There are differences in the practice of democracy even among the oldest practitioners in modern times, the United States and Britain. But India, still recognised as a democracy despite its warts, is giving a new definition to the concept.
The Indian version boils down to family rule. We have the pre-eminent example of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, whether Jawaharlal Nehru intended it to be so is a matter of debate. After the Congress leadership, then known as the Syndicate, selected Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter Indira as Lal Bahadur Shastri’s successor in the vain hope of having a pliant Prime Minister, the family caravan has not stopped.
Indira was consciously nurturing her younger son Sanjay until he died in a rash air accident. Then it was the elder son Rajiv to fill in the vacuum and after her assassination, Rajiv took over. When Rajiv was murdered, his widow Sonia retreated to mourn in solitude.
Not for long. Congressmen beseeched Sonia Gandhi to take to the political stage because they simply could not survive without a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty at the head. After she consented and made a reasonable job of Congress leadership, it was time to get son Rahul to gear up. The problem was that even after party veteran Manmohan Singh kept the Prime Minister’s seat warm for the prince, he was reluctant and has now been hurled into the Uttar Pradesh campaign to earn his spurs.
Take Punjab. The Punjab chief minister has made his son Sukhbir his No. 2 in the government while the latter’s wife is a Union Cabinet minister, thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party alliance with the Akali Dal in the state. There are, of course, a host of uncles, for and against, crowding the political scene.
Perhaps the most spectacular family empire is represented by the Yadav family in Uttar Pradesh. The leader of the Samajwadi Party, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav, nominated his son Akhilesh as chief minister but burdened him with a retinue of a bewildering number of uncles to muddy the waters. Akhilesh’s shot at seeking room for governance by divesting uncle Shivpal Yadav of important portfolios set the stage for a family war, with UP and the country watching the unedifying show until Mulayam called a ceasefire.
There are few politicians who can hold a candle to Bihar’s Lalu Prasad Yadav. When legal constraints prevented him from holding the post of chief minister, he catapulted his wife from the kitchen to the chief minister’s chair, and given his party’s relatively good showing in the last elections, he imposed two of his novice sons on Nitish Kumar’s council of ministers.
On a broader scale, what does our politicians’ penchant for promoting family, rather than the nation’s, interests lead the country to? At one level, politicians assert that as a father it is his duty to secure the future of his children, especially sons, and it is natural for him to be apprenticed to a political career. On the other hand, critics argue that forming ruling family groups is anathema to the practice of democracy and subverts the fairness of the system.
We are probably too far down the road to rescue Indian democracy from different versions of family rule. Prime Minister Narendra Modi can boast of having no family to pass on political favours to, but home minister Rajnath Singh is nurturing a son, and there are others in the ruling party keeping seats warm for their kin.
How then are we to cope with this disregard for democratic norms in running the country? Our leaders offer no apology for promoting their kin although burdening them with a legion of demanding uncles is Mulayam Singh’s innovation. It is as if the Samajwadi Party leader were serving a family feat at taxpayers’ expense. The more family members can join in, the better.
Indian society has been defined by caste and the hierarchical place of each in his or her social standing. Perhaps we should create a new caste of political families who distribute favours to their kin, despite their belonging to low or intermediate castes.
Here, in a sense, is the triumph of political power over caste hierarchy. Take Ms Mayawati’s spells in power in UP because of her exploitation of the dalit vote.
Family rule inevitably means family quarrels. We had the classic case of Maneka Gandhi leaving Indira’s prime ministerial residence with son Varun, screaming. The rift between one uncle and Akhilesh is part of getting used to nosy ministers taking on more than they should. Coming as it did as parties prepare for campaigning for state Assembly election, it is not a plus mark for the SP.
Since family rule is here to stay, it is time to frame a broad framework of do’s and don’ts. One’s direct progeny may be granted a role in ruling the country, but there must be curbs on uncles and aunts crowding the decision-making process. Lalu Prasad’s wife showed guts in holding the office of chief minister but it is hardly a precedent to be emulated.
Second, there must be a time limit for the sons to shine. If we fall into the trap of traditional Communist hierarchies’ or dictators’ lifetime rule, the dividing line between democracy and dictatorship is crossed. Yet there is no mechanism to end the hereditary ascent of a prince unless the voters take to repudiating him or her in elections.
There is a crisis here between the political class and intellectuals. The former argue that the latter are not conscious of the situation on the ground and how people react to problems.
But surely the skulduggery practised by the political class cannot be justified on the ground of its family connections, even assuming that it has the blessing of the neta.
It is indeed time to put our heads together before the level of family dynasties ruling the country make a mockery of Indian democracy. The time to act is now....