India still privileges princelings
Recent state elections have left political dynasties in control.

Supporters of Mayawati Kumari, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) President and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state, depart from a political rally on in Palwal, India Apr. 6, 2009.

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The big winner of recent state elections in India was not the resurgent Samajwadi Party, though it celebrated an historic victory over the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party in populous Uttar Pradesh state. No, what triumphed last week was India's culture of dynastic politics. Two new chief ministers and a re-elected deputy chief minister showcase the hold powerful families still exert over public life in the world's largest democracy.

Given India's history, this may not appear to be a pressing problem. Family and clan have always formed the building blocks of society, and one could argue for incremental progress since the country's new princelings tend to be better educated than their parents. But despite a stream of breathless stories in the Indian press about so-called Gen X leaders at home with their BlackBerrys and iPads, the outsized importance of family reveals something disquieting. Indian politics is remarkably closed to fresh talent, privileges sycophancy over ambition and encourages corruption. Left unchecked, this may erode the legitimacy of India's democracy.

This prognosis may appear somewhat ill-timed given that the most prominent loser in the assembly polls, widely viewed as a dress rehearsal for national elections due no later than 2014, was the scion of India's most storied political family, the Nehru-Gandhis. Despite three years of effort, Rahul Gandhi led his party to a dismal fourth place finish in Uttar Pradesh.

Yet consider who won these elections. The most powerful man in India's populous Hindi heartland today is new Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Singh Yadav, the 38-year-old son of former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. In the neighboring hill state of Uttarakhand, Vijay Bahuguna, another son of a former Uttar Pradesh chief minister, was sworn in Tuesday. (Until 2000, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh were part of the same state.) In Punjab, it's likely only a question of time before 49-year-old Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal steps up to fill his 84-year-old father Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal's shoes. Sons of former chief ministers run Orissa, Jammu and Kashmir; another ran Maharashtra until 2010.

Nor is this phenomenon confined to the states. As the historian Patrick French has documented, seven out of 10 women in India's parliament owe their entry into politics to family. Two-thirds of national legislators under the age of 40 are so-called "hereditary MPs" from political families.

India claims no monopoly on prominent political families. America has the Kennedys and the Bushes, and leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is the son of a former governor. But in mature democracies, leadership opportunities are given to talented people from all backgrounds. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party gave Margaret Thatcher, famously a grocer's daughter, a ladder to the top. In America, a community organizer with a foreign name can credibly dream of winning the presidency.

While the right name could give a politician a leg up in other countries, in India it's more like two legs and an arm. Fifty-odd families effectively run much of the country. Traditionally, the communists and the BJP, disciplined by ideology, have been better at nurturing talent, though these days the most prominent young BJP MPs look remarkably similar to their peers in the notoriously dynastic Congress, while the communists are a dying breed. Smaller caste-based and regional parties are either personality cults run by a maximum leader or family firms.

Ironically, nothing highlights the flaws of this system more than the occasional interloper. Take Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, perhaps India's best known outsider in politics. In another country, he may have been attracted early to politics, mentored by like-minded seniors and toughened by electoral combat before claiming the prime ministership.

But with no system of party primaries and an every-man-for-himself (and his progeny) political culture, Mr. Singh parachuted into high office when he was made finance minister in 1991. Lacking a base either in Congress or in the wider public, he has always depended on powerful patrons. Under former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, Mr. Singh was allowed to pursue economic reforms. Under Congress President Sonia Gandhi's populist dispensation, those instincts have been stifled. As a result, despite ostensibly having an economist at the helm India's growth is slowing.

This closed system may also be one of the factors encouraging corruption. Lacking a culture of transparency, all major parties use slush funds for campaigns. And without intra-party competition, the party leader can easily control these resources and perpetuate his rule. Politicians in such a system find it easy to be cozy with crony businesses, like in mining and real estate. As last year's anti-corruption movement showed, many of India's educated citizens are fed up with the kind of people elected to rule them.

As a fix, the middle class needs to shed its traditional apathy toward politics, and either form new parties or join existing ones. More importantly, parties should respond by starting to treat ideas seriously—attracting followers based on what they believe rather than which caste, community or gene pool they claim to represent.

If this succeeds, India's dynasts will no longer be able to pass on high office like a family heirloom. If it fails, the country will continue to look less like a modern democracy and more like a patchwork quilt of fiefdoms.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @dhume01


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About the Author


  • Sadanand Dhume writes about South Asian political economy, foreign policy, business, and society, with a focus on India and Pakistan. He is also a South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review in India and Indonesia and was a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. His political travelogue about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist, has been published in four countries.

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