Is India's politics becoming less dynastic?

Narendra Modi addressing BJP MPs Image copyright AFP
Image caption The ruling BJP is considered to be less dynastic than the former ruling Congress party

Is India's politics becoming less dynastic?

Serving up some revealing data on the stranglehold of family and lineage on Indian politics, historian Patrick French wrote in his 2011 book India: A Portrait that if the trend continued, India could slide back to the days when it was ruled by a "hereditary monarch and assorted Indian princelings". He also expressed concern that the next Lok Sabha - the lower house of parliament to which 543 MPs are directly elected - would be a "house of dynasts".

New research by political scientist Kanchan Chandra of New York University actually points to a fall in the number of dynastic MPs in the new parliament, formed after May's general election.

Professor Chandra found that 21% of the MPs in the new parliament have a dynastic background, down from 29% in the last parliament. (A survey by The Hindu newspaper, however, found a quarter of MPs - 130 - in the current parliament have a dynastic background.)

Also, 24% of India's new cabinet, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is dynastic in nature, down from 36% in the previous Congress-led government.

The fall in numbers of dynastic MPs in the parliament may have something to do with the massive victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is considered to be less dynastic than the Congress party it replaced in government. (The BJP alone has 282 of the 336 MPs in the ruling coalition.)

"For me the decline in numbers of dynastic MPs is significant," Baijayant Jay Panda, a prominent MP from the regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party, told me. "I think we will see a further fall in numbers in future parliaments."

Professor Chandra is not so sure.

Favourable to dynasty

She says most parties, including the ruling BJP, are favourable to dynastic politicians: 15% of the BJP's MPs and 26% of its cabinet are dynastic, and a number of its chief ministers have had their family members follow them in political positions.

Of the 36 political parties that have now at least one seat in the parliament, the leaders of at least 13 (36%) were preceded by family members who were MPs. Also, as Professor Chandra says, the rise of "young, aspirational voters does not quite represent a deterrent to dynastic politics".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Minister and MP Ramvilas Paswan (right) and his son and newly elected MP Chirag Paswan run a regional party

This appears to be borne out somewhat by a survey of young voters by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2011 that found that although the majority of young voters - 18-30 years of age - opposed dynastic politics in general, they preferred voting for a dynastic candidate when a dynasty was associated with youth.

More interestingly, another study by Milan Vaishnav, Devesh Kapur and Neelanjan Sircar earlier this year found that 46% of Indians had no problems supporting dynastic politicians. "What we found was kind of shocking," said Mr Vaishnav. "Nearly one in two Indians say, if I had a choice, I would prefer to vote for a candidate who has a family background."

Regional dynasts

Also, India's Nehru-Gandhi family which leads the Congress is no longer the only dynastic party. The fragmentation of Indian politics has led to a sharp rise in parties led by regional dynasts - at least 15 of them remain politically significant despite many having fared badly in the recent elections. No wonder, as Professor Chandra points out, dynastic politics is alive and well in the states: 28% of the state governments are led by a dynastic chief minister.

To be sure, politics is not the only sphere where India tolerates dynasties - they dominate businesses, Bollywood and many other spheres of life.

In politics, dynasties offer readymade kinship networks that substitute for party organisations. Dynastic politics, Professor Chandra argues, is also linked to "increasing returns from state power" - public officials continue to yield enormous discretion in the exercise of power and patronage from what remains a large and powerful state.

But things, Mr Panda insists, are changing.

He believes that more first-generation politicians with no dynastic links are coming up than ever before and predicts that regional dynasties will splinter further and wither away. Most importantly, he says, social media is making it easier for politicians to organise networks without depending on families.

"When you are a dynastic politician you easily inherit the network that helps you win election. But the advent of the social media shows that this advantage is breaking down and politics is becoming a more level playing field," Mr Panda says. For evidence, he points out the way the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) used social media successfully in Delhi's state elections last year to mobilise supporters.

"I am not saying," Mr Panda cautions, "that dynasties will vanish overnight. "But as more and more young Indians get connected to the world, there will be a breaking down of established modes of feudalism. That includes dynastic politics."

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