Why is India so susceptible to the formation of political dynasties? What makes naamdars [name-bearers] more acceptable than kaamdars [workers]? Could it have something to do with deep cultural roots that reach back into the varna and caste systems, and the role of Hindu inheritance laws?

In the recent state elections, we witnessed yet again Bharatiya Janata Party leaders calling the Congress a party of naamdars, and themselves the party of kaamdars. While it is undeniable that the Congress party is dynastic - Motilal to Jawaharlal to Indira to Rajiv to Sonia to Rahul - the reality is that most Indian political parties, including the BJP, have strong dynastic tendencies.

According to a recent analysis by the Indian Express (December 7) in the outgoing assemblies in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BJP actually had more dynasts than the Congress in MP. It had a majority with 165 MLAs, of whom 20 were dynasts, while the Congress had 58 MLAs with 17 dynasts.

Overall the Congress had a higher percentage of dynasts than the BJP - 29% vs 12%.

In Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra of New York University, the compositions of the past three Lok Sabhas (2004, 2009 and 2014) are analysed. In these most parties had a substantial presence of dynasts.

The Congress led the pack in the 2014 Lok Sabha with 48% dynast MPs, followed by the Biju Janata Dal and the Nationalist Congress Party with 33.3% each.

The Shiromani Akali Dal was at 25%, and the BJP and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had around 15% each.

The Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, predictably, also scored high on the dynastic scale over the 2004-2014 period.

While our feudal history clearly has a role to play in the formation and acceptance of dynastic behaviour, dynastic tendencies are also robust in the Indian socialist and communist parties - ranging from 11% in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to a full 100% in the Communist Party of India in the current Lok Sabha. So there does seem to be more to the story of why Indians have such a proclivity towards political dynasties, and an acceptance of them.

B.R. Ambedkar wrote trenchantly and exhaustively about the varna and caste systems, for instance in this essay. I think he may well have argued, if he were alive to witness this phenomenon, that there is an obvious and troubling connection between varna and caste, and the culture of political dynasties in India.

Firstly, both varna and caste are systems of class and occupation, and the varnas or chaturvarnas (four varnas) constituted the caste system, when castes became hereditary as opposed to being allocated according to an individual or community’s choice of work.

This happened in three stages, in Ambedkar’s telling. Initially, a person’s varna endured for a fixed period of time - specifically, a yuga of four years - and the task of determining it was ‘affected by a body of officers called Manu and the Sapta Rishis’ (Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings & Speeches, Vol. 3, Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai).

Using a process called Manwantar, every four years a new committee of officers was formed, known by the same designation - Manu and the Sapta Rishis - to make a new selection. It was a system with a ‘periodical shuffling and selection of men to take up, according to their mental and physical aptitudes, occupations which were essential to the life of the community’.

In the next stage, when the Manwantar process went into abeyance, a new process replaced it. This was the gurukul system, where all children went for 12 years to a gurukul (an interesting symmetry here with the current 12-year schooling system) and when the period of education was over, in Ambedkar’s telling, ‘the upanayan ceremony was performed by the acharya… at which he determined the varna of the student and sent him out in the world to perform the duties of that varna’.

In this second stage, the varna of a person became fixed for life. However, it was still not hereditary, but assigned.

It was only in the third and last stage, Ambedkar tells us, when, probably because the upper-class Brahmins decided that their children could not be shunted down to lower classes, that a person’s varna became a property which could be inherited by his sons and grandsons.

This was what turned the varnas into a ‘caste system’, where occupation and class became a fused, closed, graded system.

Ambedkar was adamant that it was a mistake to describe caste as an evolution of the varna system. He insisted it was not an ‘evolution’, but a ‘perversion’, as caste eventually became ‘an enclosed class’.

Inheritance was thus the gamechanger that transformed the varna system into an enclosed, discriminatory class-caste system.

Historically, inheritance for the Hindus was governed by two different systems of law: Mitakashara and Dayabhaga. In the latter, which we are all more conceptually familiar with, and which was chosen in our Constitution, property is held by an individual as personal property, with the right to gift it or will it in any manner of his choice.

However, in the other prevalent system of inheritance, Mitakashara, property is not a man’s individual property. It belongs to what is called a coparcenary, which consists of father, son, grandson and great-grandson. All these people own the property as their birth-right.

This Mitakashara principle may not have made it into the Constitution, but it seems to have seeped deeply into our socio-cultural hegemonies. It enables, perhaps preconsciously, the easy and widespread acceptability of families jointly or commonly ‘owning’ political fiefdoms.

That political positions have become significant financial assets needs no explanation. Most people either know or sense that Lok Sabha or Assembly seats are well-established ways of generating wealth. It is also well understood that this is why people spend or invest huge substantial sums to first get a nomination, and then to try and win elections.

Once it is recognised that political positions are indeed significant financial assets - not to mention the social and political power wielded by MPs and MLAs - we can see with greater clarity why the passing on of a seat, a political satrapy, or a political party, is an important way of keeping wealth and the wealth-generating power of these political assets within the family.

How long will such inheritance of public offices continue to be accepted?

There seems to be a historical, socio-cultural basis for the formation and acceptability of political dynasties in India. This is the caste-varna-inheritance systems of Hindu society. Politics has become a lucrative business asset, and like other inheritable assets such as caste, occupation, land and bank accounts, these are kept in close embrace of the family.

Shakti Maira is a noted contemporary artist and author. His education and work experience encompass development economics, business management, art and aesthetics.

(Cover illustration Swarajya)