When Misa Bharti was given a Lok Sabha ticket from Pataliputra, her father and RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s seat in Bihar, it forced longtime RJD leader Ram Kripal Yadav to quit in protest and join the BJP. This election-eve development did not provoke notable public pause or outrage. After all, worse has happened in the RJD than the overlooking of the claims of a party veteran over a constituency to favour the supreme leader’s family member and political newcomer — in the past, Lalu Prasad had even installed his wife Rabri Devi as chief minister after he was jailed. The fact also is that the scandal of the takeover of large swathes of our public-political spaces by dynastic politics has been routinised in this country.
While the Congress remains the gold standard of dynastic rule, with generations of Nehru-Gandhis holding the keys to the highest power in the party, parties across India have succumbed to family control. In fact, in the case of the Congress, its first family no longer exercises the pan-Indian influence that it once did, but that feudal charisma has waned not because it has been countered by an anti- or non-dynastic politics, but because the same power is now exercised by the ruling families of regional parties. Whether their platforms profess social justice, secularism or regional assertion, and no matter how radical their origins, parties are mostly controlled by a single clan. Witness the family battles in the DMK, Akali Dal or Shiv Sena. The SP, LJP, NCP, National Conference and BJD are all helmed by powerful leaders and their kin, and even leaders like Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalithaa, who have no direct descendants, run their parties in a highly personalised manner. The BJP’s candidate list is a statement on how mini-dynasties proliferate even in a staunchly ideology-driven party with a more open organisation. Only the communist parties have resisted this trend.
When it is left to leaders to choose their successors, when alternative power bases have no option but to break away, and when campaign contributions are undisclosed and centrally controlled, power is kept within the family. A political party tends to be non-dynastic if it has a cadre-based organisation, open ladders for entry and advancement and decentralised campaign financing. Rahul Gandhi’s experiment for the Congress — of holding open primaries — may be too small, belated and low-risk. It is still not clear whether it will play out according to intention. Yet it is a step in the right direction.