Has Narendra Modi ended dynastic politics in India?

Narendra Modi’s landslide win proves that his story of a humble tea-seller who rose through the ranks of his party to become India’s prime minister continues to resonate with people.

People love stories – even more so when it’s a David and Goliath kind of story.

And that’s what Mr Modi represents.

In his own words, he struggled to make ends meet, sold tea to make a living and lived in poverty while growing up. His story is similar to that of millions of Indians who fight every day to make a living, and are often marginalised by the elite.

People saw him as one of their own, as somebody who would fight for them and speak for them.

Mr Modi says he fought against all odds – big politicians, rich people and, above all, dynastic politics – to get the country’s top political job.

During the campaign for his first term in 2014, he would often call Congress party president Rahul Gandhi a “shehzada” (prince).

It was a reference to the Nehru-Gandhi family that ruled India for much of its history since independence in 1947.

The “prince” is now looking at an uncertain future after his party received another humiliating drubbing in the elections.

To make matters worse, Mr Gandhi lost his family stronghold, Amethi, to Smriti Irani of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But the results were not so bad for other dynasts.

Around 30% of the elected MPs are from political families, up from a quarter on average from elections between 2004 and 2014, a study by Trivedi Centre for Political Data suggests. But it’s the defeat of Mr Gandhi and several other prominent dynasts that has raised questions if family ties still work in Indian politics.

Akhilesh Yadav, the former chief minister of India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, once told me that he would have to look for another job if his Samajwadi Party (SP) lost the 2019 general elections.

He did everything to win it.

He formed an alliance with his party’s bitter rival, Mayawati, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

He won his seat, but the coalition failed to stop the Modi juggernaut as the BJP won 62 of the state’s 80 seats. This is his second major defeat. He also lost the state assembly elections in 2017 against the BJP.

His wife Dimple Yadav lost in Kannauj.

He is the son of political strongman Mulayam Singh Yadav, who served as India’s defence minister and is also a three-term chief minister of UP.

The senior Yadav’s legacy now hangs in the balance. Akhilesh Yadav wrestled control of the party from his father in a public family drama two years ago – father and son became estranged.

But Mulayam Singh came to his son’s defence just before the 2019 elections and held rallies for him. That proved counterproductive because the BJP attacked the Yadav family precisely on this point.

It told people not to trust a party that only promotes people from a single family and referred to the Yadavs as the Gandhis of UP.

And the electorate appears to have received the message.

But dynastic politics is not limited to India. It has been a longstanding feature in other south Asian countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

And in the west, both George Bush Sr and George Bush Jr served as US presidents. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, also served as the country’s PM.

But Mr Modi is a master of controlling narratives – and that became a differentiating factor.

Pratyush Rao, associate director for South Asia at Control Risks consultancy, says the right kind of messaging is very important in politics.

Modi has upended the political order by cleverly tapping into his humble beginnings to craft a compelling tale of an outsider taking on the political establishment made up of elites,” he says.

Mr Rao adds that “family names went a long way in the first few decades of India’s independence”.

“The relationship between political leaders and the electorate was still very much akin to that between a monarch and his or her subjects. This often translated to a certain deification of the ruling class. The ground has fundamentally shifted in today’s India, where an aspirational electorate maintains a more transactional relationship with political leaders. If Mr Gandhi’s defeat in his family borough of Amethi tells us anything, it is that leaders can no longer treat their constituencies like feudal pockets,” he adds.

The neighbouring state of Bihar also saw its local dynastic family been handed a humiliating defeat.

Tejashvi Yadav, the son of former federal minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, took control of his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party when his father was jailed in a corruption case.

But politics wasn’t his first choice.

Tejashvi Yadav first tried his hand at professional cricket. He played a few games as a middle-order batsman for his state team, and was also included in the Delhi Daredevils squad of the Indian Premiere League tournament.

Many at the time said he was selected because of his political legacy and not for his talent.

Though his cricket career ended without much glory, Tejashwi later became restless and eager to follow in the footsteps of his father.

The irony here is that Laloo Yadav’s story is similar to that of Mr Modi’s. He also rose from humble beginnings and was known for his rustic and grounded lifestyle.

Bihar’s electorate connected with him because he came across as one of their own. But Tejashvi’s political career is a work in progress, especially after his RJD party failed to win a single one of Bihar’s 40 seats.

The once formidable RJD now has to revive itself to stand up against a resurgent BJP and its regional partner, the Janata Dal-United.

The story is not very different in other states.

Jyotiraditya Scindia, who comes from the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh state, also lost his seat. His father was one of the top leaders of the Congress party, and the family considered Guna constituency its political fortress.

It was the same story for the Gehlot family in In Rajasthan state, and the Deora family in Mumbai city.

In southern India, Nikhil Kumaraswamy, the son of Karnataka state chief minister H D Kumaraswamy, lost.

In Indian politics, it’s not often that the sons of current and former ministers lose an election. These defeats reinforce the fact that Mr Modi’s brand of politics – personality-driven, vocal and nationalistic – is here to stay.

But the BJP also has its own dynasts – and they fared slightly better.

Anurag Thakur, the son of former Himachal Pradesh chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, has won his Hamirpur seat.

Elsewhere, YS Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress party swept both the assembly and parliamentary elections in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. He is the son of former chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, who died in a helicopter crash in 2009.

Jagan Mohan Reddy inherited his father’s legacy but quit the Congress party when they didn’t accept his bid to take over his father’s role. Instead he formed his own party and a decade later, he is on course to become chief minister like his father.

MK Stalin, the son of Tamil Nadu’s former chief minister M Karunanidhi, also led his party to a resounding victory.

But Mr Reddy and MK Stalin are exceptions in this election. A majority of the dynasts have lost.

So is the era of dynastic politics over in India? And has it become an obsolete political term?

Pratyush Rao says yes, “but only for a while”.

“It’s premature to announce the end of political dynasties in India. Even now, political parties across the spectrum, including the BJP have such figures. But what these results do indicate is that leaders can no longer rely solely on the brand appeal of their family names to get past the finish line.

“It can still be a potent tool to attract voters if it is accompanied by a coherent narrative and actual delivery,” he adds.

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