Of Despots and Dynasties
Clan democracies happy with centralisation of power
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Dharampur, Gujarat in December 2017, referred to a statement by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar wherein he claimed that Aiyar had compared the Congress party to the Mughal dynasty. Quoting him, the Prime Minister said, “…Shriman Mani Shankar Aiyar e aaje kahyu chhe, ke Jahangir ki jagah jab shahjahan aaye, kya tab election hua tha?"
Both, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Narendra Modi displayed their ignorance of history. Aiyar who equated the Congress succession with Mughal succession was self-pejorative. Modi, who was minted in a RSS shakha, and has an entirely different understanding of history pounced on it and turned it into an issue. Aurangzeb is the poster boy for Hindu hate mongering and this analogy by Aiyar was entirely impolitic.
But Rahul Gandhi is no Aurangzeb. For the record Aurangzeb had to wage wars on his siblings and even the Imperial Army to become Emperor. He was a proven general much before he became a claimant to the throne. To be like Aurangzeb also means to be accomplished and with a successful track record.
Unfortunately Modi is more like the Aurangzeb we know. He reduced Golconda by bribing the commander of the gate, like we saw recently in states like Goa, Manipur and even Gujarat. He built an empire that was only second in size to emperor Ashoka’s. But when he died he left an empire that just crumbled.
But there can be little disputing that the Congress is a dynastic party. Its High Command meets every morning across the family dining table at 10 Janpath. The rest of the grand edifice of dozens of PCC’s, AICC, Working Committee is now just a façade. The dining table is the most important platform in the Congress Party and the way to it is through the kitchen. Ask Pratibha Patil. She literally cooked her way into history.
For a man like Rahul Gandhi, who claims a liberal western education at Harvard and Cambridge, the idea of a dynasty in a western style democracy should be jarring. Speaking to a PIO gathering at Singapore, an embarrassed Rahul Gandhi tried to answer that by rather lamely suggesting that it was the prevalent way of doing things in India. But it is wrong. It is the root of all our troubles.
Unfortunately Gandhi chose to also illustrate it with Abhishek Bachchan, a failed actor turned kabaddi entrepreneur. He also referred to the Ambani’s, which might be more appropriate given that Reliance is actually owned by several hundred corporate entities that are “committed to act in concert" with Mukesh Ambani. The Congress Party’s many levels are chosen to act in concert with the family. It is democratic, but they act in concert. Make out what you will of that?
Except for the CPM and the BJP, every political party in India has a dynastic line of succession or more aptly inheritance. Some have more than one.
The DMK of Karunanidhi has three, each from a different wife. Primogeniture doesn’t apply here, to that extent it is democratic. Stalin who is the second wife’s son, is younger than rival claimant Alagiri who is by the first wife. The MP, Kanimozhi, is the third wife’s daughter. Mulayam Singh Yadav has two, Akhilesh and the children of the second wife. Inner party democracy in such parties is restricted to the palace intrigues for succession.
Prakash Singh Badal and his son, Sukhbir, control the Akali Dal. That Sukhbir’s wife Harsimrat was a Union Minister, given the present system, is understandable. But making Harsimrat’s brother, Bikram Singh Majithia, is more akin to Emperor Mohammed Shah “Rangila” making his consort, Lal Kuer’s brother, a sarangi player, the governor of Multan. This is now endemic. RJD is the marquee name for the Lalu Prasad Yadav family, just as the Shiv Sena is for the Thackeray family, BJD for the sons of Biju Patnaik and so it goes.
Nowhere is it as blatant as the TRS of K Chandrashekar Rao, YSR Congress of Jagan Reddy and TDP of N Chandrababu Naidu. This evolution has completely de-ideologized politics and has made them all about palace intrigues, nevertheless full drama and often entertaining theatre.
The only parties outside this system, ironically enough, are the BJP and CPM. The BJP is now merely a front for the RSS, which is committed to the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra and the renaissance of the post Vedic Brahminical system. The CPM is committed to establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat. We saw it in Russia after Kerensky. To them elections are just steps to full and total political power.
We have seen the transition of democratic styles in many of the worlds established democracies. The US saw power passing from a self-nominating convention nomination process to a primary based system that binds the convention to the choice of individual party members. This kind of a transition did not happen in India. On the other hand we migrated from a system where parties consisted of equals sharing a common purpose and sometimes goals to one where power passed into the hands of a self-perpetuating political aristocracy.
This system is in fact akin to the democracy of the Kouroukan Fouga of the great Mali Empire where clans (lineages) were represented in a great assembly called the Gbara. We had a similar system in the form of the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan. Even the Lichavi democracy in the post Magadhan period was akin to this.
Clan democracies are implicit with concentration of power with a very few and the manifestation of dictatorial tendencies. The bottom up system thus transforms itself into a top down system. Power then flows from a position of power. There is another consequence to this. When we have a clan democracy issues pale and the capture of power becomes the sole driving force. Since issues have to be dealt with we quickly get an ideological consensus, as we see in India now. The clans are quite satisfied with a system that gives them a share of the power and the pelf that goes with it.
This has happened in India and unfortunately the social scientists have not seen in it a failure of democracy. That’s why what Che Guevara said in 1961 in Uruguay said: “Democracy cannot consist solely of elections that are nearly always fictitious and managed by rich landlords and professional politicians.”