Volume 21 Issue 11 November 2017


“A question has arisen,” as Mahatma Gandhi would say. “Why South Asians continue to elect families to the highest political office despite their poor records sometimes?” This, no doubt, is a weighty question that merits deep reflection. One possible explanation could be that it is part of the local culture to extend the respect given to an individual, as well to other members of his family - his spouse and offspring.

Another could be the hero worship sentiment. Some political leaders, especially, if they are founders of the party, treat it as their personal property, where succession passes by nomination among members of the family as an inheritance. And people endorse their actions and overlook their shortcomings, out of love and reverence as in the case of the Bhutto family where Benazir and Asif Zardari became prime minister and president, respectively, despite their notoriety for massive corruption.

This phenomenon is best exemplified by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), where no election is ever held. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded it. After his death, his widow Nusrat and his daughter Benazir, took over the mantle one after another. After Benazir was killed, her spouse, Asif Zardari introduced the office of “co-chairman” in the party and assumed charge of the office himself, while, his son, Bilawal, was appointed chairman. This was an innovation, but the party accepted it without question due to its loyalty to the Bhutto dynasty. Moreover, they have flourished despite their notoriety. Now the Sharifs are following the PPP. Nawaz Sharif, his wife, Kulsoom, sons, Hassan and Hussain, daughter, Maryam, son in-law, Safdar were all, active in politics until the court and NAB cases appeared. Kulsoom Nawaz won the parliamentary seat that fell vacant due to Nawaz’s disqualification by the Supreme Court. His younger brother and Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza, is a member of the National Assembly.

A third explanation could be the surge of sympathy for the widow and offspring of a popular leader, violently killed, as in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. In Sri Lanka, after Solomon Bandaranaike, was assassinated, public sympathy surged in favour of his family. As a result his widow, Srimavo, son Anura and daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, all were elected one by one as prime ministers.

In Nepal the Koirala family ruled for several decades. Four members of the family, three of them brothers, - Matrika Prasad Koirala, B.P. Koirala, Girija Prasad Koirala and one of their cousins, Sushil Koirala, have been prime ministers of the country. Their popularity, however, is understood to rest on their good governance.

Bangladesh threw up Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Begum Khaleda Zia. Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the founder of Bangladesh, whereas, Khaleda’s husband, Gen. Ziaur Rahman, (the Major) was the one who proclaimed the independence of Bangladesh from a clandestine radio station at Kalurghat in Chittagong on the night of 26 March, 1971, when the Pakistan army flew Mujib to West Pakistan and launched Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan.
The assassination of Mujib and Zia unleashed a groundswell of public sympathy for the two ladies that catapulted them to power.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder-president and, later, prime minister, groomed his eldest son, Kamal, as his heir-apparent. Kamal was appointed commander of the Rakhi bahini (security militia) to oversee law enforcement. But, that dream was set at naught when Mujib, with his wife and three sons, - Kamal, Jamal and Russell - were mowed down by some army officers. His two daughters, Hasina and Rehana, survived by sheer good fortune, because, at the time the tragedy overtook their father, they were not in the country.

Hasina and Rehana returned from abroad and went to Delhi, where Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took them under her wings and hosted them until the time was propitious so they could return home. When they did, a grateful nation, predictably, showered them with sympathy as Bangabandhu’s only surviving offspring. However, Rehana went into oblivion, but Hasina entered politics and people enthusiastically chose her to take up her father’s mantle. The people of Bangladesh, perhaps in order to demonstrate that they revered Mujib and Zia, equally, elected Khaleda and Hasina to power, alternately.

India’s is a different but no less fascinating story. Rahul Gandhi frankly admitted in a speech recently, in Berkeley, California, that he was benefiting from a dynastic connection. He also argued that dynastic succession was somehow natural to India.

Opinions,, however, differ on this issue. According to some analysts, “the Congress became a dynastic party by accident.” The sudden and unexpected death of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966 in Tashkent, where he had gone to negotiate truce with Pakistan to end the 1965 war, “panicked the Congress leadership — the Syndicate as they were called — into choosing Indira Gandhi to succeed him.”

Indira Gandhi was not the obvious choice, because Morarji Desai was senior but he was “too un-corrupt” for the Syndicate. K Kamaraj ruled himself out saying, ‘No Hindi, No English, how can I be prime minister?’ As for Indira Gandhi, just six months ago she had wanted to be high commissioner to the UK to be close to her sons who were in England. She did not see herself as leading India. The office of prime minister could not be farther from her thoughts at that point in time.

Jawaharlal Nehru was an icon of the Congress which won independence for the country. He had groomed his daughter in politics. But he had made no attempt to promote her as his heir apparent. In fact, before the Congress chose Indira, there was no party in India which was remotely dynastic. It was Indira that made the Congress dynastic as part of her lust for power. There was nothing traditional about it. It was a pure political coup in 1969 that split the Congress under the guise of a left-wing turn.

In 1984, after Indira’s sudden death, there was a perfect chance to restore constitutional norms and nominate the senior-most cabinet minister as the acting PM, to be confirmed, in due course, by the parliamentary party. But Pranab Mukherjee was hounded out of the party, for hinting at such a course of action and Rajiv Gandhi became leader and PM in succession to his mother. It was at this stage that the Congress became a dynastic party and a private possession of the family.

The infection has since spread to the states; especially UP, Bihar and Odisha. Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar, are the exemplars of dynastic politics. In UP, where Mulayam became chief minister three times, his son, Akhilesh currently rules the roost.

In Bihar, when Laloo Prasad was ousted for being involved in the fodder scam, he passed the baton of chief minister to his wife, Rabri Devi. And currently, Lalu Prasad’s elder son Tej Pratap Yadav is health minister in the Bihar state government, while his younger son, Tejashwi Yadav, is ex-deputy chief minister of Bihar.

In Odisha, the current chief minister, Naveen Patnaik is the son of former chief minister, Biju Patnaik. But this is not a case of direct succession. It is more like Bush, father and son, becoming US presidents, because there were several other chief ministers between Biju asnd Naveen Patnaik.

The distinctive feature of dynastic politics is that there is no internal democracy within the party. Until that happens, the existing situation would remain unaltered.

The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of SouthAsia.    
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