For nearly four decades the issue of a dynasty dominating electoral politics in India has been a recurring theme. For keen India-watchers, it holds fascinating insights into how polity has evolved since independence.
Recently, historian Ramachandra Guha courted controversy when, speaking at the Kerala Literary Festival, he chided the resident Malyalis for electing to Parliament Rahul Gandhi, who, in his words, is a fifth-generation dynast. Gandhi is a great-great grandson of Motilal Nehru, a leading figure in the Indian National Congress and great-grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv were also prime ministers. Naturally, Rahul took up the cudgels of the Congress party – which lost two consecutive general elections, and fell to historic lows in the number of seats it won in Parliament.
Going by the drift of Guha’s censure, much as he appears to remonstrate against the pervasiveness of dynasties in a democratic polity, the accent seems to be more on the dynast being fifth-generation than on the paradox of democracy and dynasty co-existing in an ironical harmony.
He contrasts Rahul Gandhi’s, in his words, decent character, his alleged sense of entitlement and love for the life of ease and privilege with the qualities he ascribes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom he sees as a self-made and hard-working man who has earned what he has.
Guha, as he has earlier acknowledged, borrows this insight from an Andalusian polymath, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who, in “Al Muqaddimah,” the prologue to his encyclopedic work of history, Kitab al-Ibar (Book of Lessons), introduces many seminal ideas regarding the rise and fall of societies and polities – and the dynasties that, in the pre-democratic age, presided over them.
Khaldun’s key concept is asabiyyah, an Arabic word that has variously been translated as tribalism, group feeling, solidarity and social cohesion. Asabiyyah’s intense fervor, in his view, propels a hardy and ambitious tribe to the top.
Once power is acquired, and a peaceful polity is established, the evil of sedentarism starts eating into the moral fiber of the dynasty. In Kaldun’s words,
“Nobility originates in the state of being outside, as has been said. That is, being outside of leadership and nobility and being in a vile, humble station, devoid of prestige. This means that all nobility and prestige is preceded by the non-existence of nobility and prestige, as is the case with every created thing.
“It reaches its end in a single family within four successive generations. This is as follows: The builder of the glory [of the family] knows what it cost him to do the work, and he keeps the qualities that created his glory and made it last. The son who comes after him had personal contact with his father and thus learned those things from him. However, he is inferior in this respect to [his father], inasmuch as a person who learns things through study is inferior to a person who knows them from practical application. The third generation must be content with imitation and, in particular, with reliance upon tradition.
“This member is inferior to him of the second generation, inasmuch as a person who relies [blindly] upon tradition is inferior to a person who exercises independent judgment. The fourth generation, then, is inferior to the preceding ones in every respect. This member has lost the qualities that preserved the edifice of their glory. He [actually] despises [those qualities]. He imagines that the edifice was not built through application and effort. He thinks that it was something due his people from the very beginning by virtue of the mere fact of their [noble] descent, and not something that resulted from group [effort] and [individual] qualities.”
The Four Generations of a Dynasty theory, if read with the results of the last two parliamentary elections of 2014 and 2019, makes one feel how every history is contemporary history, and how the present is but a replay of the past.
The caste factor
But howsoever perceptive Ibn Khaldun might have been, he knew nothing about caste, the leitmotif of India’s social existence. His main analytical tools were tribe and what he saw as its élan vital (to use French philosopher Henri Bergson’s term for life force): the spirit of group consciousness, social solidarity and corporate cohesion termed asabiyya.
Caste is different from tribe in myriad ways and, therefore, what is true for one can’t be extrapolated for another.
So dynasty, anachronistic as it may seem, is integral to India’s political ethos insofar as a caste-based society has the principle of dynastic succession ingrained in it. This may be the reason why most criticisms of dynastic politics have been disingenuous, opportunistic and tactical in nature, focusing on one family while condoning others, and rarely from the principled position of republicanism.
In the dialectics of tradition and modernity, as the former began conceding space to the latter and social categories became political, caste became a vehicle for mobilization and a seat of solidarity. But voting en bloc is a secondary and temporary function of caste. Its primary and permanent role is to pass on to the next generation one’s social status and occupational position. No wonder even new professions like cinema, medicine and entertainment have acquired the characteristics of caste. In this scenario, it would be strange if politics had remained untouched by it.
The irony of democratic spirit slowly ebbing away from the largest democracy, even as it keeps expanding by including ever new sections in its embrace everyday, can be ascribed to a recidivist relapse into caste which, in turn, has been a consequence of the weakening of the enlightened ideals of modernity.
It is because of the rebooting of this primordial instinct that most of the political parties – those who run democracy – have become brazen undemocratic corporations. That the family-run undemocratic concerns should be running this democracy has been as much a marvel as a farce working to discredit and de-legitimize participatory politics. It’s not strange that even the biggest among them is the political wing of an ideological group, not a political party in the conventional sense despite having all the trappings of being one.
This situation is reminiscent of Max Weber’s characterization of Chinese imperial administration as patrimonial bureaucracy – a mixed state of irrational and rational types of domination, since it contained elements of both patrimonialism and bureaucracy.
This terminology was later deployed by historian Stephen P Blake to understand Mughal administration in which authority rested on the personal and bureaucratic power exercised by the royal household, where that power was formally arbitrary and under the direct control of the ruler. If this retronym can be borrowed for contemporary application, today’s polity may very well be called patrimonial democracy.
As we are witnessing, a democracy sucked dry by the incubus of caste and dynasty is an easy prey for the specter of religion.
(The writer is a serving Indian Police Service officer. All views are strictly personal.)