Disassembling dynasty

Dimple Yadav’s likely win in UP brings back an old question: what is it about the organisational and institutional environment in India that encourages political dynasties?

Written by Vasundhara Sirnate | Published: June 8, 2012 2:15 am

Dimple Yadav’s likely win in UP brings back an old question: what is it about the organisational and institutional environment in India that encourages political dynasties?

Dimple Yadav,wife of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav,will win the upcoming by-election for the Kannauj Lok Sabha seat virtually unopposed. With a powerful father-in-law in Mulayam Singh Yadav and an equally powerful husband,Dimple Yadav’s inherited political capital is at an all-time high. The biggest testimony to this is that two major parties — the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party — have decided to not field an opposition candidate to Dimple Yadav.

The recent assembly elections in Punjab and UP were also battles between political dynasties. Three of the five parties that contested elections in these states — the Akali Dal,the Congress and the Samajwadi Party — are now in the hands of leaders who are euphemistically termed “princelings”. This by itself is no surprise. Political success in India often depends on family ties of candidates. At least two data sets,independently compiled by Patrick French and by us,suggest that dynastic ties are important in Indian politics. Others have commented on the rise of the “bahu-beti” brigade,signalling that women with politically powerful husbands,fathers,brothers or in-laws are more likely to be taken seriously as electoral candidates.

There is,however,widespread criticism of dynastic politics and an obvious incongruity between the idea of democracy and dynastic parties. We find that there is a representation deficit when it comes to dynastic parties. In those areas where dynastic parties compete,voters are far more likely to say that the politician (MLA or MP) does not look after the interests of anyone in the constituency. It should come as no surprise,then,that dynastic politics is also associated with the vast number of political parties and electoral volatility that mark contemporary Indian elections. Our research shows that in those states where the two main political parties are dynastic,there are greater vote swings for a party from one election to the other,with the average vote swing reaching 7 per cent. Second,we find that independent candidates are more likely to be elected and win votes. The percentage of independent candidates winning moves from 10 per cent under non-dynastic competition to 14 per cent under dynastic competition. Finally,there is a proliferation of political parties,with the effective number of political parties moving from less than four to more than four.

In addition to voter discontent,there are other reasons for these effects. In a dynastic party the top spot is limited to members of a family. For ambitious politicians who want to rise to the top spot there is only one option — to form their own political party or to switch allegiance to another party that will give them a higher position. This leads to larger number of parties competing for votes and/ or greater vote swings.

We understand a dynastic party to be one where the top leadership comes from within one family,or the successor is appointed without an organisational election (like Mayawati’s appointment by Kanshi Ram). In India,the number of dynastic parties is too large to list. The Congress tops everyone’s list. The highest leadership position has stayed within the Nehru-Gandhi family,starting with Nehru himself and flowing to Indira Gandhi,Sanjay Gandhi,Rajiv Gandhi,Sonia Gandhi and possibly Rahul Gandhi. Many regional parties are also dynastic: the Akali Dal in Punjab; Shiv Sena in Maharashtra; NCP of Maharashtra; the DMK in Tamil Nadu; the TDP of Andhra Pradesh; the BJD in Orissa; and the SP in UP.

So why do dynastic parties choose leaders from a particular family? The simple answer is that there is nothing to stop these leaders from selecting their successors. If a party has a party organisation where other contenders to the chief post can form their independent bases of power or lobby groups within the party,it may be harder to sustain dynastic parties. This was the case with the Congress in the 1960s when a strong organisation could discipline the ruling Congress party. The CPM,a non-dynastic party,has a massive cadre-based organisation.

Second,if a party has strong ties to a civil society organisation that constrains the party leader from appointing kin as successor,the party will be non-dynastic. The classic case is the BJP. The RSS (in which the BJP is societally rooted) exercises enough influence over the choice of leadership to ensure that it is non-dynastic.

Third,and most important,is party finance. As long as politicians raise their own campaign finances illegally,their best insurance against disclosure is to keep the money in the family. If all politicians in India raised funds independently and openly (as they do in the United States) individual politicians could challenge the party leadership. In India this independence is discouraged and substantial campaign contributions are undisclosed or “black” and collected centrally. This centralisation of finances is essential to avoid detection. As many have observed,the bulk of the money for the 2009 election campaigns of various parties was allocated to Lok Sabha hopefuls by the central command. This gives the central party enormous control and the party leader is influenced by incentives that encourage keeping it all in the family.

Our research shows that political dynasties are found where they provide risk insurance for politicians. Even in stable political systems like Japan,dynasties are common. As Fukui and Fukui observe,in the 1990 general elections,170 second-generation members ran for election to the Diet and 125 were elected. They attribute this to the electoral rules that led candidates to develop “highly individualistic campaign organisations built by and for particular Diet members and aspirants” and that since these organisations are “expensive to build,in terms of both money and effort invested,these organisations are valuable assets that are closely guarded by the incumbents and,upon their retirement or death,often passed on to their heirs,usually relatives or staffers.” Not surprisingly,then,dynasties have been seen in parts of the US,in Costa Rica,El Salvador,Nicaragua,the Philippines and Colombia.

The existence of political dynasties in democratic India is not a result solely of a larger social context in which dynasties and family ties are acceptable and important. The key to understanding why dynasties exist lies in party organisation. In India,and elsewhere,if a political party does not have a cadre-based organisation,is not rooted in an independent civil society association and has centralised financing of elections,it is much more likely to be dynastic. Understanding the organisational and institutional environment that encourages the persistence of dynastic parties allows us to begin thinking in terms of scuttling dynastic politics by enacting rules and regulations that can limit the power of central party command structures.

The writers are with the Travers Department of Political Science,University of California,Berkeley

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