Essay

Dynasty in democracy

Print edition : April 03, 2015

Jawaharlal Nehru.

Indira Gandhi.

Sanjay Gandhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Rajiv Gandhi. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Sonia Gandhi. Photo: PTI

Rahul Gandhi.

Mujibur Rahman.

Sheikh Hasina.

Zia-ur Rahman.

Begum Khalida.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Benazir Bhutto.

Asif Ali Zardari.

Bilawal Bhutto.

In democracies governed by a dynasty, the leader is the prime fundraiser with control over the party machine and sees to it that the leading members remain divided. South Asia presents a vivid example of the baleful consequences of dynastic rule.

AS far back as in 1776, Tom Paine wrote in his classic Common Sense this stinging critique of hereditary succession. It applies with all the greater force to the countries of South Asia, particularly to India: “Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry. The heathens paid divine honours to their deceased kings, and the Christian world has improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones. How impious is the title of sacred majesty applied to worm, who in the midst of his splendour is crumbling into dust!

“To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and though himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is that Nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ass for a lion” (emphasis here in the original).

The dynastic principle is still in vogue in the 21st century though its results have proved disastrous. What is called Gen Next is a demonstrable failure—Omar Abdullah, Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi. Nor must one forget the regional figures—Devi Lal’s son Om Prakash Chautala; M. Karunanidhi’s offspring M.K. Stalin and M.K. Alagiri; and a couple of others.

Tom Paine returned to the theme in 1792 in his famous work Rights of Man: “When the mind of a nation is bowed down by any political superstition in its government, such as hereditary succession is, it loses a considerable portion of its powers on all other subjects and objects. Hereditary succession requires the same obedience to ignorance as to wisdom; and when once the mind can bring itself to pay this indiscriminate reverence, it descends below the statute of mental manhood. It is fit to be great only in little things. It acts a treachery upon itself, and suffocates the sensations that urge to detection.” His characterisation of hereditary succession as “political superstition” is apt.

Jeremy Paxman of the BBC stunned Bilawal Bhutto into silence by a simple question—is the life chairmanship of a political party a piece of furniture to be inherited on the death of a parent? An incisive critique was written by Mubarak Ali, a noted Pakistani historian of Left leanings, in Dawn of December 7, 2014: “It is not possible for any dynasty to produce talented and intelligent members continuously because talent is not a property of any particular family. When power is inherited by the weak and dependent, the state confronts disorder and chaos. In a democratic system, the monopoly of a royal dynasty over political power gradually comes to an end. Democracy opens the venue to all classes of society to contest for power and display their talent to govern the country.”

How then did the dynastic principle come to acquire such blind adherence? B.R. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, realistically laid bare before its members the rot in Indian society that erodes democracy. He said on November 4, 1948, while introducing the Draft Constitution for debate: “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” (emphasis added throughout, except where indicated otherwise).

Like caste, the feudal tradition of Indian society came to the fore and began to wreak havoc, which is there for all to see. Monarchs are astute enough to share some spoils of power with fawning aristocrats who thus acquire a vested interest in the system. In democracies governed by a dynasty, the leader is the prime fundraiser with control over the party machine and sees to it that the leading members remain divided.

The polity is split with enormous harm to the parliamentary system. The civil service is affected, with some of its members ever ready and willing to please the reigning dynasty. South Asia presents a vivid example of the baleful consequences of dynastic rule founded by Indira Gandhi in India; Z.A. Bhutto in Pakistan; Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in Bangladesh, and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka. Tragically, all four were assassinated; all four impaired democratic governance; and all of them and their heirs fostered a personality cult. Motilal Nehru doubtless promoted his son. But only a Parivar man or, what comes to the same thing, a Patelite, would deny that Jawaharlal Nehru had the makings of a national hero and emerged as one in the 1920s in his own right.

Benazir Bhutto followed the ways of her father. Sirimavo Bandaranaike established an autocracy with a new Constitution. To this day, Bangladesh is hopelessly split between Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Zia-ur Rahman’s widow, Begum Khaleda Zia. To be accurate, a dynasty was actually founded and fostered only by Indira Gandhi. In the other three cases, the heir assumed the mantle after the parent’s/husband’s death. The results, however, were identical. Since all could not share the enthusiasm, the polity was split evenly. This, incidentally, is also the result if a political party espouses a deeply divisive agenda, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has done with Hindutva.

The parliamentary system—for that matter any other democratic system —does not work if there is a deep chasm between the ruling and opposition parties. Arthur Balfour stated this rule accurately in his introduction to the second edition (1927) of Walter Bagehot’s classic The English Constitution. He wrote: “Should anyone be inclined to regard this [his list of tests] as an overstatement, let him seriously consider these last qualifications for Cabinet Government; namely, if the divisions between parties are ‘too numerous or too profound’. Multiplicity of political parties is not the only vice that can impair democracy. Let the political parties be reduced to two (admittedly the most convenient number for Cabinet government), but let the chasm dividing them be so profound that a change of administration would in fact be a revolution disguised under a constitutional procedure.” That would be enough to wreck parliamentary democracy.

Dynastic rule necessarily, inherently, survives on the personality cult. People abase themselves to seek the favour of the supreme leader. Jonathan Swift mercifully described this a propos Gulliver’s parting from his master —a horse. “I took second leave of my master, but as I was going to prostrate myself to kiss his hoof, he did me the honour to raise it gently to my mouth. I am not ignorant how much I have been censured for mentioning this last particular. Detractors are pleased to think it improbable that so illustrious a person should descend to give so great a mark of distinction to a creature so inferior as I. Neither am I ignorant how apt some travellers are to boast of extraordinary favours they have received. But if these censures were better acquainted with the noble and courteous disposition of the Houyhnhnms they would soon change their opinion.” How revolting is the spectacle of Congress “stalwarts” abasing themselves before Rahul Gandhi. They did the same exercise before Sanjay Gandhi and, later, Rajiv Gandhi.

