Akhilesh Mishra
Dynasty and the idea of India
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

“Dynasty, a political tool in the hands of the ruling class, has become the catalyst for a new colonization of a country whose soul has already been deeply scarred by centuries of it”. This is perhaps the pithiest observation in “Durbar”, the newly published autobiographical account of well known journalist Tavleen Singh.

The purpose of this piece is not to review Tavleen’s well written book but more an attempt to understand how a dynasty in a democratic polity evolves over multiple generations and how such democracies become different from normative democracies.

The first generation dynast, who establishes the dynasty, in a nominally democratic polity, always has some leadership qualities in him or her. This is as much true of historical dynasties as it is true of our current ruling dynasty – the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Pandit Nehru, who established the Indian ruling dynasty, was not a man without merit. While history now judges most of the policies he implemented as Prime Minister in an unfair light, it would be a huge disservice to argue that he rose without any merit. In this, arguably, he was not different from how true democracies choose their leader – democracies are designed to ensure that the best and the brightest political talent in each generation rise to the top. In the greatest democracy on Earth, while Dwight Eisenhower became President of USA in 1952, Barrack Obama won a second term, 60 years later, in 2012. Eisenhower will perhaps go down in history as the greatest General ever. But that did not imply that his successive generations will continue to be regarded as the greatest too and claim the office of US President as their right. Each generation will have to compete with fellow citizens in an equal game and the best man or woman would win. Naturally then , Eisenhower’s children and grandchildren lived successful private lives while men and women from diverse families and backgrounds, but all of some competence, staked their claims in each generation for the top executive position in the US. That is how the chain led to Obama winning again in 2012. Coincidentally, India too elected Pandit Nehru as its Prime Minster in its first general elections in 1952. But what about 2012? Congress party, to which he belonged, thinks his great-grandson is the best and the brightest in this current generation too, like members of his family in each intervening generation. How did this happen? How did we so diametrically diverge from the US path?

Pandit Nehru passed on the mantle to Indira Gandhi. But only just. She was not the choice, decided on impulse within seconds of Pandit Nehru’s death in 1964. In fact she only became Prime Minister in 1966 after untimely demise of Shashtri who was the Prime Minister in the intervening period. But even when she did, there were murmurs of dynastic succession. However, that Indira Gandhi was already 30 when India gained independence in 1947, and that her entire formative years were in the cauldron of freedom movement and in tutelage of stalwarts, perhaps helped her gain some initial legitimacy. But Indira Gandhi knew the same would not be true for her succeeding generations. So she set about the task of putting the tools in place to ensure that her dynasty continued. What were these tools?

Unlike real democracies, which place premium on merit, dynasties throttle merit. There is a glass ceiling above which no one can rise. This glass ceiling has multiple effects. First, meritorious people are ambitious. They have ideas – ideas which have changed human history time and again. But if there is a glass ceiling for meritorious people, beyond which they can never rise, why would they want to continue to serve or live in that system? They can clearly see that they are better than the top boss, but they themselves can never become the boss. This is when flight of talent begins to places and countries where merit is still at a premium – this is the beginning of brain drain. The brain which does not drain, for some reason, is forced to work in a non rewarding system and soon becomes defunct. Any surprise then that Indians has been unable to make any significant mark in any human endeavor since the 1960s? No new inventions, no scientific theories, no management ideas, no world class research. The system to facilitate all this is simply not there.

Second, as the generation changes, each succeeding dynast knows his or her limitations. They therefore start trusting less and less people – because they know they do not have either the caliber or the mettle to intellectually engage people in a peer group and prevail. This is when that factor comes in – Loyalty. Those in and around at important positions must first be loyal – everything else is secondary. Obviously merit suffers somewhere low down in priority. How is this loyalty achieved? Pandit Nehru may have been obdurate in his liking for Krishna Menon but they were not relatives. There’s was a friendship developed in a struggle. A generation later, Indira Gandhi collected a bunch of ‘Yes Minister’ type men around her. Yet men like P.N. Haksar, one of her closest advisors, even though a professional, still had a Kashmiri “feel good” connection. Another generation later though, Rajiv Gandhi could only trust his Doon school friends and Delhi late night party circuit buddies. When Sonia Gandhi’s time came, she could trust even fewer – only the shrunken bunch of these original vanguards – those who stuck by her in darkest times. Another generation later and loyalty is at such a premium that Rahul Gandhi advisors are so secretive that no one even knows who they are? The loyalty factor does not stop here. It percolates down at all levels. A person who is an important minister in Rajiv Gandhi ministry, purely because of loyalty and devoid of any merit, and thus non-threatening to the dynast, is hardly likely to have the best man under him. Just like the dynast, he too would want an aide whose main quality is loyalty to him above anything else. That is how he will ensure his survival. And thus the phenomenon is repeated at each successive level below. To how PSU chiefs are appointed to how such appointed PSU chief appoints his Chief financial officer and so on. The corrosive effects of the dynastic glass ceiling reach and every walk of public life and destroy it in ways that it never recovers.

