Family raj in politics causes turbulence

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The ups and downs of India ’s political dynasties, by NOEL G DESOUZA

The Nehru-Gandhi family is often portrayed as a charismatic family which India adores. The other sub-continental nations also have prominent political families. Pakistan has the Bhutto clan, Sri Lanka has the Bandaranaikes and Bangladesh has the Mujibur Rehmans. These families have made enormous sacrifices and have long, but turbulent histories.

In monarchies, the royal families generally provides a charismatic and unifying focus. India has had its own internal kingdoms wherein the royals sometimes provided a local focus. But these were meaningless for India as a whole. That unifying focus came from Jawaharlal Nehru and his descendants.

In republics, people endow political families which have earned their trust with a royal-like status. The USA has three outstanding political families which gave the country it presidents and also other politicians: the Roosevelt, the Kennedy and the Bush families. There are other families which have produced a number of senators like the Gores, one of whom became a Vice-President.

Generations of families participating in politics are widespread in India . India ’s largest state Uttar Pradesh (UP), both size-wise and population-wise, is politically a prime trophy. It was the state where the Nehru family, who were Kashmiri Brahmins, established their ancestral home. UP until recently was ruled by Mayawati, a law graduate, who flaunted her “untouchable” (Dalit) origins; in recent times she became famous for building expensive monuments.

Amongst those who attempted to wrest power from her were the Congress Party led by its General Secretary Rahul Gandhi (a fifth-generation Nehru-Gandhite), his very influential mother Sonia and his sister Priyanka. The UP election was a state affair which was based on state realities. The Nehru-Gandhi family is more important at the national level.

The other contender was the Samajwadi Party which has resoundingly won the elections. It championed the cause of the other backward classes in UP. Its leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was thrice the Chief Minister of UP and once was a central cabinet minister. He has nominated his son Akhilesh, an engineering graduate who has been elected to the central parliament in three elections, as the party chief.

The politics of UP is predominantly based on local castes as demonstrated by the Samajwadi Party gaining 224 seats and the Bahujan Samaj Party 79 seats, both these parties representing disadvantaged groups. These figures dwarf BJP’s 47 and Congress party’s 28 seats.

Another father-son duo in UP is Kalyan Singh and his son Rajveer Singh. Once very influential with the BJP and the Samajwadi Party, Kalyan Singh appears to have burnt his bridges, and his new party, the Jan Kranti Party, is no longer that influential.

Goa, India’s smallest state, had twelve seats allocated for its March 2012 poll to five political families. This allocation was on both sides of the political divide. Sheila Dixit, the Chief Minister of Delhi found no problem with this allocation in Goa , arguing that applications should not be rejected because there are family links. She pointed out that professions often run within families such as doctors, lawyers and teachers.

In Goa , religious groups form important vote banks. Christians are 25% of the population (at the time Goa was liberated they were 40%) and have been given tickets by the main parties. Muslims, who are important in certain constituencies, were actively wooed.

There was furore when the prominent Christian Alemao clan were given four tickets by the Congress Party. The Alemaos are wealthy and prominent, and own a football team. Two Alemao brothers were ministers in the outgoing Congress government. All the four Alemaos were defeated in the election. They were targeted by several candidates, mostly Christian, who siphoned away votes from Alemao’s traditional vote banks. The first-past-the-post system enabled the use of such strategies.

In contrast, there were two successful duos who were given Congress tickets: the Monserrate couple (minister Atanasio and wife Jennifer) and the former Chief Minister Pratapsing Rane and his son Vishvajeet.

The Congress rout in Goa saw eight ministers losing seats and the party ending with just nine seats. The BJP has a comfortable majority; it distributed tickets amongst Hindus and Christians and amongst various castes. BJP has 9 Christian members (4 on its own tickets and 4 supporting independents).

A spectacular example of family political clout is found in neighbouring Karnataka where three Reddy brothers have either been ministers or have had considerable political influence. They have become megarich by exploiting iron ore mines.

In democracies, the people ultimately decide which members of which families get elected. 2012 will go down in UP as the year of the highest democratic participation: 60% have voted contrasting with 38% in 1951 and 44% in 1957. In Goa an astounding 81.4% voted in contrast to 70.51% in 2007; in 1977 just 63.22% had voted.

Disenchanted electorates had voted for change. An “anything but this” attitude had developed.

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