The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Dynasties Of India and Beyond By Inder Malhotra, HarperCollins, Rs 495

The Nehru-Gandhis are born to rule. At least some people think so. Which is why when Priyanka’s son was born, one of the questions journalists threw at proud grandma Sonia Gandhi was whether the baby — then only a few hours old — would grow up to be a politician.

But the Nehru-Gandhis are only one of the many political dynasties in India. From Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir to K. Karunakaran in Kerala, from Devi Lal in Haryana to M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu, from the Badals in Punjab to the NTR clan in Andhra Pradesh, from Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar to the Scindias in Madhya Pradesh, the number of families with politics in their blood would take some counting.

India is not alone in its love for dynasties either. Its neighbours, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, also have a fair share of “dynasties” — the Bhuttos, the Bandaranaikes, the Senanayakes, Mujib’s daughter and Zia’s widow.

Inder Malhotra, who as a journalist has had a vantage view of the course many of these political families have taken, plots their graph. He traces the emergence of Indira Gandhi, her determined efforts to bring in first Sanjay and then Rajiv as her successor, the ugly break with Maneka and the coming out of Sonia.

He also brings up the mini dynasties, founded by those very people who attacked Indira for being a dynast, to make the point that this is not a Congress-only or a one-family phenomenon. Morarji Desai promoted and shielded his son, Kanti, Devi Lal groomed his son, Om Prakash Chautala (who is now grooming his son, Ajay) and Charan Singh crafted a career for his son, Ajit Singh.

It is natural for the Nehru-Gandhis to take up lion’s share of space. Since Malhotra puts the rise of each member of the family in context, the account of the dynasty also becomes an account of politics in India over the past few decades.

Malhotra does not sit in judgment and does not decry dynasty as an anachronism in a democracy. Instead, he tries to understand why this phenomenon seems to work so well in the subcontinent. He argues that the stranglehold of family and kinship in this part of the world makes dynasties flourish and points to family rule in other fields — Ravi Shankar and Anoushka, Amjad Ali Khan and his sons, and the Kapoor khandaan and the Bachchans in Bollywood. Also, he argues, centralization of power in the political parties is ideal for dynasties to breed.

Malhotra points at an interesting feature of the dynasties in the subcontinent — the dominance of women: Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. With the sole exception of Rajiv Gandhi, the author points out, the successors have all been women.

The book also makes a distinction between dynastic successors and the “success of a member of the dynasty to win the top position and consolidate it”, making the point that while Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and Sheikh Hasina gained from their family name, their succession was not purely dynastic. They did not come to power immediately on their fathers’ deaths. Jawaharlal Nehru was not a dynast, the author insists, and did not see his daughter as his political heir, she had to struggle hard for it.

Dynasties of India and Beyond is a sympathetic attempt at understanding a phenomenon that is part of subcontinent politics, whether we like it or not. It argues that dynasties exist because the people accept them and predicts that the situation is unlikely to change. But as regional parties become more and more important and the return of one-party rule at the Centre looks a distant possibility, so also the hold of the national dynasty appears to weaken as regional dynasties emerge.

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