1     A long prologue

This article was conceived on a Wednesday evening, during my way back from a review meeting of a scientific project I have been supervising at Upenn. Such meetings are quite customary in the life of an academic in engineering; it was also nothing out of the ordinary that I secured a ride from a former colleague and current professor emeritus. Joe, as we call him, is easily one of the eminent academics Upenn engineering has been proud to call its own. He had officiated as the dean of the engineering school at Upenn and subsequently as the deputy director of the National Science Foundation’s of US (the second highest position at NSF) for an extended duration. His credentials I was aware of before the ride, but what I was not was that his father was a carpenter, who expired before celebrating his only son’s eleventh birthday.

Just so that we calibrate, one can qualify as a carpenter in US without any formal education so long as he successfully completes an apprenticeship under the guidance of a qualified carpenter. Not unexpectedly then Joe was the first college graduate in his entire family; his mother could not write very well but celebrated as her illustrious son accomplished one academic feat after another. It is therefore nothing short of a miracle that he could ascend to the uppermost echelons of an ultimate elitist institute, an Ivy League, and advance beyond.  Yet, in hindsight, that ought not to have astonished me, for it is in US that a mixed-race son of an immigrant assumed the highest office without any familial social or financial clout whatsoever.

I have often wondered whether there is anything intrinsic to the American culture, if there is one, that lets the David challenge the Goliath rather frequently.  Perhaps it is in the inherent irreverence that is so part and parcel of a typical American persona – first name address irrespective of designation is a mark of familiarity here.  Our doctoral students and administrative assistants rarely revere us as Sir or Madam-the concierge gents at my condo building conduct themselves accordingly. The employees of my recurrent jaunt, Starbucks, within a stone’s throw of my office, find it exceedingly exacting to pronounce my name – so they opt for the brevity of an “S”. On the other hand social evolutions in India have ensured that the less approachable Madam has displaced the more endearing Didi. These apparent inconsequential details impinge on our subconscious further than we realize.

Let me digress slightly to share a very personal anecdote.  The rigorous foundations of engineering that I painstakingly acquired over years were largely initiated during my master’s education at the Indian Institute of Science. Therefore, years later, as a just tenured associate professor at Upenn, I accepted with child-like glee, an invitation to spend my sabbatical that my alma mater honored me with, and initiated rewarding collaborations with my host, Professor Anurag Kumar, one of the most venerable professors I have had the privilege to learn from as a student. Till date, I cannot but recall with a chuckle that before every meeting with Professor Anurag Kumar, I would be seized with an irrational consternation that I would soon be admonished for some oversight.

It goes without saying that such apprehension was entirely misplaced, no less, because the estimable Prof. Kumar went above and beyond the call of customary hospitality to render the sojourn of a former student pleasurable. It is also worthy of note that my doctoral dissertation advisor, Prof. Leandros Tassiulas, another celebrated scholar, who has substantially influenced my intellectual evolution, has always been Leandros to me.  He remains more of an old friend with whom I would naturally catch up over dinner and social conversations. It seems, it is not only the ambience, but our prior knowledge of national identities that shape our interactions. Two of my former doctoral students from Upenn, who now happen to be academics at IIT Mumbai, have steadfastly desisted from the informal collegial address, despite strong encouragement from their advisor since their graduation. It is then only expected that students wholly reared in American environment are naturally more confrontational, demanding and assertive, well, even when they are in error.

But, the contrast that I just dwelt on is largely based on my recollection of the young India as it were two decades back. The economic liberalization that ushered in periods of growth, the dissemination of technology and the rise of the middle class has altered our social milieu. About a decade after I immigrated to US, college students in Mumbai would challenge the American President with candid queries on international relations with Pakistan. The same breed continues to utilize real and virtual platforms and national television to unhesitatingly assert its rights and confidently contest the culture of privilege. Yet, the political landscape, rather than embracing equity and aspiration, has regressed towards a dynastic democracy where the parents hand over the leadership mantle to the off-springs.  We now have a hereditary ruling class distinct from the masses. This is really where my article should have commenced.

