Is it just me or have you noticed how elections in our proud democracy now resemble battles between medieval warlords? In Punjab we have the Badal dynasty fighting a real Maharaja and, in the vast and wondrous state of Uttar Pradesh we just witnessed a civil war in the Yadav dynasty. It has now been happily resolved with the Yadav prince teaming up with the Congress prince to take on the BJP. Is this democracy or an insidious form of feudalism? How have we come to such a pass that we in the media have accepted this new democratic normal with such equanimity?
Every now and then some snarky commentator (like your humble columnist) points out, as I do this week, that Indian democracy is in danger of being destroyed by electoral feudalism. But I find myself in a shrinking minority because most of my fellow pundits speak of the political heirs that have taken over most of our states as ‘leaders’. So in Tamil Nadu the battle for supremacy is now between the late chief minister’s best friend and her formerly unknown niece. When this internal friction in the ruling party is resolved, the fight will be against yet another dynasty. In Bihar the very virtuous chief minister has let the Lalu dynasty take charge of one of our poorest, most backward states, while he seeks a higher role.
My problem with ballot box feudalism is that despite needing electoral reaffirmation every five years, it remains feudalism. And in the end, it is all about money. During the Yadav civil war in UP did you observe that the warring factions travelled in convoys of expensive foreign SUVs and that they all lived in palatial mansions? Where did the money come from to support this kind of lifestyle? Ask yourself the question and you will quickly discover the reason why so many dynasties litter India’s political landscape.
The ugly truth is that a political career is the easiest way to make a lot of money very quickly. This money is always black but because tax inspectors dare not raid our ‘leaders’, the average Indian never finds out. The accumulation of black money begins as soon as the family patriarch or matriarch appoints an heir. Technically the financing of the political aspirant’s election should be the job of the party he represents, but the truth is that if Mummy or Daddy is a powerful personage, then the heir finds it easy to collect directly from business houses. Vast sums get accumulated which pay for more than just the campaign, so the new ‘leader’ gets his first taste of easy money. If he notices that he is losing, then he invests it wisely in advance of the result, so in any case he is better off when the campaign ends. If he wins, his family name makes it easier to become a minister and then mysteriously, or perhaps not that mysteriously, he becomes richer and richer.
In our more backward states, political life has additional perks such as being able to walk into a jewellery store and pick up what you want for your daughter or wife. Only foolhardy shopkeepers refuse to oblige and they end up paying a heavy price. As the years in ‘public service’ go by, our political heir goes from strength to strength and his family prospers with him. In almost every political family these days you will find one member who turns out to be an extraordinarily skillful businessman.
Since the Prime Minister sees black money as one of our biggest problems, we must hope that in pursuance of his search for it, he will start inquiring into the finances of our political dynasties. But can he do this when his own party is breeding its own little dynasties? In UP, the son of the Home Minister is a candidate, as is the grandson of former chief minister Kalyan Singh. He already has a son in Parliament. In the constituency of Kairana when the daughter of the MP was asked why she felt she should be given a ticket, she said, “Why not, if I have a desire to serve the people like my father has?” Is she the only person in Kairana with this desire?
In the 2014 general election, Narendra Modi made his disapproval of hereditary politics absolutely clear, but despite this had to accommodate several heirs whose only qualification was dynasty. If he wants to win his war against black money, he should inquire why his comrades are so keen to push their usually unemployable heirs into public life. The excuse for heirs being given tickets often is ‘winnability’, but it is a lame one. When a powerful political leader wants a candidate to win, he does. It cannot be an excuse for starting a political dynasty.