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February 13, 2004
The K Karunakaran/A K Antony feud in Kerala reached a crescendo recently, when Karunkaran's son Muralidharan was made a minister in the Antony government. The sceptical public in Kerala has been watching the histrionics for some time, with the father threatening to bring down the Antony government unless the son was accommodated with a suitable post. The scepticism has risen from the fact that Muralidharan has never shown the slightest sign of excellence at anything.
This is pretty much the same in most political dynasties that I can think of.
The Western media sometimes portrays the Indian subcontinent as particularly prone to political dynasties, by pointing at the Nehru dynasty in India, the Bandaranaike dynasty in Sri Lanka, the Bhutto dynasty in Pakistan, and the Mujib and Zia dynasties in Bangladesh. But other countries are by no means immune to the same disease: consider the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Daleys, and all the other political families in the US; or the Churchills in the UK.
The temptation to push one's children forward must be very great. In the Mahabharata, Bhishma, he of the fierce oath, had to promise that he would not seek his father's throne, and that his sons wouldn't either. To substantiate this vow, he had to swear that he would never marry or have children in the first place. The royal family of Travancore came up with an imaginative idea, especially suited to the prevailing matriliny: the kings would not marry and have their own children, but would pass the scepter on to their nephews.
I think should be such rules in the Indian political establishment of today: look at all the nepotism all around. And it's not only sons, but also wives, daughters, friends, whatever. I can think of some off the top of my head:
Many major national leaders took a different path, which was commendable. Gandhi forced his sons to keep away from politics, to the extent that he quarreled with them, and the eldest turned completely against the father. We don't hear of Sardar Patel's family or C Rajagopalachari's family taking undue advantage of a famous family and its connections.
This is proper, and should be encouraged. There should be a law, really. It should be the case that if you run for political office, it means that nobody else in your immediate family will be allowed to do so until you die or retire, whichever is earlier. I don't think such a draconian rule would unduly hurt the quality of politicians on offer. But, of course, such a proposal will not have a ghost of a chance of getting through Parliament. This is one of those issues on which there will be complete unanimity (another is the issue of raises for themselves) amongst MPs. It is also clear that no ideology is immune to nepotism: just look at the list above.
Dynasties seem to follow a general pattern: and you can go back to the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Mughals, the Slaves, the Cholas, and so on to check this out. There is an entrepreneurial founder who creates, as it were, the family fortune, through hook or crook. A good example from recent times is Joseph Kennedy, who made his money through illegal bootlegging during Prohibition days in the US.
Those who follow the patriarch may or may not be anywhere near as clever as the patriarch, and having been brought up in the lap of luxury, may not have drive or ability, so they just hang on out of habit to maintain their lifestyles. Therefore the dynasty quickly deteriorates.
The Nehrus are an illustration of this pattern, and also an illustration of why it is an excellent idea to not allow assorted offspring to latch on to power. The patriarch, Motilal Nehru, along with his brother brought the family to prominence. Jawaharlal grew up as a brown Englishman; this, coupled with the fact that he was none too bright, was to have grave consequences later. There are reasons to compare him to the idealistic but dogmatic Aurangazeb, who, ironically, ensured the end of Mughal rule, but that is a story for another day.
Jawaharlal's major internal 'achievement' was the creation of a Stalinist setup:
As O V Vijayan says in The Path of the Prophet (my translation):
My god, I did not discover anything, other than myself; and other than the throne I built for my daughter and my grandson. My god, forgive me, a revolution cannot exist without self-glorification; the glimpses of world history that I have seen frighten me.
Indira was a street-smart fighter, and one has to admire her for her general cojones. She did impose a humiliating defeat on Pakistan that still rankles. Rajiv was reluctant to enter politics for good reason: he knew he couldn't handle the rough and tumble of Indian politics. Whether he was naïve or unrealistic is not clear. But once in power with the biggest majority ever, he squandered all the goodwill on vote bank appeasement (Shah Bano, Ayodhya), on corruption (Bofors), and misadventure (the tragedy of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka).
Antonia Sonia Maino is another babe in the woods; her lisping 'thoo seventhy thoo' and a pliant President Narayanan (in the inglorious tradition of Zail Singh and other family friends) bending over backwards to accommodate the Nehru family person-du-jour have become the stuff of legend.