 

2      The politics of dynasty

Political landscape in India has been dominated by four broad classes of formations: (1) Congress (2) BJP (3) Left (4) regional parties.  The largest party in India, Congress, is currently an antithesis to democracy, as its de facto numero uno, has invariably had a certain last name for more than 40 years, barring brief hiatus when its famous first family had been regrouping after personal tragedy. The future hardly augurs better-the generation next of the leadership is a tale of babalogs like Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada, RPN Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia-the illustrious brigade is of course headed by none other than the direct male heir and the current Congress vice president, Rahul Gandhi.  Not surprising then that more than 40% of Congress MP’s belong to political families.

The tale of regional parties is also a saga of dynasties, what with the Yadavs in UP, the Pawars and the Thackerays in Maharashtra, the Badals in Punjab, the Karunanidhi family of Tamil Nadu.  And the parties that are founded by first generation political leaders like Mamata Banarjee have many dynasts in their hall of fame.  The left parties probably  have been the most successful in separating political from biological legacy. Here I am making a distinction between the parents promoting siblings and the couples (e.g., Karats) simultaneously succeeding in politics and facilitating each other; because parents have usually acquired enough clout to substantially facilitate the off springs by the time the latter is ready to enter politics.  The moot point though is that the left is now confined to geographically limited pockets and constitutes at best a marginal block in current politics.

That brings us to the only remaining political alternative the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A close examination of the top leadership of BJP indicates a refreshing immunity to the dynastic malaise threatening to assume epidemic proportions in our national polity. Narendra Modi, widely hailed as the primus interpares, is pejoratively dismissed by his political rivals as the son of a chai- wallah or even a Ghanchi.  Yet, the political ascent of Modi despite the above ground truths constitutes one of the greatest tributes to our democracy.  If Modi ever occupies the august office of the prime minister of India, irrespective of his contributions to governance, one of his principal political legacy would be the proof of concept that humble social and economic origin can be over- come through talent and industry and without  resorting to segregation and caste-politics.  Perhaps then our privileged elites will think twice before under- mining the professions and the social origins of the chaiwallahs they partake refreshments from.

It is even more encouraging that Modi is more of a norm than an exception regarding the preponderance of first generation politicians in the highest echelon of BJP. The current BJP president, Rajnath Singh, leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, the performing BJP chief ministers Shivraj Singh, Raman Singh, Manohar Parriker and ex-chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal all conform to this norm. All the BJP stalwarts named so far have risen from economically disadvantaged or middle classes and sans any political pedigree whatsoever.  The only exception is Vasundhara Raje Scindia-the daughter of Vijay Raje Scindia a former BJP vice-president-  currently the most popular leader in Rajasthan. But, exceptions, as they say prove the rule. It is then no coincidence that all are highly educated, with post graduate degrees to professional qualifications in law, medicine and engineering.

Some like Arun jaitley have authored scholarly publications in law. Above and beyond, most have formulated progressive and secular governance agendas founded on inclusive social values.  Meritocracy ensures survival of the fittest.  Last, but not the least, the supreme leader of yore, the patriarch Lal Krishna Advani, never sought to preserve his political legacy through his off springs, though his daughter greatly contributes to his political management. Given his one-time strong-hold in his party, he could have promoted Pratibha Advani in BJP had he so desired-he must be celebrated for having resisted that temptation despite overwhelming precedents to the contrary in contemporary politics.

If only I could conclude my article commending BJP for resisting the dynastic malaise. But, the composition of the second generation BJP leaders presents a tale of desolation, that of the epidemic slowly but surely creeping into the last remaining bastion at the national level. Its only the prince-lings who are prominent, what with Anurag Thakur, the son of Dhumal, leading the youth wing of BJP, the sons, daughters and daughters-in-law of Kalyan Singh, Lalji Tandon, Rajnath Singh, Premlata Katiyar anointed as senior office-bearers in the state unit of Uttar pradesh BJP, daughter of Pramod Mahajan as national secretary of BJP and the sons of Jaswant Singh and Vasundhara Raje Scindia allotted tickets for contesting the Lok Sabha elections. But, perhaps the most famous among them, and also the most popular, is BJP’s Gandhi, Varun Gandhi.  A closer examination of his astronomical ascent within BJP reveals not only systemic flaws but also how politically aware citizens respond to inequity.