Undermining of democracy

B.K. Nehru rightly attributed the pernicious doctrine of “a committed civil service” and “a committed judiciary” to P.N. Haksar, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Haksar could not, would not, have propounded it if he did not sense—quite correctly—that Indira Gandhi wanted to suborn the civil service and the judiciary. She encouraged civil servants, in the foreign as well as the home service, to be her men. T.N. Kaul, I.C.S., was foremost among them, but by no means the only one of this tribe.

As early as on February 28, 1959, T.N. Kaul wrote to Indira Gandhi from the Indian Embassy in Tehran in reply to her letter of February 10. Kaul enclosed a note offering unsolicited advice to the Congress president—purge the Congress and split it. (See page 36.) This, while Jawaharlal Nehru was very much alive. After she became Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi wrote to him on May 30, 1966, complaining, significantly, that “in spite of your assurances, the situation vis-a-vis the so-called leftists —whether of the Congress or outside—has not eased. Their attitude is increasingly and openly hostile.” (See page 37.) Evidently, he had run errands for her to persuade her critics and then offered her “assurances” of their good conduct. The complaints by her reveal the atmosphere of the times and, incidentally, V.K. Krishna Menon’s politics (V.K.K.M. in the letter).

Indira Gandhi wrote:

“VKKM has, as you know, been hostile and contemptuous all along. He wants a high up job or he wants to be sent to Cairo and other places. If I could trust that he would support the government, I would try to find an excuse to send him. But his last visit to Cairo has caused [Eyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser to distrust Government of India. With Menon it is personal and there is not much I can do. I have had many conversations, but while he rejects the programmes we are initiating, he has no alternative suggestion.

“With regard to the Communists and their sympathisers, it is a deliberate policy move. When I returned from America even after the Fertilizer and Foundation were being talked about, many Communists met me and congratulated me on my U.S. trip, saying that they were bound to criticise in the House but actually I had done very well. Suddenly a week or so later, everybody’s attitude changed—until today’s paper reports the CPI [Communist Party of India] secretary as saying that I was changing policies far more than Shastri!

“Another example—K.N. Raj, the economist, had been advocating certain policies some months ago. When asked about them, he said ’that policy would have been all right a year ago but this government is a petit bourgeois one and nothing it does can be right’. He is wanting [ sic.] to stand for Parliament and has been promised Communist support and a seat from Kerala. The long and short of it is that there is a general feeling and I must confess it certainly seems feasible and possible that these views are the reflection of Soviet thinking and instruction. Had the Ambassador been here, I would have talked to him, but he is hardly ever in India.” On June 21, 1983, she sent a letter to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev through Yogendra Sharma, a CPI member, complaining of the party’s hostility towards her. As for Krishna Menon, he asked an interlocutor: “Why does Masani call her [Indira] a Communist? She is not a Communist. She is a fascist.”

What has India gained by dynastic succession? Indira Gandhi systematically undermined institutions, encouraged corruption to fill the party’s coffers, and, in her second term, fanned Hindu communalism.

Rajiv Gandhi followed the course set by her. He had the locks to the Babri Masjid opened. He himself wrecked the Punjab Accord. The Assam Accord fared little better. Intolerance of the opposition and the press—witness the Defamation Bill which P. Chidambaram enthusiastically promoted in Parliament—reached an all-time low. He said, for instance, of Jyoti Basu: “He needs someone to hold his hand” ( The Telegraph; January 30, 1988). A comment which fitted in perfectly. Expenses incurred on an Air India plane to make it grand enough for him earned him an editorial in The Times, London, on his imperial ways.

Caligula horses

This is not an assessment of the records of members of the dynasty so much as a critique of the institution itself. Rajiv Gandhi’s public insult to T. Anjaiah, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, found an echo in his son Rahul’s barging into a press briefing by Ajay Maken to upbraid publicly and in intemperate language a measure taken by the Manmohan Singh government. Rahul has the same imperial style, the same contempt for form and the same overweening self-assurance coupled with the same incompetence. The fawning of senior Congress “leaders” in the aftermath of his departure, avowedly for calm retrospect in solitude, reminds one of Gulliver’s fulsome praise for his master, the horse. All that dynastic succession ensures is so many Caligula horses. One is reminded of Lloyd George’s devastating retort to Lord Gladstone, son of the great Prime Minister, on being accused of deviation from the Liberal creed: “What is the noble Earl’s contribution to the Liberal creed except in being the living proof of the liberal doctrine that quality is not hereditary?” We have seen a steady decline of the species.

But if the personality cult is to be combated, the threat lies not in the dynastic principle alone. It can emanate from anyone who acquires power and proceeds to amass it further and still further, assisted by servile colleagues and a supine media. Narendra Modi has systematically flouted the basics of the Cabinet system from the time he became Prime Minister last May. The Cabinet has ceased to exist. Its members count for little. Civil servants were asked to approach the Prime Minister directly. Modi summoned Delhi’s Police Commissioner to hold him to account. That was a task for the Home Minister or the Home Secretary.

Limits of gratefulness

We have noted Ambedkar’s realistic assessment of Indian character when he presented the Draft Constitution on November 4, 1948. A year later, as the Constituent Assembly was about to conclude its labours, Ambedkar replied to the debate on November 25, 1949, listing the conditions for maintaining democracy. He said: “It is quite possible in a country like India—where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something quite new—there is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this newborn democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.

“If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgment we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means, we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

“The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions’. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered lifelong services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship” ( Constituent Assembly Debates; Volume 12; 1978).

India ignored these warnings, with results that are there for all to see.

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