It will take more than Modi to finish India's political dynasties

The governing BJP appears to have figured out that it's not about displacing just one family legacy in the rival camp

Congress party supporters stand in front of a poster that has president Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, on display. Getty Images
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As part of its objective to dominate Indian politics for the next three decades, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lately been doubling down on a set of old, hardy adversaries: political dynasties.

Its aim is to render the country’s most powerful families permanently irrelevant before eventually capturing their political spaces. But it will struggle to succeed in this endeavour, which began eight years ago and has shifted gears in recent months, for a number of reasons.

Having come to power in New Delhi in 2014, the BJP today is an election-winning machine that draws on the popularity of its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi; the energy and efficiency of its cadre; and an unrivalled war chest. It’s no wonder, then, that the party governs or shares power in 17 of the 28 states.

India's Premier Rajiv Gandhi (2nd-R), accompanied by his Italian-born wife Sonia (C) and his daughter Priyanka (2nd-L) and son Rahul (L), pray, on his mother, Indira Gandhi's, cremation site 31 October 1989 in New Delhi. Indira, a Congress party leader, was brutally assassinated by Sikh militants in 1984, a tragedy which thrust power onto Rajiv, who was then a commercial pilot of Indians Airlines. On 21 May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi, then Indian Prime minister, was assassinated by a woman activist allegedly belonging to Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels. Sonia, eleven years after the assassination of Rajiv, is leading a revival of the Congress party and carrying forward the legacy of India's most powerful political dynasty. AFP PHOTO DOUGLAS E. CURRAN (Photo by DOUGLAS E. CURRAN / AFP)

Yet, large parts of India, particularly in the south and east, have so far remained out of the BJP’s reach. One reason for this is its principal ideology. Hindutva, loosely translated to “political Hinduism”, finds little purchase among Indians living in these parts. For them, subnational, regional and linguistic fealties overpower religious identity. A deeply secular outlook, even among the most devout Hindus, has also proved to be an effective bulwark.

A third reason is the public’s decades-long allegiance to regional satraps, who often marry their individual familial legacies with the aforementioned identities to wield power. Several of them have stayed relevant, to some extent, by painting pan-national parties as “outsiders”, and in some cases even “invaders”.

The Indian National Congress, the country’s grand old party, did govern a number of these states, from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in the south to Bengal and Orissa in the east. But that was the outcome of its secular outlook as well as its legacy as the leading light in India’s freedom movement.

Pope Francis meets Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik at the Vatican on June 22. Patnaik belongs to a political dynasty, with his father, Biju Patnaik, having also served as chief minister. Reuters
By booting these families out, the BJP says, the voters can benefit directly from Modi’s development agenda

The BJP has neither of those features. But it has propositions that it can make to those feeling severe voter fatigue or apathy, which the latter might find compelling. Novelty is one; the other is the prospect of better co-operation between state and union governments.

The BJP’s media campaigns have revolved around a simple narrative: India’s economic development has been held back by an entrenched elite, composed mostly of political families, which for decades has looked after its interests alone. By booting these families out, the BJP says, the voters can benefit directly from Mr Modi’s development agenda.

For a party seeking its third consecutive term in New Delhi, and therefore desperately in search of new fault lines, this narrative is self-serving. After all, it can use it to shift the blame for many of the country’s economic problems on to the satraps. This is the same argument the party employed, to great effect, in the 2014 parliamentary election. For a Congress party battling anti-incumbency, the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty at its helm had become its biggest liability.

Having succeeded in subordinating India’s most powerful political family and having sustained its own dominance for almost a decade, the BJP now fancies taking on the smaller but no less influential families that have a strong presence in many of India’s states – not just in the south and east, but across the country. In the run-up to the 2024 parliamentary vote, it will use a handful of state assembly elections over the next two years as test cases to see if this strategy works.

The question, however, isn’t whether the BJP will succeed electorally, which it might well do in some states, but whether it can politically eliminate these dynasties, as it has often claimed it wants to accomplish.

Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) workers pose with a poster of Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi at the BJP party office in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

It is an ambitious initiative – one that is remotely conceivable only because India is still journeying through a transformational period that began in 2014.

It’s important to remember that the BJP’s victory eight years ago was epochal, not because it defeated Congress, which had lost elections before, but because it displaced it as the country’s pre-eminent party. It was the culmination of a years-long churn in Indian politics and culture that forced the changing of the guard from a Congress-led secular political system to a BJP-spearheaded majoritarian one.

But, even though so much of what Indians took for granted has been upended over the past eight years, is it possible for dynastic politics to be consigned to the ash heap of history?

The numbers don’t stack up. According to data compiled by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data and the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, a record 30 per cent of all members of India’s lower house of parliament today belong to political families. The percentages are even higher in the states, ranging from 32 per cent in Rajasthan to 35 per cent in Telangana and 42 per cent in Maharashtra, proving that the phenomenon is “all pervasive geographically”.

Then Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, left, his son, Aditya Thackeray, and actor Salman Khan in Mumbai on May 7. Uddhav's father, Bal Thackeray, founded the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist party. AFP

There are several reasons why political parties rely on dynasties. For one, name recognition gives candidates an advantage at the local level. But beyond that, other important factors are at play, as political scientist Milan Vaishnav pointed out, such as their greater exposure to politics, extensive networks and connections, and the belief among voters that dynasts are better positioned to deliver services.

The BJP, which has for decades had its fair share of dynasts, too, knows this all too well.

Further, despite all the rhetoric, it has co-opted a large number of mini dynasties from the opposition in recent years. Many of these families have very little name recall outside their pocket boroughs, but within them they are powerful enough to be taken seriously. A number of them have left Congress to join the BJP primarily because today, brand Modi trumps brand Gandhi at the ballot box.

Inherent in this shift lies a truism, that dynasties are well-versed with the art of survival, and it has forced Mr Modi to nuance his own remarks. “When a party is run for generations by a family, there is only dynasty, no dynamics,” the Prime Minister recently said.

In other words, it's OK for dynasties to exist so long as they are part of the Modi coalition.

The BJP may, in the end, triumph over some powerful families in some states – at least the ones that fail to reinvent themselves. But it goes without saying that, how much ever its voters want to believe that democracy is about people power, it has already resigned itself to the fact that no political system can eliminate the so-called elite. They form the bedrock that few parties can dispense with, no matter the rhetoric they use to undermine them.

Published: August 10, 2022, 4:00 AM