 

The curious case of Varun Gandhi

3.1    The astronomical ascent

Varun Gandhi is a direct descendant of one of the powerful political lineages in the world, the Gandhis. His great grand-father has been the first prime minister of India, his grand-mother one of the most powerful prime ministers, and his father was largely billed to succeed her until his sudden demise in a tragic air- crash. Subsequently, Maneka Gandhi, Varun’s mother, was estranged from her in-laws and Varun has been nurtured outside the Gandhi household since he has been a toddler.

This has been while his uncle Rajiv Gandhi continued the prime-ministerial legacy of his family in the world’s largest democracy, his aunt Sonia Gandhi has been leading the Congress party and governing India defacto if not de jure through a prime minister she nominated, and his first cousin Rahul Gandhi gradually been propelled to the designation the family loyalists rightfully consider his.  Maneka Gandhi had herself actively pursued public life, albeit as a part of BJP, the formation that consistently opposed the Congress. She had been a Union minister in the cabinet of the only BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and has been repeatedly elected as a member of parliament from Pilbhit in Uttar Pradesh.

As soon as Varun Gandhi came of age, in terms of eligibility for contesting the lok sabha elections, he was allotted a BJP ticket from his mother’s constituency. He secured a victory with a massive margin and joined the lower house in 2009 as one of its youngest members.  Before the elections, he was arrested for inciting communal passions through his public addresses and has recently been acquitted in a lower court.  Many believe that the perception generated by his passionate speeches substantially contributed to BJP’s poor electoral  performance throughout the country owing to Muslim polarization against it- the hypothesis is yet to be conclusively established.

 As a young member of parliament, Varun Gandhi did not extensively campaign or seek to mobilize the young voters during the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. It was suggested that he was displeased at not being projected as the face of BJP, unlike the privilege accorded by the family owned consortium, the Congress party, to his first cousin. Before the conclusion of the UP elections, he publicly observed that his party had a large number of chief ministerial hopefuls; his exposition could only undermine the confidence his party inspired among the electorate.  Notwithstanding, he has recently been elevated to the rank of a general secretary of BJP, the youngest ever to don this mantle-he is all of 32 years now.  Of late, he has been addressing well-attended mass rallies in his father’s constituency, Sultanpur, invoking his emotional bond with his paternal Karma-bhoomi.

 

3.2    The role of the name brand

The political ascent of Varun Gandhi has been anything but astronomical, and a valid question therefore is how much of this owes to his last name as opposed to his innate talent.  I popped this question in the international debating club, Twitter, in a discussion group largely dominated by BJP supporters.  I will analyze the arguments that emerged in course of the intense debates I engaged on this topic. First, I am yet to comprehend what Varun Gandhi had accomplished to be allocated a Lok Sabha ticket without any prior electoral exposure and professional accomplishment in fields other than politics. Clarity in the above is essential if we are to rule out the impact of his celebrated last name.

The responses can be classified in two categories: (1) lesser-born individuals have received similar largesse (2) he was assessed as winnable.  The examples given to substantiate the first answer have been those of Navjot Sidhu, Smriti Irani, Narendra Modi. Prior to joining the electoral fray, the first two had achieved nation-wide visibility owing to professional recognitions in their respective fields-whether that should have sufficed for an outright lok sabha ticket is debatable-but Varun Gandhi can claim no such feather in his cap either. Modi had indeed contested his first election, at any level, after being appointed as a chief minister.  Yet, he had a decade long experience of contributing to his party’s organization – he had been one of the architects of the decisive victory attained by BJP in Gujarat under Kesubhai Patel in mid 90s. Subsequently, he had organized two successful nation-wide yatras of stalwarts like L. K. Advani and Murali Manohar Joshi-the phenomenal response generated in the first has been instrumental in propelling BJP towards its current stature of a major national party. Varun Gandhi’s contribution to the organization of BJP does not match up to this scale.

