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Family ties

Candidates from political dynasties are more resilient to electoral reverses.

Written by Andrew Wyatt |
Updated: April 1, 2014 9:24:13 am

Candidates from political dynasties are more resilient to electoral reverses.

Dynastic politics is a live topic, and it works well for Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. Pejorative references to “family rule” produce good sound bites. While leaders position themselves against it, the ubiquity of family connections will survive this election. Numerous “new faces” with family connections have been identified on candidate lists released by parties across India.

Elections are important moments in the process of the formation of an elite. Nominations to contest the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections are a chance to move ahead in the party. There are many aspirants, but tickets are few and distributed parsimoniously. The decision-making process is invariably opaque, but there is evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, that family connections help candidates get nominations.

Politicians with family connections in the Lok Sabha have attracted much attention. The numbers alone are striking. In 2011, Kanchan Chandra and Wamiq Umaira reported that 34 per cent of MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha were related to currently or previously active politicians. The pattern has also been noted at the state level, but not been analysed as much. Along with C. Manikandan of Pondicherry University, I have done research on dynastic patterns at the state level in Tamil Nadu.

Examining these patterns could throw light on dynastic politics in the national legislature. In 2009, the DMK put up a higher number of candidates with family connections for the Lok Sabha (28 per cent) than it did for the 2011 assembly election (20 per cent). It would be interesting to see if this applies elsewhere. One factor explaining the divergence may be finance — political families usually find it easier than other candidates to bear the heavy cost of contesting a large constituency. These costs, especially in the face of certain defeat, may encourage some sitting politicians to keep their hat out of the ring in 2014. However, courageously fighting a losing battle may reflect well on a family reputation.

Closer examination of the careers of politicians with family connections reveals important variations. The dominant image of dynastic politics is that of a business. The younger generation is inducted to take the family concern forward. The older generation is well placed to lobby for nominations for relatives and fund their first forays into electoral politics. This image reflects the experience of many high-profile dynastic candidates, and we characterise this as an actively managed career. But not all candidates fit this pattern.

Some candidates have latent family connections, that is, a period of time has elapsed between the activity of an earlier generation and the entry of younger family members. The influence of the family is not so direct in these cases and older relatives are unlikely to have kickstarted the careers of their descendants. The gap in family activity may be as much as four decades. The later generation has to work harder to catch the eye of the party leadership. Sympathy successions are a third pattern, fairly common in by-elections where the candidacy is passed to the surviving spouse or a promising son or daughter. These nominations can say as much about the party as the new candidates. A sympathy nomination reveals how a party views a family reputation as a valuable asset to be conserved.

These three categories are ideal types and they overlap. For example, a sympathy succession would advance the career of a young politician whose career was already being actively managed. Yet each category draws attention to different facets of dynastic politics. Active management emphasises the power and influence of well-established party heavyweights. The activation of latent careers focuses on the agency of the rising generation. Sympathy successions oblige us to think about how legislators build links with their constituency, apart from reminding us that parties sustain dynastic politics.

Come mid-May, we will know whether the Lok Sabha is a more or less dynastic legislature. These elections will contribute to the gradual re-shaping of India’s political elite. Some candidates will have been impoverished by the campaign and will be forced out of electoral politics. So, voters will help decide who are included in India’s political elite. But winning a seat may not be decisive in the career of an ambitious politician. Candidates from political families are less likely to suffer from this absolute veto. With the resources to contest again, they can press for another opportunity in the future.

The writer teaches Indian politics at the University of Bristol, and is the author of ‘Party System Change in South India’

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