Has BJP ended dynastic politics in India?

Colonialism established a method of governance where elites by virtue of their family background and association with the power-brokers reigned and manoeuvred laws to perpetuate their rule. Ironically, even after the end of the colonial era, ruling elites who had been at the forefront to end foreign occupation, refused to dismantle this arbitrarily designed edifice of governance that allowed for structural violence. This was an institutional framework that created inequality and suffering to further marginalise the common people.

After years of subjugation, people at the “periphery” became docile to an extent that those at the helm became their only saviours to relieve them from suffering. Changing their roles between becoming messiahs and political elite, our rulers were never fully exposed to people, either because of lack of media exposure or lack of interest in questioning the governed.

This enabling atmosphere allowed families to establish their political family dynasties to rule both India and Pakistan for decades. Looking at PTI in Pakistan, to some extent, and BJP in India, to a larger extent, it seems that these “games of thrones” have now apparently unravelled, making it difficult for the dynastic politics to survive.

Modi’s election in 2014 and his re-election in 2019 is an indication of our changing political times. Even the election of US President Trump and the coming into power of nationalist leaders in Europe is part of the disdain the “masses” have developed for the politics of elites and dynasties. Will we see the same pattern unfolding in Pakistan where the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, along with a drove of other influential clans, have ruled the country for decades?

Modi built his credentials in office from a number of major policy measures. The first one was building millions of toilets in a country where the world’s largest number of people defecated in the open. Two, he wore his “anti-Pakistan” badge with pride and manifested his hatred for the country by keeping the line of control tense. Three, in the final stages of his first electoral rule, Modi demonstrated India’s “ownership of Kashmir” by infiltrating the line of control and bombing into Pakistan’s side of Kashmir to avenge the “Pulwama attack”, in which 40 paramilitary soldiers were killed and the attack was blamed, without any evidence, on Pakistan.

For those who fed on the wisdom of secular learning, Modi’s return to power was impossible. However, he did not only come back, he returned by literally snatching victory from Congress, and all those who had been frustrated seeing India’s secular and democratic values smeared in the hues of the “Hindutva project”. Modi’s success is the victory of the belief that “India comes first” for its voters. It is also the victory of the belief that power no more belongs to a family or a dynasty. Last, but not the least, it is a blow to the concept of dynastic politics born from the politics of elites.

The manifestation of this blow is the defeat of Rahul Gandhi from his ancestral seat, in the family bastion of Amethi in Utter Pradesh (UP). He had held this seat for 15 years. Earlier, both his parents, Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, had been winning on this seat. As part of their election campaign, a letter was sent by Congress to each house in Amethi with the slogan “”Mera Amethi Parivar” (My Amethi family). Statistics showed that Samiti Irani, who won election against Rahul, paid more visits to the constituency than Rahul. This explained how the mere letters and words of “family” were meaningless – even in the context of the Asian culture – if the bond is weak among the “family members”, which is, the candidate and the electorate.

The recent voting pattern in India has unfolded the revulsion people had long held for dynastic politics, but were unable to manifest, because of the lack of alternative leadership. With ubiquitous media, this has been taken care of.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state that elects 80 out of 540 members for the lower house. Victory in UP is a harbinger of nationwide success. Even Modi chose UP to make his debut as an MP in 2014, when he contested from the ancient city of Varanasi even though he originally comes from Gujrat.

Apparently, it seems that the launching of Priyanka Gandhi on the cusp of 2019 general elections proved counterproductive for the Congress party. Instead of turning the wheel of victory in Congress’s favour, Priyanka’s entry into politics seems to have given an impression of the party’s attempt to camouflage its shortcoming using the “family icon” narrative.

Akhilesh Yadav, the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, suffered from the same mentality when his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who served as India’s Defence Minister and is also a three-term Chief Minister of UP, defended his son, in spite of estrangement, and held rallies for Yadav. The BJP attacked the Yadav family on this point and called them the “Gandhis of UP”. The BJP told the voters not to trust leaders riding on family politics. The electorate appeared to have paid heed to the message. Though Akhilesh won, his coalition failed to stop the “Modi Wave” as the BJP won 62 of the state’s 80 seats.

Many other dynasties faced a similar showdown. Jyotiraditya Scindia, who comes from the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, also lost his seat. In southern India, Nikhil Kumaraswamy, the son of Karnataka state Chief Minister H.D Kumaraswamy, also lost. Tejashvi Yadav, the son of former Federal Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, not only lost his seat but his party Rashtriya Janata Dal failed to grab a single seat from Bihar’s 40.

In this context, shall we call it an end to dynastic politics in India?

Dr Shafqat Saeed, Professor and Director at Centre for Public Policy and Governance (CPPG), Forman Christian University, believes this is not the case.

“In fact, the recent election in India has undermined caste-based politics. It is also an indication that the people have accepted the narrative of India being a Hindu country, where only Hindu culture could survive. This is not a good omen for the minorities in India, who form a significant part of the population. We cannot say that the culture of elitism has shrunk, rather, it would be more appropriate to say that a new elite has emerged. One of the reasons for Modi’s overwhelming success is the support he enjoys from corporate business.”

So far, the take from the Indian elections is that South Asians want leadership that puts their country ahead of personal fiefdom. Therefore, learning from these developments in India, our political elites and dynasties, such as the Bhuttos, Sharifs, or Chaudhries, need to realise that no more can they push their voters to the periphery of social justice and keep them caged to the colonial structures of governance.

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