The assessment of winnability is likely more accurate as Varun did clearly win by a huge margin. But, was it not known that his winning potential drew primarily from his last name and not his individual hard-earned credentials? Doesn’t the Congress provide the same justification for reserving the top job for a certain family and also for accommodating a whole host of other babalogs– That the Gandhis are electorally the most viable option for party leadership? Granted that allocating some LS seats based on the advantage of birth does not compare with the democratic monarchy that Congress has constituted.

Yet, the rot in Congress did not set in a day-Indira Gandhi was not viewed as a natural successor to Jawaharlal Nehru-her parentage just helped! To be fair, a famous family name is an asset anywhere in the world. US have its Kennedys, its Bushes and its Clintons. But again the number of Kennedys and Bushes who embraced public life and the offices they assumed do not compare with the proliferation of dynasties in India.  Hillary Clinton did indeed initiate her political career as a senator, right after her husband demitted office as US president, but not before she proved her political credentials through a vigorous and consistent participation in her husband’s political team for more than a decade.  Varun Gandhi does not score in that regard too.

To continue the discourse, let us acknowledge that Varun’s entry in politics was substantially facilitated by his last name, and examine if he deserved, based entirely on merit, the laurels bestowed on him subsequently. The evidence suggests the contrary. What has Varun accomplished to deserve a general secretary position in BJP within five years of his visible participation in public life? To keep things in perspective, Amit Shah has been declared the same at the age of 50 after (1) successive electoral victories by huge margins in state elections (2) a long stint as a minister in Gujarat (2) key contribution in management of several elections where BJP scored spectacular victories. Varun, as far as I can tell, has been elected once to the lok sabha, albeit with an impressive margin. I am told that the young Varun Gandhi would be invaluable in connecting with the largely young Indian electorate. But, is age of essence for youth connect? Doesn’t the most visible 60-something face of BJP relates to the youth in a man- ner that only a few can? It is only recently that students in a premier University in Orissa, a state where BJP’s electoral presence is limited, insisted on inviting Modi as the chief guest for their convocation ceremony and preferred that the ceremony be cancelled when their request was not honored. Perhaps, the more, the merrier.  Why then could the BJP not promote other leaders in Varun’s age group who have emanated from the grass-roots and accord them similar visibility?

I am also told that Varun attracts crowds and is therefore likely to substantially facilitate the revival of electoral fortunes of BJP in UP, a state where the electoral outcomes have not favored the BJP in the last decade.  Yet, again, did we not hear the exact same arguments posed by Congress when Rahul Gandhi was asked to spearhead the campaign in UP-he drew crowds too! Rahul Gandhi could not win over UP-his candidates were decimated even in his familial strongholds of Amethy and Raebareli despite a full-fledged family-drama involving his sister, brother-in-law and even minor nephew and niece. The voters rejected him because he could not credibly articulate that his party would usher in an era of development-he flaunted aggressively and ineffectively his only asset, the Gandhi tag.  He urged the UPites to transfer the trust on him that they conferred on his ancestors appealing perhaps to a transitivity that the electorate did not perceive in a trust relation.  The Gandhi heir did not recognize that India has evolved-it’s neither his grandmother’s nor his father’s-it is of his age. Has the same wisdom not dawned on his young cousin? Why then does he dwell on his father’s karma-bhoomi and his personal tragedy in an electoral rally?  Perhaps, because, not development credentials, but privileged birth is also his primary USP. History is never kind to those who refuse to learn from it.

