Family and Politics: Not Just a Congress-Specific Problem

Dynastic politics has become an integral part of India’s political DNA. It is a structural problem that several political parties face in various degrees.


The political trajectory of the Indian National Congress (INC) has persistently been flanked by the spectre of dynastic politics. This has often been used by its political opponents, and particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to demand a “Congress Mukt Bharat.” These allegations are meant to project the Congress as a feudal party--that is the political fiefdom of the Gandhi family.

With Narendra Modi’s win in 2014, certain sections of the media were quick to proclaim the end of dynastic politics. After Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s entry into politics just before the 2019 General Elections began, it is clear that dynastic politics is far from dead. But is dynastic politics a problem that ails only the Congress? Lok Sabha data over the years has shown that the number of BJP MPs who are “dynasts” has been close to the number of Congress’ dynastic MPs. An IndiaSpend survey found that in 2009, dynastic politicians among those elected from the Congress were 12% while for the BJP it was 11%. And in 1999, it was 8% for the Congress and 6% for the BJP.

Dynastic politics is a problem of Indian politics as a whole. The analogy of a family has lent itself well to politics in India which follows a very patriarchal brand of paternalism. Politicians use the idea of a “family” as a strategy to define relationships with their electorate. As a result, direct familial relations are not the only kind of dynastic politics in practice in India. In this reading list, we look at how the concept of “family” has always been a persistent and prominent feature in how politics is done in India.

1) A Profitable Business

Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014 was hailed as the victory of the “young aspirational voter” who, as Kanchan Chandra wrote, supposedly values “performance over family ties.” Using data on the families and backgrounds of the members of parliament, Chandra found that 21% of the MPs in 2014 had a dynastic background, presumably because politics in India is a profitable family business.

Dynastic representation in the 2014 Parliament, although lower than in 2009, is nevertheless alive and well at significant levels. It owes this persistence in part to two persistent features of Indian democracy – the high returns associated with state office, which ensure that the families of politicians will want to enter politics, and the weak organisation of political parties, which makes them more likely to allocate tickets to members of these families.

2) Family as the Centre of Politics

The notion of a family presents a powerful tool to political parties in what is essentially a paternalistic state system. As such, several parties in addition to the Congress, have cleverly appropriated the notion of a family to conduct politics and posit themselves as a familiar figure to their voters. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, as  S Ambirajan wrote in his article, “Politics of Wedding and Wedding as Politics” J Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister of the state had cleverly turned the wedding of her foster son (who belonged to a different caste) into a political maneuver just as the AIADMK was preparing to go to poll. Ambirajan argues that Jayalalithaa used the wedding of her foster son to enable her constituents (who were mostly Dalit and lower caste) to identify with her as their leader.

The second signal is to show the party members that AIADMK is 'one big family'. While other party bosses have performed weddings, this one was unique as every single AIADMK member was invited to participate with appropriate provision made for their stay in Madras. The message intended to he conveyed seems to be that while in other parties the party was controlled by the family in AIADMK it is the party that makes the family. The blurring of the lines between a private function and a party palaver seems to be deliberate and carefully orchestrated. The third signal was to indicate that the present AIADMK is virtually invincible. The marriage was nothing short of a massive show of strength.

3) The Politics of Patronage

Other than the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are the most obviously dynastic parties, where power remains with the respective first family. In 2012 when Dimple Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav’s wife won the by-elections in Kannauj, an editorial in EPW attempted to explain why dynastic politics is such a persistent condition in Indian politics. Why do political parties remain dynasty driven?

A more substantive explanation for the hold of political ­dynasties over Indian politics lies in the nature of Indian democratic practice itself, which remains restricted to campaigning and voting during elections. This does not mean that India’s ­democracy has not produced any change. There has been a slow but gradual societal transformation in India – what political ­scientists have termed the “silent revolution” – against upper caste hierarchy, hegemony and elitism of various kinds. But this has not led to a complete break with traditional practices and values, and patronage politics has only strengthened in recent years. Voters therefore make their choices depending on what they can expect from which party and they do not necessarily go by what the parties stand for. The political parties prefer to practise patronage politics to meet voter demands rather than act as agents of structural change. When members of the ­(extended) family control the parties (and their finances), the practice of such politics becomes simpler and easier.

4) Another Kind of Familial Hold

While the BJP has dodged charges of dynastic politics significantly, it is still dogged by the shadow of its parent figure, the RSS. In her 2013 article, Radhika Ramaseshan outlined how the BJP has long struggled to outgrow the RSS. According to her, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, during his tenure as prime minister, had recognised the political impracticality of being tied to the RSS, and LK Advani too understood this later. The notion of the family is inherent in the name “Sangh parivar” implicit in which are the ideas of uncritical obedience that is expected of its members. Consequently, as Ramasheshan wrote, the conflict between the BJP and the RSS is “the narrative of a child that has far outgrown the expectations and diktats of its parent and is struggling to achieve its identity in late adulthood.”

Vajpayee, in his tenure as the PM, fore saw the impracticalities of a bjp being forever yoked to its parent; Advani realised it later. On his limited political turf in Gujarat, Modi figured out that if he wanted to superimpose his "model of governance" - a peculiar template of high economic growth skewed in favour of the affluent and underpinned by communal polarisation - he should get the Sangh out of his way. Other BJP chief ministers like Chouhan and Raman Singh walk the middle path: they use the official mechanisms to placate the Sangh on its core certitudes like cow worship and propagating slanted versions of history.


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