Ramdas Athawale-led Republican Party of India (RPI) has no member in the Lok Sabha or even in the Maharashtra legislative assembly and yet, Athawale, a Rajya Sabha MP, was co-opted by the BJP and made a minister in Modi government because of his influence among a section of Dalits. The tiniest party in the Indian political firmament is the latest to get the dynastic itch. Ludicrous it may sound, a few days ago 58-year-old Athawale formed a “children wing” of his party to be headed by his 12-year-old, school going son Jeet Athawale. The intention of this writer is not to mock or critique him. Almost all Indian political parties, with the exception of the Left (BJP to some extent) and a few led by bachelors and spinsters, are dynastic. Athawale has every right to further his family line as long as he follows the democratic process.
During his interaction with students at University of California, Berkeley, last week Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, a dynast himself, defended family line drawing a blizzard of comments for and against, back home. Vice president Venkaiah Naidu, finance minister Arun Jaitley and I& B minister Smriti Irani were among the BJP luminaries who slammed him. Jaitley went to the extent of saying it was a “national disgrace”. Naidu, famous for his laboured rhyming, said (without taking the name of Rahul) “…Dynasty is nasty but tasty to some people”. Soon social media was deluged with a rash of posts on political dynasties. Congress supporters posted a collage of pictures – of sons and daughters of 10-odd BJP leaders, including Rajnath Singh, Vasundhra Raje Scindia, Raman Singh, B.S. Yeddyurappa, Maneka Gandhi, Prem Kumar Dhumal, Yashwant Sinha, late Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde, to buttress the point that dynasty is not necessarily nasty or disgraceful.
Should Rahul Gandhi be apologetic being a dynast? The PDP, Akalis, Shiv Sena, LJP, TDP (all BJP allies), the SP, RJD, NCP, DMK, National Conference (Congress supporters) and fence sitters, such as TRS,YSR Congress, PMK, INLD, RLD, Kerala Congress (M) – are also practitioners of dynastic politics. Dynasty has percolated down to every facet of Indian life – to media, business houses, Bollywood, doctors, lawyers and even judiciary. Political dynasties are visible in the US and Middle East. Americans have seen the Kennedy, Bush, Clinton and now the Trump clans at the helm.
Being a dynast may give some initial advantages, but to sustain, a dynast has to work hard and win elections; voter being the ultimate arbitrator. It does not matter whether a government is headed by dynast, a socialist, a capitalist, a communist or a communalist as long as she or he is acceptable, competent and ensures rule of law. Eighteenth century English poet Alexander Pope put it succinctly: “For forms of government let fools contest; Whate’er is best administer’d is best: For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight; His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right…..”
Rahul had been on a renunciatory track and he tried to dismantle dynasty by remaining a bachelor, favoured internal organisational elections – bottom up; a proposal that went against the grain of real-time politics and therefore vetoed by entrenched AICC mandarins. In March 2013, during a huddle with a clutch of MPs in the Central Hall of Parliament, Rahul said he wants to end the ‘high command’ culture and that he is not hankering after PM post. Regretting that he owed his position in the party due to family lineage, he said: “I am a parachute”. If I get married and have children, I will be status quoist and will like my children to take my place. Many of his party colleagues were flummoxed by his extreme “apolitical” positioning. In sharp contrast, in California he not only defended dynasty but also expressed his readiness to become the PM revealing a pragmatic side. Answering a question on dynasty, he said: “Not much I can do about it. That’s how India runs, so don’t get after me…..” To another question, he said “that decision (to become Congress president and PM candidate) is for the Congress to take….. I am absolutely ready to do that…..But we have an internal organisational system”.
Thus far, this is his loudest assertion of his being game for power; a quantum shift from his famous but cynical “power is poison” comment at AICC’s Jaipur brainstorming session in 2013.
If Berkeley message is a course correction, it should gladden the hearts of restive party
workers. The Congress has a history of its stalwarts jumping the ship when the family loses grip. Even veterans like Pranab Mukherjee had quit the party soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination to form Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, but returned after Rajiv Gandhi took over the reins.
And between, Rajiv’s assassination in 1991 and 1998, many veterans quit the rudderless and leaderless party. In 1994 N.D. Tiwari and Arjun Singh floated All India Indira Congress and two years later P. Chidambaram joined the breakaway Tamil Manila Congress and subsequently formed Congress Jananayak Peravai party, which was merged with the Congress before the 2004 general elections. Mani Shankar Aiyar quit in 1996 to join the Trinamool Congress. Aiyar, Tiwari and Singh returned to the Congress only after Sonia Gandhi replaced Sitaram Kesri as party chief in 1998; Chidambaram too followed suit.
The Congress, plagued by internecine turf wars is susceptible to multiple splits if the Gandhi family decides to step aside. One big take away from Berkeley is that Rahul has finally realised the political pitfalls of shying away from responsibilities and his endorsement of power politics obviously disconcerted the BJP.
That is why as many as 17 panelists and spokespersons and 11 union ministers chose to attack him on the same day. But there is a caveat, a logical corollary; that ultimately what matters is winning elections ……..everything else is inconsequential.
The author is an independent journalist