Viewpoint: It's a family affair

BY RAGHU KAINKARYAM

Published June 11, 2009

One of the most appealing aspects of the American dream is that almost anyone can aspire to the highest office in the country. But in India, this isn't the case. There are certainly many praiseworthy aspects of India’s democracy, foremost being the scale at which democracy is practiced and its sheer continuity in a region infamous for authoritarian regimes. But the one feature that has plagued India’s democracy consistently since its beginning — and often in recent years — is the prevalence of political dynasties. Leadership roles in political parties and public offices are often kept within families. This nepotistic tendency deprives the nation’s youth — some of whom are students at the University — of any realistic aspiration for political office, and will lead to a weakening of India’s democracy.

India’s month-long general elections concluded in mid-May and kept the Indian National Congress political party in power. Unlike American democracy, India has a parliamentary system with many parties. The prime minister isn't elected directly by the voters, but is instead nominated by the majority party. In recent years, no single party has held a majority in parliament. This has resulted in a trend toward coalition governments where several parties pool their numbers together to form a majority coalition. These two factors have been exploited by political dynasties to ensure that the scepter of power is kept within the family.

The family that first paved the way for this trend is India’s first and most influential political dynasty, the Nehru-Gandhi family (of no relation to Mahatma Gandhi). Starting with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, this family has provided an unbroken line of leaders. His daughter and grandson have both held the highest office in the country, and his great-grandson is widely touted as the heir apparent.

Other parties have followed the example of the Nehru-Gandhi family. In the absence of national agendas and intra-party discussions, these parties have resorted to the next best rallying point — the family. This year’s post-election drama saw the leader of a political party demanding ministerial positions for his son, daughter and grandnephew in return for supporting the majority coalition. More shockingly, by some estimates, about half the seats in Parliament were contested by candidates belonging to political families.

In one incident bordering on ludicrous, a chief minister (the equivalent of a United States governor) was forced to resign due to corruption charges and promptly installed his wife in his place — even though she was an illiterate homemaker.

A prominent reason for this trend is that politics is a lucrative business in India. According to mandatory asset declaration data, about 55 percent of elected representatives in Parliament are millionaires, even though less than 0.01 percent of the country is part of this income bracket. Much of this wealth is accumulated through the wielding of power derived from elected office. Like Indian business owners, politicians also want to keep control within their family. The only difference is that an elected office cannot be legally willed to ones progeny like a business can.

This glass ceiling creates perverse incentives for those in public service. Cronyism is encouraged and rewarded in dynastic politics. The efficiency of the Indian government is reduced as such barriers typically dissuade ambitious and capable people from entering politics. It does not augur well for a democracy when vast sections of society are excluded from political activity due to corruption and nepotism.

Mahatma Gandhi urged young people to “be the change you want to see in the world.” For this to be true in his own country, the stranglehold of political dynasties must be released and every child be able to hold the highest office in the country.

Raghu Kainkaryam is a graduate student.