as it has ever been.
The Gowda family’s drama only serves to illustrate what we have known for a while: Dynasty politics is no longer the preserve of one family, one party, or one state. The phenomenon is so prevalent that fifth-generation politician Rahul Gandhi casually flicked off a question about it at the University of California at Berkeley last September. “Most parties in India have that problem…. So don’t get after me because that’s how India is run," he said.
He’s right, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari—or from Abdullah to the late Karunanidhi—family continues to be a powerful entry ticket to the world of politics. Whatever your professional record or degree of passion, you can forget about the top job if you are not part of the family—unless you start your own political party, like Arvind Kejriwal did. That’s precisely why it’s newsworthy when an outsider like Donald Trump or Narendra Modi shatters the glass ceiling.
When Gowda’s grandson Prajwal Revanna was asked the same question, he pointed a finger at former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa’s son B.Y. Raghavendra. “Tell me who is contesting from Shivamogga from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and we will discuss after that," he said.
“This is a New India, where a person’s performance matters, not pedigree," the PM tweeted last week. “No longer will dynastic politics act as a barrier to meritorious people joining the system & working for society. Doors and opportunities are open for 130 crore Indians, not just a few powerful families."
But the ruling BJP now lives in a glasshouse. It’s time the party threw away the stones it has frequently pelted at dynasty politics. In the Rajasthan assembly elections last year, the party fielded several family members of prominent BJP politicians. You see, politicians and their progeny routinely leave political parties if their dynastic demands are not met.
Writer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay quotes scholar Romain Carlevan, who calculated that the BJP accounted for 44.4% of all family members elected to the 16th Lok Sabha in 2014. Fifteen of our 75 cabinet ministers are political heirs, The Print, an online media venture, reported. It’s only a matter of time before a dynast heads the BJP.
Our penchant for family drama peaks before any election.
Remember 2014, when Lalu Prasad’s daughter Misa Bharti waited at “uncle" Ram Kripal Yadav’s house for the entire day? Prasad’s wife and three of his nine children are politicians. Four of his other offspring married into political families. But back to Misa Bharti. Kripal, Prasad’s former aide, friend of three decades and Bharti’s mentor, didn’t meet her until night fell. He was incensed that Prasad gave the Pataliputra seat in Bihar to her. The man who had once called Modi a “virus" quit Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal saying that family was getting precedence over social justice and joined the BJP. He stood against Bharti and won. Five years later, he remains a strong supporter of the PM.
Family politics is not a Made in India project—you see it everywhere from the Kennedys and the Bushes to the nearly 80% of elected representatives that belong to political dynasties in the Philippines. Like in Equatorial Guinea, where dynast Francisco Macías Nguema had a blast calling himself “President For Life" and “Sole Miracle" until his nephew ousted and executed him, the political annals of every country hold enough dirty family linen.
As for our royal family of dynastic politics, if rumours that Varun Gandhi is likely to shift loyalties from the ruling BJP to the Congress are to be believed, it will be the first time in my lifetime that four Gandhi family members—Sonia, Rahul, Priyanka and Varun—fight for the same side. Three of them are under the age of 50. Dynasties, it would seem, have a healthy future.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
She tweets at @priyaramani