 

3.3    The bar for dynasts

Some who I debated with do not object to the facile advance of the young Gandhi because he has not been directly declared as the prime minister in waiting. The reference point is of course his cousin who has been hailed as a yuvraj, perhaps the day he joined active politics or even earlier.  Therein lays the fallacy. Our tolerance of inequity has been enhanced to the point that anything less than an outrageous violation of democratic ideals appears acceptable. Any debate on Varun inevitably leads to comparisons with this yuvraj owing perhaps to the same mind-set. In fact, most right wingers who passionately support Varun argue his case relying on his superiority over the other Gandhi. Varun, I believe, is indeed a more talented politician than his cousin. He has actively contributed to parliamentary discourses and law-making, unlike the heir who rarely attends parliament and appears disinterested even when he deigns to do so.  He is a better orator and reveals, in his interviews, a greater coherence and clarity of thought and expression.

He is also more accessible and promptly responds over social media unlike the cousin who appears only in choreographed poverty tourism. He had after all to earn his colors more than his cousin would ever have to. But, then, hasn’t the bar of our expectation for the dynasts been implicitly lowered?  The supporters of a party that is yet to whole-heartedly embrace dynasty will nonetheless accept Varun Gandhi as a natural leader – only because he has not displayed the gross incompetency that his catapulted cousin has. Will they not ask how he compares with the politically ambitious bright young twenty and thirty some things that just have to work their way up because of the accident that determined their last names?  Equally sad, and notwithstanding election results in UP in 2012, some affirmed that the Gandhi name would sway the impressionable rural masses and BJP has the better Gandhi.  The tragedy then of Indian democracy is that even many enlightened supporters of a traditionally non-dynastic party,  who should have been revolted by the privilege accorded to an accident of birth, have legitimized the same in their sub-conscious.

 

 

4      The prologue

Peeping into the future, a decade or two from now, given the substantial competitive advantage the system bestows on the dynasts, will the Modis, the Jaitleys, the Chouhans and Parrikers still emerge? The signs are ominous as the right-wing forums are abuzz with the expectation that come 2017 Varun Gandhi may contest as the BJP chief ministerial candidate of Uttar Pradesh. It will then be a battle royale, a contest of epic proportions among the princes, with the incumbent chief minister the Yadav scion Akhilesh leading the samajvadi party charge, challenged by Rahul Gandhi as the face of Congress and Varun Gandhi as BJP’s CM in waiting!  The only first generation CM candidate in the fray will be Mayavati, leaving the voters to largely choose among the dynasts.

Can we reverse the inexorable march of Indian democracy to an eventuality when the electorate may only choose among a hereditary ruling class?  And, how? Clearly, the natural aspirations of the descendants of politicians of emulating their parents cannot be stymied through a ban on dynastic participation altogether. The society allows for generations of lawyers, doctors and soldiers; why should politics be any different? Well, for one, all the above require similar professional trainings and qualifications of the incumbents irrespective of familial pedigree. Specifically, a lawyer can start practicing law only after she is awarded a law degree which is preceded by college education, irrespective of her origin. The issue therefore is to design an entry level procedure which is not only fair, but also appears to be so, and maximally agnostic to origin.

India can perhaps emulate the US system of determining contestants of every law-making body and constitutional office bearers (Congress, Senate, Governor, President) through election among party members – the primaries. The dynasts in US, the Bushs, the Kennedys, the Clintons, had to clear their respective party primaries before running for their respective constitutional positions.  And, it is in the fiercely contested presidential primary that one relatively unknown Barrack Obama vanquished the wife of the former president Clinton. The name recognition of the dynasts will still place them at an advantage over the first generation politicians. But, then did the accident of birth to middle class doting parents not facilitate my academic success as opposed to the daughter of a blue- collar family of ten?  And, similarly, the pursuit of professional success would have been more facile for me had I been born to a billionaire. So no viable social structure can ever ensure complete equality of opportunity, but an equitable structure does minimize exclusivity.

I conclude this article with a nagging discomfort that primaries alone would at some point degenerate to dynastic primaries given the disparity between the resources controlled by the political families and those of the subjects as they say. So we certainly need more structural reforms: the transparency of political funding and electoral reforms. The primaries can but perhaps constitute a good start towards enhancing equitable access to political power.

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Saswati Sarkar

Saswati Sarkar

Professor of Electrical Engg at Univ. of Pennsylvania. She has strong political persuasions. Views expressed here are entirely in personal capacity.