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Why we have dynasties

Dynastic politics isn’t a problem — it’s a symptom

Written by Prithviraj Datta |
May 25, 2009 12:52:09 am

The number of members of this Parliament from political families has already excited comment. Yet arguments against dynastic politics miss the point that there’s nothing inherently wrong with kin-based leadership in a liberal democracy. To the extent that it is problematic,it reflects a deeper malaise in Indian politics; one which is unlikely to be eradicated even if parties were to refrain from nominating relatives of well-known politicians during elections.

There are at least three reasons. The first,voter-centric,explanation for the success of candidates who can be associated with a previous generation of political leaders is that a shared family name provides greater recognition,particularly in contrast with those candidates who are political unknowns. While visible worldwide,these effects are likely to be heightened in democracies where information about political parties is low to begin with and voters will need information shortcuts in making their choices. In the past,political scientists studying voting patterns in India have surmised that caste and religion provide convenient shortcuts for under-informed voters looking for candidates best able to represent their interests. Family affiliation can also act as one means,among others,by which to base voting decisions in the absence of more concrete information about material differences between candidates. Where voters have fond memories of a nominee’s mother,their sympathetic attitude is likely to provide a significant incentive to consider him more seriously. Thus dynastic politics is an indicator of a deeper problem —voter ignorance. If parties picked candidates on considerations other than those of kinship,voters would rely on other shortcuts.

Why do parties,the other half of the system,nominate kin? A complete answer will probably never present itself,given the phenomenal murkiness which characterises the internal dynamics of Indian political organisations. One possible reason,however,is to avoid the risks which arise from fielding relatively unknown candidates. Theirs is a risky business: survival depends on continued support across election cycles. To hedge against these electoral risks,parties often rely on tried-and-tested slogans and methods. The nominating of relatives of famous leaders is part of this strategy of the tried-and-tested,for parties now have a method by which to undercut the risks associated with nominating new candidates. Relatives of the well-known may technically be new candidates,but they very often stand on the platform of their benefactors. The faces may be new,but the brands (and the messages) are old,and familiar. Once again,dynastic propagation is hardly the source of the problem; it is merely a manifestation of the broader tendency among parties to resort to risk-avoiding behaviour in the face of great political uncertainty.

But legacy candidates can fail,spectacularly. Why do parties stick with them? Once again,the exact explanation for this phenomenon is likely to depend on the peculiar dynamics of individual parties,but one possible cause is the lack of intra-party democracy,and thus inequalities in internal power distribution. Entrenched leaders get to call the shots in terms of electoral alliances,candidate selection,polling strategy and so on; nepotism readily flourishes in such a system. The natural inclination of established political leaders to pass the benefits of their positions on to their progeny finds few barriers in the absence of regular party elections,term limits on those in leadership positions,and other procedural safeguards. Note,however,that even in this case,dynastic politics is merely indicative of a more fundamental flaw underlying party dynamics in India today,the lack of intra-party democratic governance. (Indeed,one could argue that this is symptomatic of an even deeper problem across the country in professions where there is little opportunity for outsiders to succeed — the film industry and legal practice are at least two examples which come quickly to mind.) The solution to this problem is,therefore,not to require parties to desist from nominating legacy candidates,but rather to require them to ensure that their leaders are selected democratically.

The existence of intra-party democracy will not guarantee the end of dynastic politics. The tendency of the electorate to side with a familiar name in the absence of relevant information,and the tendency of political parties to stick to the tried-and-tested,implies that,all things considered,relatives of famous politicians are likely to be preferred over unknown candidates. Indeed,dynasties are still seen in American politics,a system with reasonable intra-party democracy. What could change,however,is the reliance on dynasties as a means of doing politics even in cases of failure. An efficient,internally democratic party is very unlikely to stick with losing strategies; the costs of frequent democratic failure are just too high. In a political scenario dominated by internally-democratic parties,therefore,dynastic politics is likely to be one among many instruments of politics,rather than a defining characteristic of it.

The writer is in the department of government at Harvard University

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