The newly anointed 'primary members' of the Congress, Rahul and Priyanka, have clearly shown no ability in any sphere whatsoever, other than, to carry the French analogy further, to say lazily, 'Let them eat cake.' They are effete, much like the oft-ridiculed English ruling class, familiar to many Indians from P G Wodehouse.
It occurred to me that the NDA has a good weapon to combat the Nehru dynasty at the polls: they should, like the esteemed general next door, get the Election Commission to make it a rule that everyone contesting an election must have a college degree (and by the way, not one quickly granted in the next three months by a friendly college). I offer this suggestion gratis. (Of course, this would mean a large fraction of the NDA's own best and brightest would be disqualified too; I see that as a positive, personally.)
For, as far as I know, after the good Jawaharlal, the only Nehru dynasty scion to have received a degree, any degree in any subject from any college anywhere, is Feroze Varun Gandhi, some fifty or sixty years later. Doesn't this speak volumes about the dynasty's intellectual capabilities and diligence?
I wish the dynasty would show more sense in their choice of foreign spouses as well. If he had to marry some white woman, Rajiv could have set his sights a little higher than the daughter of a fascist bricklayer/builder, a girl who had gone to the UK to study English (note: not at Cambridge University, that was merely a 'typo' in her official resume. Cambridge University does not offer courses in English.)
There was a recent report about how the Congress has been passing out money to journalists who attend their press conferences. http://www.hindu.com/2004/02/11/stories/2004021109670300.htm Hmm… maybe there is money in this racket, after all. So, gentle reader, do not be surprised if I join others in the Indian English language media and begin to sing praises of the dynasty. You will know why. As a free sneak preview, here's the kind of stuff I could say:
The revolution in high technology, telecommunications, IT and BPO that we see in India today is entirely the vision of Rajiv Gandhi. After all, he was the one who could spell the word computer, and it was he who brought Sam Pitroda back to India to start off the telecommunication boom. And ungrateful Indians have been denigrating the hallowed memory of the martyred Rajiv with unfair allegations of Bofors corruption. The NDA should apologize unconditionally for maligning his fair name, now that the courts have declared that he was innocent.
Besides, the 'India Shining' growth rate that everyone is talking about is nothing great. We have seen these 7% to 8% GDP growth rates during Rajiv Gandhi's regime. But that was unsustainable, because we were mortgaging ourselves to the hilt and had to be bailed out in 1991 by the IMF. Similarly, the high growth rates today are unsustainable, because the NDA are not as smart as Manmohan Singh. In any case, the NDA cannot take any credit for growth, because it was all due to Rajiv's vision, and incidentally a good monsoon in 2003.
The other achievements that the NDA talks about are all due to the vision of Indira and Jawaharlal. After all, he started the IITs, the IIMs, the IISc (what, the Tatas did that? Okay, I stand corrected), the Atomic Energy Commission, the Indian Space Research Organization, the Planning Commission. And the Planning Commission, filled with famous economists such as Raj Krishna, came up with the First Plan, the Second Plan, and so forth, all of which put India on the path to economic superpowerdom. And Indira gave the go-ahead for the Pokhran I blast.
So what can I say? In one of my few forays into Urdu, Dynasty zindabad! NDA murdabad!
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
I have been receiving an enormous amount of mail, the vast majority of it positive, but some challenging me or abusing me. I'm afraid it's impossible for me to respond individually to each mail although I do read every one of them. I shall attempt to respond in future columns, and attempt to give credit to individuals when I respond to their specific questions. I beg your indulgence and understanding.
I wish to bring to the attention of readers a new quarterly magazine, The Hindu Renaissance, edited by my friend Pramod Kumar. I have the Makara Sankranti, Kaliyuga 5105, issue in front of me right now (that is January 14, 2004 CE to the uninitiated). The spotlight is on historiography and attendant problems in India, with a specific focus on the doctored textbooks that have been the bane of Indian students. There are essays by BB Lal, Meenakshi Jain, Sandhya Jain, and other scholars, and a review of Romila Thapar's Early India by Kalavai Venkat. The crying need for an Indian Institute of the Humanities emerges yet again from this work.
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