Third, the dynasty has a debilitating effect on the state of institutions. Invariably members of the dynasty, in their long careers, will indulge in acts which will normally fall foul with the law – imposition of emergency, thuggery by a member of the dynasty in the name of Youth Congress, corruption by close family friends and relatives, genocide on the streets of Delhi and much more. Robust institutions will come down with a heavy hand on each such act. If the dynasty is to survive and flourish, then every watchdog institution must either be stunted at birth itself or filled with men who only do the bidding of the dynasty – from “committed judiciary” to “crawling media”. From Chief Election Commissioners becoming loyal party members to Retired Supreme Court Judges conveniently giving clean chit for genocides, the list is endless. Notice how the appointment of the CVC in 2010 was rammed through despite being protested in writing or how no one even expects the CBI to be independent anymore. 18 of the last retired 21 Supreme Court judges have found lucrative post retirement jobs. The decimation of institutions is not limited to the official three pillars but extends very importantly to the fourth pillar as well – the media. Free housing societies, foreign junkets, state civilian awards, institutional chairs in foreign universities on taxpayer’s money and sometimes brazen inducements like farm house in the lucrative badlands of Gurgaon – every means are used to control the media. The price that the nation pays to keep the dynasty flourishing is the mockery of its institutions.

Fourth, however benign an individual dynast maybe, it is in the nature of things that the dynasty must necessarily divide people in order to rule over them. Despite proclamations to the contrary, policies promulgated by the dynasty are designed to keep people divided in their ghettos of caste, religion, region and race. Divided people can be threatened. Greater the division, greater the fear in each sub group. The dynasty can then morph itself as the protector of each sub group. Is it too difficult to understand as to why the maximum number of anti Muslims riots has taken place under Congress regimes and yet Congress can still present itself as protector of Muslims? Or is it too difficult to understand as to why Rahul Gandhi brandishes his Brahmin credentials when convenient and lets the world, for the first time, know the caste of Sam Pitroda?

Fifth and most important is the economic vehicle of the dynasty. It is not accidental that socialism became a constitutional mandate under Indira Gandhi and not under our founding fathers. The very soul of capitalism is competition. Different ideas compete and the best ideas win. From business to politics. It would be impossible to sustain an economic capitalistic model but not a political one. There is one more reason why socialism works best for dynasty – it is because of the very effective way in which socialism keeps everyone equally poor as opposed to distributed levels of prosperity in capitalistic model. Free enterprise in a capitalistic economy enables people to chart their own destiny, prosper and become rich, thereby moving up the social value chain. But if they move up the value chain, they would progressively aspire for “better” – better education, better healthcare, better infrastructure and so on. If this happens, then people might start voting for the candidate who ideas for ensuring that “better” are more appealing than the dynasty. Socialism ensures that most of the economic opportunities are hoarded by the state or cronies, thus ordinary people never move up the value chain, remain always bound in poverty and destitution, and each time an election comes, some new sop can be promised, the dream of which can make the poor and destitute continue to vote for the dynasty. From Indira Aawaas Yojna to NREGA – none of these schemes are designed to make the poor prosper – they are intended to keep people entrapped into their poverty and thus remain easy catchment for the dynasty.

The consequential effects of a dynasty like we have in India is that over generations, an inter connected elite evolves which controls almost all the levers of political and economic powers. Most of them are dynasts at their own levels. Challengers to the elite club are mostly co-opted since almost all avenues of career growth are controlled by these elites. Those who refuse to be co-opted find life very tough for them if they in any way intend to challenge this cozy club. One of the most fascinating public battles being currently fought in India is effectively a battle with this elite club of dynasts – can THAT man from Western India build a movement from bottoms up to challenge every established norm of this club and perhaps consign this club to history? Fascinating times as we see the most definitive battle within our lifetimes for the idea of India.

(Pics – Reuters Blog and Google Images)