Ramachandra Guha’s book (India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, 2007) is a work of pride—pride in the fact that despite all the doomsday predictions, India is still together and still a democracy.
The pride is well deserved. But even in a book like this, Guha is forced to observe the steep decline in the nature of Indian politics (page 675):
Once, most parties had a coherent ideology and organizational base. Now, they have degenerated into family firms.
The process was begun by and within that grand old party, the Indian National Congress. For most of its history, the Congress was a party run by and for democrats, with regular elections to district and state bodies. After splitting the Congress in 1969, Indira Gandhi put an end to elections within the party organization. Henceforth, Congress chief ministers and state unit presidents were to be nominated by the leader in New Delhi. Then, during the emergency, Mrs. Gandhi dealt a second and more grievous blow to the Congress tradition, when she anointed her son Sanjay as her successor.
After Sanjay’s death, his elder brother Rajiv was groomed to take over the party and, in time, the government. When, in 1998, the Congress bosses asked Sonia Gandhi to head the party, they acknowledged that the party had completely surrendered to the claims of dynasty. Sonia, in turn, asked her son Rahul to enter politics in 2004, allotting him the safe family borough of Rae Bareilly. If the party retains power in 2009, Rahul Gandhi will have precedence over every other congressman if he wishes to become prime minister.
Apart from its corrosive effects on the ethos of India’s pre-eminent political party, Indira Gandhi’s dynastic principle has served as a model for others to follow. With the exception of the cadre-based parties of left and right, the CPM and the BJP, all political parties in India have converted into family firms. The DMK was once the proud party of Dravidian nationalism and social reform; its members are now resigned to the fact that M. Karunanidhi’s son, or else his nephew, will succeed him. For all his professed commitment to Maharashtrian pride and Hindu nationalism, when picking the next Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray could look no further than his son Udhav. The Samajwadi party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal claim to stand for “social justice,” but Mulayam Singh Yadav has made it clear that only his son Akhilesh will succeed him. When Lalu Prasad Yadav was forced to resign as chief minister of Bihar (after a corruption scandal), his wife Rabri Devi was chosen to replace him, although her previous experience was limited to home and kitchen. The practice has been extended down the system, so that if a sitting member of Parliament dies, his son or daughter is likely to be nominated in his place.
We agree with Guha’s facts but not his analysis, which personalizes a social phenomenon. We don’t think the responsibility can be placed so exclusively on Indira Gandhi by arguing that “Indira Gandhi’s dynastic principle has served as a model for others to follow” and that “the practice has been extended down the system.” The existence of the practice at the very roots of the political system argues against attributing it to the accidental example of one person.
We can offer a different explanation for the phenomenon. India was a monarchical society till 1857 (and a large part, the princely states, remained so till 1947) in which succession within the family was the norm. The British period with its different traditions of governance was a brief episode in the long history of India. Its after effects lasted for a while after the departure of the British before the underlying nature of the socioeconomic system began to reassert itself.
What should surprise Guha is not that Rabri Devi was chosen to replace Lalu Prasad although her previous experience was restricted to home and kitchen but that she was perfectly acceptable as a replacement to the electorate. This points to systemic features that go beyond the example of Indira Gandhi.
Guha finds consolation in “statements by scholars writing about other societies in other times:” (Page 676)
Speaking of his own continent, Europe, in centuries past, R.W. Southern remarks that “nepotism, political bribery, and the appropriation of institutional wealth to endow one’s family, were not crimes in medieval rulers; they were part of the art of government, no less necessary in popes than in other men.”
This is no consolation at all. In fact it should be a cause of immense concern. The trend in Europe was from medievalism to modernism. The trend in India that Guha has highlighted is in the reverse direction—from modernism to medievalism.
Of course, the trend, so marked in politics, is not equally manifest across the entire spectrum of Indian society—the modern and the medieval exist at the same time. In examining the economic dimension, Guha is right to quote Amartya Sen that “as these inequalities intensify, half of India will come to look and live like California, the other half like sub-Saharan Africa.” (Page 700)
It is not really half and half, and the future of Indian politics will depend largely on the proportion of people left behind in medieval times.