Jawaharlal Nehru signing the Indian Constitution c.1950. Photo: Wikipedia

Perhaps the most peculiar trait of India’s political culture is the persistence of particular dynasties. Whether at the national or regional level, there continues to be a propensity for segments of the Indian political establishment as well as a cross-section of the electorate to indulge in repeatedly affirming and perpetuating the political influence of particular families. 

Of course, the Nehru-Gandhi family of the Congress party is by far the most prominent manifestation of the seemingly chronic dominance of particular dynasties in a society that – in the immediate aftermath of independence – distanced itself from the world of heredity-based political governance that had up until then dotted the Indian subcontinent.

Yet, at the dawn of post-colonial Indian democracy, few could have imagined that the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic dominance of Indian national politics would become so entrenched in the ensuing decades. Despite pauses and interruptions in their political appeal and influence, Indian politics has been – and continues to be – through its control of the Congress party, inextricably bound to the Nehru-Gandhi family.

At the dawn of post-colonial Indian democracy, few could have imagined that the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic dominance of Indian national politics would become so entrenched in the ensuing decades

Indeed, in the most recent instance, as the Congress party continues to fester in crisis, its senior leadership find themselves unable to break away from the shackles of the matriarch and son tag team of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. The Central Working Committee of the party has yet again found it apt to anoint Sonia Gandhi as head of the party, replacing – yes, none other than her son. So entrenched has been the Gandhi family control of the party for decades now that the two may well be considered interchangeable and synonymous. 

This apparent “change of leadership” of the party, if it could be so described in very loose terms, comes, of course, on the heels of a resounding defeat to the Bharatya Janata Party during the last general elections. To many observers, this outcome of the change in leadership of the Congress party comes as no surprise whatsoever. Indeed, one could say, under the circumstances, it was preordained. 

For a political party seemingly committed to advancing a more open, less stratified and, among other things, a more inclusive India, the senior leadership of the Congress party sure does not seem the least bit troubled by the glaring contradictions it embodies and exudes. In the demonstrated lack of adherence to an ethos of openness and inclusivity is a glaring inability to genuinely foster new, compelling and fresh voices within the party. This in turn both reflects and reaffirms an unambiguous reversion to an affective reverence of dynastic control of the party.

To the extent that the Congress party’s inner circle seems unable to liberate itself from its enslavement to that dynastic mindset is compounded by a longstanding wider culture of acquiescence in much of the self-designated public elites and intellectuals who conveniently disregard such an entrenched culture of hereditary political nepotism.

A similar pattern also prevails elsewhere in India – most notably in Jammu & Kashmir, where we have this phenomenon quite vividly reproduced and personified in the Abdullah clan’s dominance of the National Conference. Farooq Abdullah, having been first appointed as president of the National Conference in 1981, has had three stints as chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, while his son – Omar Abdullah – interestingly ended up being a politician as well and himself, having inherited the mantle of the National Conference in Jammu & Kashmir, served as chief minister of the state. 

The Abdullah clan was, of course, closely rivaled only by the father and daughter duo of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti, both of whom also having held the office of chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir. Coincidentally or not, both the Abdullah and Mufti clans have historically had close alliances, at one time or another, with the Nehru-Gandhi dominated Congress party. While the Congress party has become the institution of the Gandhi clan, Jammu & Kashmir under the Abdullah and Mufti clans has ostensibly been regarded as a de facto fiefdom that has oscillated between them.  

While there are arguably a dozen other regionally-based political parties in India that, like the Congress, National Conference, and PDP, are mere extensions of a family-controlled political enterprise, there is good reason to think that the model set by the Nehru-Gandhi clan has been a compelling template for other Johnny-come-latelies to mimic.

There is a school of thought that broadly interprets the various social inequalities that afflict Indian society as largely rooted in rigidly embedded cultural and religiously informed traditions. According to this perspective, modern Indian society – and its struggle for advancing wider opportunities for the disenfranchised, the less privileged and discriminated – continues to be held back and undermined by an adherence to traditional and anti-progressive norms and practices.

One can only wonder just how, many among the learned and enlightened elite who supposedly espouse such a perspective also find it unproblematic to engender and uncritically embrace political dynasties that by their very being, perpetuate the same ills of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and social exclusion.

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Sunil Kukreja

Dr Sunil Kukreja is professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound. His areas of academic expertise include multicultural studies, social and cultural change, and the political economy of South and Southeast Asia. Professor Kukreja has published widely in academic journals and edited several books.

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