With time on hand because of a flight delay, the middle-aged man with a professorial appearance on the sofa opposite me at the airport lounge in Copenhagen leaned forward and tentatively ventured to start a conversation. I readily responded. He had obviously tired of surfing the net and I had absorbed whatever was possible from that day’s Financial Times and the rechristened International Herald Tribune, now the international edition of The New York Times, the only English newspapers available in the lounge. He turned out to be a Scandinavian political scientist with an interest in South Asia. Like me, he was transiting through Denmark to catch a flight to Doha, and he had been in India a few weeks earlier to observe the biggest exercise in adult franchise, which had captivated the world.
“We are monarchies in all three Scandinavian countries and democracy thrives in all three,” he opined as our conversation took a predictable turn. “But India is a democracy where monarchy thrives. It is the reverse of what I am used to.” He was not surprised by my obvious puzzlement over what he had said, so he proceeded to explain. “I counted a dozen of your political parties where succession to leadership is solely dynastic. These parties belong to families. And these families rule over your people from one generation to next.”
With the oldest political party in the country, the Indian National Congress, this was, of course, obvious and needed no elaboration. He then counted the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of the Karunanidhi family and its extensions, the Shiv Sena, the Samajwadi Party, the Telugu Desam, and the Nationalist Congress Party, which ironically was founded in opposition to dynastic rule with an alien tinge in the Congress.
He remarked that in the instance of the breakaway Congress led by Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, the “YSR” in that party’s nomenclature stood for Yuvajana Shramika Rythu, namely youth, workers and farmers. But the Scandinavian academic found that so ingrained is dynastic political culture in the Indian consciousness that most people he talked to in Hyderabad thought the YSR party label stood for the dynasty of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, whose son founded the YSR Congress.
At one extremity of the country, in Jammu and Kashmir, both the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, which have alternately ruled the state are perpetuating political monarchies. In Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal, which once represented a larger political, if ethnic and religious stream, has been reduced to a dynastic party. In Karnataka, he counted the Janata Dal (Secular) of H.D. Deve Gowda and his family. In all, my interlocutor in flight listed a dozen parties to buttress his theory that India is a democracy, which, in reality, promotes and practices a form of monarchy.
This conversation took my thoughts further along a related course on the flight to Doha. What if J. Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee or Mayavati had offspring who were old enough to contest elections? Would these parties have also followed the same path as the dozen democratic parties, which were arguably promoting a monarchic order? And from that point it is a logical progression to confronting another aberration in India’s politics. There are at least five political parties, which are one-man, or one-woman, shows: the All India Anna DMK, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Janata Dal (United), the Trinamul Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, the last, whose origin is dynastic, but now owes its staying power to one man, Naveen Patnaik. If anything were to happen to their sole leaders, these parties will most likely disintegrate and disappear because none of them has any second-rung leadership that can sustain them or keep them relevant on the electoral arena.
By the standards of political parties or institutions in the more mature democracies, this was a dangerous threshold, one that could not be sustained in the long run. If I were to run into the Scandinavian political scientist again, I could tell him with some degree of pride as an Indian that the outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha election hopefully marks the beginning of the end of an era when political monarchy was promoted in India in the name of democracy. Come to think of it this way, only the Bharatiya Janata Party and Left parties are truly exceptions to being monarchic or one-person shows. Since the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the only leftist outfit that is of any serious consequence after the latest general election, that leaves India with only two political parties — the BJP and the CPI(M) — that would meet the standards of democratic acceptance in Scandinavia or most of Europe.
Back in New Delhi, it was instructive to debate the idea of Indian democracy being a monarchy with several people. One incisive political analyst pointed to another aberration: the misnomer of designating “state” parties. He pointed out, for instance, that the Indian Union Muslim League, which had representation in Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers for an entire decade, had the status of a state party in Kerala. “Actually, it has no credentials to call itself Kerala’s state party,” this analyst argued. “It is merely a one-religion party, that too with its strongholds confined to Muslims in two or three districts in Kerala.” And the IUML is not the only one. The Kerala Congress, which has split and split again and again over many years, in its aggregate and in its parts, is another one-religion party confined to Christians in the state, again with strongholds in a few Christian majority districts.
In the coming days, there will be much analysis about the resurgence of a national party and its triumph over regional ones, especially in the populous Hindi belt. But Election 2014 also marks the beginning of the end of political feudalism, which had become a negation of democracy. In a way, this was a fall-out of what the Scandinavian professor described as monarchic democracy.
Like the feudal lords who parcelled Europe among themselves before the industrial revolution, similar political groups thrived in India in the last two decades in several states: they promised protection and patronage, but only to those sections of the population from whom they demanded captive votes in return. The true demographic dividend in this election is that young people broke with this culture of political feudalism and voted for Narendra Modi and for what he stood for and represented in their perception. It is instructive that the same geographical segments of the country, which voted for freedom in 1977, ended the emergency and defeated Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay, once again voted in 2014 for what was hoped would be a positive force, this time overlapping with their own aspirations.
For centuries, a guiding philosophy of Indian statecraft was the wise saying yatha raja tatha praja — like the ruler, so shall be the subjects. The Western counterpoint to this has long been the idea attributed to Joseph-Marie de Maistre, the 18th-century Sardinian philosopher and diplomat that “every nation gets the government it deserves”.
The votes that were cast for the 16th Lok Sabha were not cast by people who were the mirror image of their rulers. No more the praja who follows the raja. As a result, India may get the government it deserves, which would have gladdened my Scandinavian interlocutor.