Any discussion on dynastic politics in drawing rooms or in the media, usually degenerates in to a slanging match. One side tries to wrap itself in a democratic halo, and who see political dynasties as anathema in democratic polity. The other side aggressively argues that after all the dynasts do have to get democratically elected too and therefore legitimate.
Hardly any political party is immune from their own dynasties, small or big. The list of candidates related to political families in the 2014 election is a long one indeed.
But how do political dynasties stand out in terms of political performance? Do successive generations measure up to their famous ancestors? Why do some families make their mark on the political landscape, while others fail? Is there legitimate space in a democracy for favoured families? Are political dynasties an aberration in a democracy where at least at the time of the ballot, every citizen is truly seen as equal? Or does the focus on political dynasties diverts our attention from the truly equalising impact of a democracy?
The Nehru-Gandhi family is of course seen as the standard bearer of political dynasties in the democratic world. Since Independence in 1947, three members of the family has been elected as India's prime ministers, another son became notorious for wielding enormous extra constitutional power, without actually holding any elected office. A daughter in law came quite close to the ultimate political position, but political necessity ensured that she renounce office. And a son who seemed reluctant to join the race, and can't figure out either to get off the track, or take the plunge whole-heartedly.
This is the beaten track, travelled many times in the past. However, what seems to have been almost completely missed by the critics and supporters of political dynasties is that like in all other fields of life, there is a consistent diminishing returns for the dynasties in politics.
Motilal Nehru was the patriarch, and twice president of the Indian National Congress, during the British colonial rule. But it was his son Jawaharlal Nehru, a protégé of the original Gandhi, the Mohandas K Gandhi, who became India's first prime minister.
Nehru won three successive general elections and was in office from 1947 to 1964. Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter was selected for the post by a powerful section of the party bosses to be India's Prime Minister, following the untimely death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, in 1966. Indira was in office through the tumultuous days of the emergency rule, till 1977,when she became the first of the many prime ministers since to lose a general election. Although she led her party to another victory in 1980, and had yet another turbulent term in office, she was assassinated in 1984 by her own bodyguards. Mrs Gandhi held the high office for about 15 years.
Rajiv Gandhi took office within a few days of his mother's tragic death in 1984, swept the elections a couple of months later, and won an unprecedented 3/4ths majority in Parliament. He came in with great hope, but in the later half of his term his government got embroiled in corruption scandals and political crisis, and lost the general election in 1989. Since then the Congress party has never been able to win a majority of seats in any general election. And no one from the Nehru-Gandhi family has been the prime minister in the past 25 years.
No one can say with certainty whether another one from the fabled family will become India's elected prime minister in the foreseeable future. This dynasty has clearly seen better days. Democracy has been a great leveller.
Not surprisingly, the other political families in India have not done any better. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a political family whose star is on the ascendent.
Charan Singh, once a very powerful chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, went on to hold the prime minister's post for only a few months, and became the first PM who never faced the Lok Sabha. His son Ajit Singh, shuffles between various national political formations and ministries, barely able to hold his own in one corner of the state where his father had become a legend.
In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena had been led for decades by the fire brand Balasaheb Thackrey. He had been famously quoted for his desire to remote control the state government, rather than take the responsibility of governing. Despite spewing fire for decades, Balasaheb could ensure the victory of his party in the state only once in the mid 1990s, in a coalition with a national party as a junior partner. Today, his son and nephew are fighting over his political legacy, and neither has any prospect of being the force the patriarch once was in that state.
In Tamil Nadu, over the past 25 years, two families have dominated the Dravidian political stage. The film star turned politician MG Ramachandran, dominated in the 1980s, never losing a state assembly election. His protégé, Jayalalithaa, a film actress, inherited MGR's political legacy. But unlike her mentor MGR, every time Jayalalithaa went to seek reelection at the end of her term in office, the voters in the state overwhelmingly defeated her party. The other political family in the state, Karunanidhis, has fared no better. Between these two leader, the power has oscillated every time at the hustings. He lost power again in 2011, and his sons have now fallen apart, trying to secure their own political pie, with little prospect of living up to their father's political status.
In the small but prosperous state of Punjab, one family, the Badals, has survived the past 3 decades. Following the decade long separatist violence in the state in the 1980s, the society started picking up the threads again in the early 1990s. Prakash Singh Badal, the patriarch and his Akali Dal party had been exchanging places with the Congress at every state election, till the one in 2012, when for the first time he got reelected with a narrow margin. The Badals always needed the support of BJP, the national party, as the junior partner in the state. Today, the Badals have more family members in the state cabinet than any other political dynasties in the country. But this is no assurance that that the family's political fortune will hold after the patriarch is gone.
In the Himalayan state of Jammu & Kashmir, the family of Sheikh Abdullah has been the preeminent political family since the 1950s. His son, Farooq, and grandson, Omar, have been chief ministers of the state, but in coalition with the Congress, as its partner. But their National Conference party has been exchanging office at every state election, with the other party in the state, the PDP, headed by another political family, the Muftis.
There are many lesser families, which have survived but experienced diminishing political status, be it the Devi Lal - Chautala family in Haryana, or Mulayam Singh Yadav's family in Uttar Pradesh, or the Scindias spread over parts of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and across two major political parties. Sharad Pawar, once a powerful chief minister of Maharahtra, is struggling to leave a political legacy for his daughter and nephew. There are countless other examples of offsprings trying to wear the mantle of their ancestors, and failing.
So far, the only exception to this diminishing political trajectory traversed by the dynasties, has perhaps been the Patnaik family in Orissa. Biju Patnaik was a stalwart, a friend of Nehru, and became chief minister in the state for a short while in the early 1960s. He then became a cabinet minister in the Morarji Desai government in the late 1970s. And again served a full term as chief minister from 1990-95. His son Naveen Patnaik entered politics after his father's death, and has established himself in his own rights winning three state assembly elections since 2000 in succession, and going in to his fourth reelection bid this month in 2014.
Political dynasties may get a head start, but ultimately they have to perform to meet voters' expectations, or perish.
While every political party has its own dynasties, preeminent or localised, equally every party has tried to leverage a split in the dynasties to undermine the family brand. The most famous schism is in the Nehru-Gandhi family, where the widow and son of Sanjay Gandhi, are today prominent members of the BJP. Whereas, Sanjay is believed to have been complicit in many of the excesses of the Indira Gandhi's emergency rule in the mid-1970s, including the arrest of a lot of opposition political stalwarts, including the founders of BJP.
On the other hand the sons of Shastri, whose brief tenure as prime minister in the mid-1960s, is now a part of popular folklore, have dabbled in politics, both in Congress and the BJP, with little impact.
There are many members of parliament who come from political families. But equally there are many others who try to enter politics on the back of their family connections, but fail to make a mark electorally. The numbers in the latter category would be far larger than the former category. Unfortunately, there is no register of documenting familial ties among those in politics.
But one thing is clear, dynasties may exist in politics, but democracy has the power to equalise the dynasts. The diminishing power of the political families in India bear testimony to the deep roots democracy has struck in the country.
Democracies have little to fear from political dynasties. As long as the elections are free and fair, it is the dynasts who need to fear political marginalisation or oblivion once the voters give their verdict.
Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute, New Delhi.